The international tribunal dealing with the killing of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri of Lebanon has charged two leading Lebanese journalists with contempt of court and obstruction of justice over the publication of confidential information about possible witnesses for the prosecution.
The two journalists — Ibrahim al-Amin, the editor of Al Akhbar, and Karma al-Khayat, the deputy head of news of Al Jadeed TV — have been summoned to appear before the court on May 13, the Special Tribunal for Lebanon ( STL) said in a statement issued Thursday.
The two parent companies, Akhbar Beirut and New TV, are also criminally accountable, the court said.
It was not immediately known how the two news organizations planned to react. The journalists or representatives of the companies may choose whether to appear in person at the tribunal, based in the Netherlands, or attend the first hearing via video link. But if they ignore the summons, arrest warrants may follow, a lawyer familiar with the case said.
The penalty for contempt of court is a prison term of up to seven years or a fine of up to 100,000 euros, or about $138,000.
The newspaper Al Akhbar, which is close to the militant group Hezbollah, has been the most vociferous critic of the tribunal, which was set up in 2007 at the request of the Lebanese government, with backing from the United Nations.
The tribunal has charged five Hezbollah members in the car bombing that killed Mr. Hariri, based on an elaborate reconstruction of telephone records. But the five men’s whereabouts are unknown, and their trial opened this year in their absence.
Hezbollah has denied any involvement in the bombing and denounced the tribunal as a tool of the United States and Israel.
The summons against Ms. Khayat and her employer relates to August 2012, when the television station broadcast information about several people it purported were prosecution witnesses. Ms. Khayat and the station then ignored a judge’s orders to remove the information from the company’s website and a YouTube page, the indictment said.
Al Akhbar followed with more blatant steps in January 2013 when, in two successive issues, it displayed photographs, dates of birth, professions and other personal details of 32 people from supposedly confidential court witness lists. The paper halted its revelations after Lebanon’s attorney general warned that it was violating a judge’s orders of confidentiality. The tribunal is largely based on Lebanese law.
Last year after a third incident, when hackers broke into a Lebanese news website and plastered the front page with personal data of 167 Lebanese men, saying they were secret witnesses, the tribunal appointed a special prosecutor to investigate what it called a continuing campaign to intimidate witnesses and derail the trial.
The news outlets said that they had obtained their “confidential” information through leaks from the court staff, suggesting that the tribunal was not serious. A court spokesman has said that is not believable.
The court has never confirmed whether the names cited were accurate, but in his decision to summon the editors, Judge David Baragwanath wrote that there was evidence of “willful and knowing interference” with the administration of justice. Publishing names “reduces the confidence of both actual witnesses and the public in the ability and the will of the tribunal to protect its witnesses.”
However vital freedom of expression and freedom of the press are, he wrote, “freedom of the press must find its limits.” He added, “It does not allow for interference with the tribunal’s mandate.”
Like judges and the rest of the community, he said, “the media must comply with the law.”
Several journalists rallied near the Ministry of Information in Beirut on Friday afternoon, to protest the STL summons .
Al-Khayat and al-Amin both stressed during the protest that they will not stop publishing “what has to be published,” calling on the Minister of Information to resign.
“Lebanese authorities allowed the STL to violate sovereignty and gave it unrestrained powers, and thus, the Tribunal gave itself the power of prosecuting journalists,” al-Amin told LBCI television.
“If authorities did not play their role, they would be allowing more violations to take place,” he added. “Let the (Tribunal’s officials) go and investigate who leaked this information.”
Asked about whether he will stand trial, he said: “This is a legal and procedural aspect that needs to be studied.”
“But nothing will stop us from continuing to publish what must be published and our stance will not change. The political authority is greatly responsible.”
The al-Akhbar journalist also questioned Minister of Information Ramzi Jreij’s “silence.”
“His silence over this issue is offensive. The minister must resign.”
On his opinion on the STL, he told al-Jadeed: “We are over the intimidation stage that is practiced under the slogan of the truth, and the STL is Lebanon’s enemy and we will not recognize its legitimacy or its powers.”
“We will not commit to any arbitrary decision or procedure taken by the STL, and Lebanese authorities must feel responsible for the oppression that is happening.”
Meanwhile, al-Khayat considered the summons a “warning to the Lebanese state.”
“It is either we have sovereignty or we don’t,” she told MTV. “This is not an attack on journalists.”
“What are these discretionary decisions for?” she asked.
“We are convinced that we did nothing wrong regarding the STL, and we have tasked lawyers with this issue and we will take a decision based on their recommendation.”
“We will continue on same path and the STL’s decision will not stop us.”
Change and Reform bloc MP Abbas Hashem, who took part in the sit-in, told al-Jadeed that any threat to the freedom of the press contradicts with the basis on which the Tribunal was found.”
“What is happening today raises many questions,” he said.
Al-Jadeed news director Mariam al-Bassam considered that journalists must be held accountable when they air a report that obstructs the work of the STL.
“But when we air accurate information, we would not be offending the Tribunal,” she explained.
“It is insulting the media and we want the truth more than it does.”
She continued: “The minister of information does not represent media outlets, but maybe the opinion of a political party.”
President Michel Suleiman who is in Rome on an official visit got involved too in this affair
He called al-Jadeed’s Chairman Tahsin Khayat reportedly to tell him that he rejects attacks on the media institution, and on Karma al-Khayat.
Industry Minister Hussein al-Hajj Hassan, a key member of Hezbollah was quoted as saying : “Officials in the STL leaked information and they must be tried not the journalists.
Even PSP leader MP Walid Jumblatt got involved . Jumblatt told al-Jadeed:” I am surprised at the STL’s accusation of the media. We reject any harm done to freedom of the press and expression.”
Both Al Akhbar and Al Jadeed are very closely linked to Hezbollah and the Syrian regime and have been attacking STL ever since it was formed
NY Times/ Ya Libnan