BEIRUT: Two senior Lebanese journalists were summoned Thursday by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon on counts of contempt and obstruction of justice after they published secret details about supposed court witnesses – charges that could see them imprisoned for up to seven years.
Ibrahim al-Amin, the editor-in-chief of the pro-Hezbollah daily Al-Akhbar, and Karma al-Khayyat, the deputy head of news at Al-Jadeed TV, along with their parent companies, were accused of “knowingly and willfully interfering with the administration of justice.”
They are scheduled to appear before the Hague-based court either in-person or by video-link in an initial hearing on May 13, ahead of a trial before the STL’s contempt judge.
If convicted, the two editors face a maximum of seven years in prison, a fine of 100,000 euros, or both.
The allegations are linked to two articles published by Al-Akhbar on Jan. 15 and 19 last year containing information on 32 alleged witnesses in the case, and video reports by Al-Jadeed journalist Rami al-Amin on Aug. 6-7 and Aug. 9-10 that also contained alleged witness details.
Al-Akhbar also published last year a list of 150 alleged witnesses that was disclosed on a mysterious website that has since been taken down, but the court has not publicly charged the newspaper over that incident.
The court has never acknowledged whether the details are accurate, but said it nevertheless undermines public confidence in the tribunal’s work.
The summons came after a lengthy inquisition by an STL-appointed special investigator, called an “amicus curiae.”
The STL is tasked with investigating the 2005 Valentine’s Day bombing that killed former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and 21 others, plunging Lebanon into turmoil.
The court has accused five members of Hezbollah in the case. Their trial in absentia began in January.
The controversial decision to summon the journalists is likely to expose the court to criticism due to its failure so far to publicly identify the sources of past leaks, or to prosecute Western news outlets that have published sensitive details about the Hariri investigation.
German magazine Der Spiegel first disclosed the alleged involvement of Hezbollah members in the Hariri assassination in 2009, relying on leaked documents. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation published a report in 2010 that revealed sensitive details including the investigation’s breakthroughs in tracking phones used by the suspects involved in the assassination.
The decision also exposes the court to charges of curtailing freedom of the press in Lebanon.
STL spokesman Marten Youssef said there was no evidence the witness lists published in Al-Akhbar and Al-Jadeed were leaked by tribunal staff.
“The independent investigator interviewed dozens of current and former STL staff members and was granted access to the STL premises,” Youssef told The Daily Star.
“He concluded that it was unlikely that STL staff members – or former staff members – made available this information.”
A briefcase was stolen from an STL investigator during a visit to Beirut’s southern suburbs in October 2010, when a crowd swarmed him and his colleagues, but the precise contents remain unknown.
Judge David Baragwanath, in a decision made public Thursday on the court’s website, said freedom of the press was essential, but that media outlets must obey the law.
“With respect to contempt of the Tribunal, this means that the freedom of the press must find its limits where it impinges upon the Tribunal’s ability to function properly as a criminal court and to administer justice for the benefit of the people of Lebanon,” he said.
While the court’s rules prohibit any interference with its mandate, it recognizes “the ability of the press otherwise to comment on the Tribunal’s work, including criticizing it.”
In its first public reaction to the court’s announcement, Al-Jadeed’s evening bulletin accused the tribunal of “slandering” journalists and scapegoating media outlets for its own failure to complete its mandate. It said the STL showed disdain toward journalists and sought to turn the country’s media outlets into subservient agencies, criticizing it for failing to investigate alleged abuses by former investigators and witnesses who misled the court.
Youssef defended the court’s decision, saying the publication of alleged witness names was “a particularly egregious abuse of the power of the press.”
“It is also important to note that Lebanese law also restricts the freedom of expression when the media publishes confidential material and when they interfere with the administration of justice,” Youssef said.