BEIRUT: With strong support from the March 8 camp, leading Lebanese journalists Ibrahim al-Amin and Karma al-Khayyat are discussing with their lawyers how best to proceed after they were summoned to appear before the Netherlands-based Special Tribunal for Lebanon on contempt charges.
Tribunal President David Baragwanath issued summons for Amin and Khayyat, who work for Al-Akhbar and Al-Jadeed respectively, along with representatives from the companies that own the media outlets, to appear before the court at a hearing on May 13 related to charges of obstructing justice.
According to STL spokesperson Marten Youssef, U.N. Resolution 1757 “obliges the Lebanese authorities to cooperate with the work of the Tribunal,” a fact confirmed by Justice Minister Ashraf Rifi Friday.
Maya Habli, a lawyer consulting with Al-Jadeed on the case, said this meant the accused were required to recognize the charges and appear at the hearing: “We cannot not recognize the charges ... [and] we cannot not attend.”
While refusing to speculate over whether the journalists would cooperate with the tribunal, Youssef said that if they failed to appear at the hearing, the STL judge could issue arrest warrants which, per Resolution 1757, the Lebanese authorities would be obliged to execute.
Sources told The Daily Star that Information Minister Ramzi Joreige, who is close to the Kataeb Party and former head of the Beirut Bar Association, and Hezbollah ministers Hussein Hajj Hasan and Mohammad Fneish were at odds over the issue at a Cabinet meeting Friday.
Joreige, the source said, appeared to support the legal framework behind the summons, which angered his colleagues.
After the session, Hajj Hasan told reporters that he and Fneish had questioned why these journalists were summoned when several international publications had leaked sensitive information about the trial.
“The court says that these are leaks that harm its interests, but this court only looked at leaks in the Lebanese media,” Hajj Hasan was quoted as saying during the session.
Khayyat told The Daily Star Friday that she had not determined whether she would appear via video-link or in person at The Hague.
“We’re studying the indictment with our lawyers, and we will act according to whatever action is best for us to take under such conditions,” Khayyat said. “We are not criminals, and we are not running away from justice, but this is not justice.”
Amin told Al-Manar Friday that he would decide over the next week whether to cooperate with the summons. “But if I’m going to appear before the court, I will do so to question its legitimacy and say it has no authority to pursue journalists.”
The charges against the journalists relate to articles published by Al-Akhbar and video reports by Al-Jadeed that contained information on alleged witnesses in the case.
Both news outlets are considered pro-Hezbollah. The five suspects who stand accused of assassinating former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri on Valentine’s Day, 2005, are all Hezbollah members. None of the five suspects have been apprehended, prompting court proceedings to begin in absentia in January.
Hezbollah denies any involvement in Hariri’s assassination and dismisses the court as an “American-Israeli” tool targeting the resistance, while March 14 defends the body, saying it is the only means by which the truth of Hariri’s case can be revealed.
In the summons published Thursday, Judge David Baragwanath said cursory evidence suggested the journalists had committed “willful interference with the Tribunal’s administration of justice” by publishing the witness information.
Several prominent Lebanese politicians have denounced the decision.
President Michel Sleiman, currently in Rome, telephoned Tahsin al-Khayyat, Karma’s father and the head of Al-Jadeed’s board of directors, expressing his eagerness to preserve media freedom.
He expressed his opposition to any assault against media outlets and their staff, particularly Al-Jadeed and Khayyat.
Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblatt said the summons constituted a violation of press freedom, while Hezbollah MP Hasan Fadlallah said the court was overstepping its bounds and repressing freedoms. Many Lebanese, he added, consider the Tribunal illegal and unconstitutional.
In a show of solidarity with Amin and Khayyat, dozens of journalists held a protest near the Information Ministry in Beirut.
Other Western news sources, notably Germany’s Der Spiegel and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, leaked the names of the accused suspects before they were public.
However, Youssef said that leaking confidential witness information was a different matter entirely.
“The reporting of names of the alleged accused doesn’t affect the administration of justice the same way as the publishing of names of the purported witnesses,” he said. “It’s a question of this being an attempt to intimidate the purported witnesses.”
According to Baragwanath’s summons, individuals named as witnesses by Al-Jadeed and Al-Akhbar “received phone calls triggered by the broadcasts.”
Releasing confidential information also undermined the perceived competence of the court, he said.