BEIRUT: On airport road in Beirut’s southern suburbs, a poster shows a face with the logo of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon plastered across its mouth.
The Hague-based court’s decision to summon Ibrahim al-Amin and Karma al-Khayyat, the editors of Al-Akhbar newspaper and Al-Jadeed TV, has provoked a backlash among Lebanese officials who say the country’s sovereignty and tradition of free press are being violated.
Even Hezbollah officials, who routinely ignore the court, have weighed in to express solidarity with the journalists, with MP Hasan Fadlallah saying the court is overstepping its bounds and repressing freedoms.
But the decision has provoked a debate on the court’s authority to prosecute Lebanese journalists and its impact on press freedoms here.
Experts say the tribunal has the authority to compel Lebanon’s cooperation. But critics also accuse it of double standards for failing to prosecute Western news outlets that published sensitive details in the Hariri investigation.
While most experts contend that publishing names of alleged witnesses is an egregious offense that deserves prosecution and has precedents in other international courts, others said the court should identify the real sources of leaks that can endanger individuals.
“There is a restriction obviously on freedom of expression and the press, but international law recognizes certain restrictions as legitimate,” said Nadim Houry, the deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa at Human Rights Watch. “The court has a strong argument to say we’re doing this for the administration of justice and protection of witnesses.”
“I hope that it won’t have a chilling effect,” Houry said, adding that the STL should repeatedly and publicly communicate the reasoning behind its contempt allegations.
The STL is tasked with prosecuting those responsible for the 2005 Valentine’s Day bombing that killed former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and 21 others and plunged Lebanon into political turmoil.
The Hague-based court indicted five members of Hezbollah in connection with the attack. Their trial began in absentia in January.
Last week, the U.N.-backed court accused the two editors of contempt and obstructing justice after their outlets published a list of alleged STL witnesses in reports last year.
The STL has never acknowledged whether the names of any of the alleged witnesses are genuine, but said the disclosure may endanger the safety of individuals rumored to be witnesses, whether or not they testify, the court says.
International law experts said there was no question the STL had the authority to summon the journalists.
“A tribunal with an international character such as the STL, that is based upon an agreement between the U.N. and the Lebanese government, has the authority to issue such decisions to individuals, including journalists,” said Karlijn van der Voort and Anne-Marie Verwiel, international criminal law experts who closely monitor the STL and collaborate on a blog about the court’s proceedings.
“It has an obligation to safeguard the proceedings, including the protection of witnesses appearing before it,” they added in a joint email to The Daily Star.
They also said the court’s decision to summon journalists was not a violation of Lebanon’s sovereignty.
“The contempt proceedings are against individuals, therefore Lebanese sovereignty is not relevant in this debate,” they said. “So no, we don’t see this move as a deliberate attempt to impinge on freedom of press in Lebanon, nor would it unlawfully breach Lebanese sovereignty,” they said.
Journalists have in the past been summoned before international courts for disclosing secret information. The Yugoslavia war crimes tribunal sentenced Florence Hartmann, a former Le Monde correspondent and spokeswoman for the court’s prosecutor, to seven days in prison for revealing confidential information in a book.
The court, which prosecuted war crimes and crimes against humanity in the Balkans in the 1990s, also convicted journalists for contempt after disclosing details or testimony of protected witnesses.
But Antoine Korkmaz, an international lawyer who is also defending Mustafa Badreddine, a senior Hezbollah operative accused of helping orchestrate the Hariri assassination, said the court ought to prosecute those responsible for the leaks, rather than going after media outlets.
“We cannot blame the media for publishing this information since by publishing it, it is showing the mistakes of the court,” Korkmaz said.
In addition, Korkmaz added that the STL’s founding document did not give its judges the authority to punish contempt of court, which is not an offense under Lebanese law.
He also said that Lebanese media outlets could not be faulted for publishing leaked data given past leaks of the court’s work.
German magazine Der Spiegel first disclosed the alleged involvement of Hezbollah members in the Hariri assassination in 2009, relying on leaked documents.
But STL spokesperson Marten Youssef said that the disclosure of supposed witness details posed a graver threat.
“The reporting of names of alleged accused, while regrettable, does not threaten the administration of justice in the same way as the reporting of the names of purported witnesses,” Youssef told The Daily Star.
In addition, the investigation into the publishing of the lists showed that tribunal personnel were not responsible for providing any of the details to Al-Akhbar.
The revelation raises questions about where a list of supposed court witnesses could have been obtained by news outlets.
Information made available to The Daily Star suggests that some of the confidential information may have been included in a briefcase that was stolen from STL investigators in October 2010.
At the time, two STL investigators and an interpreter were swarmed by a crowd of women at a clinic in the southern suburbs, an area associated with Hezbollah.
Verwiel and van der Voort agreed that publishing witness names was a “step too far” that posed greater danger than identifying suspects.
“For obvious reasons, issuing contempt proceedings against journalists should not be done lightly, but in our view, publication of names of potential witnesses warrants such a drastic step,” they said.
The STL maintains that the charges are not intended to chill free speech or criticism of the tribunal.
“One of the essential parts of ensuring a fair trial is ensuring that the witnesses ... can testify without being intimidated or threatened,” Youssef said.
“This is not just about publishing confidential information, it is about publishing confidential information with the intent of interfering in the judicial process.”