BEIRUT: A judge at the Special Tribunal for Lebanon will decide Thursday whether to proceed with the trial of Al-Jadeed TV and its top editor, amid mounting opposition by Lebanese civil society.
Judge Nicola Lettieri will announce the decision at a public hearing that will begin at 4 p.m., in a case that has aroused criticism by opponents who say The Hague-based court is stifling freedom of the press in Lebanon.
Lettieri will decide whether the STL has jurisdiction, or authority, to proceed with the case against Al-Jadeed TV, after the channel’s defense lawyers lodged a formal protest arguing that the tribunal cannot prosecute corporate entities.
Karma al-Khayyat, the deputy head of news at Al-Jadeed, and New TV S.A.L. are charged with contempt of court and obstruction of justice over reports aired by the outlet last year that revealed personal details of individuals who are believed to be confidential court witnesses.
Al-Akhbar newspaper’s editor in chief, Ibrahim al-Amin, is expected to stand trial over similar accusations, but his case has not progressed as rapidly as Khayyat’s. If convicted, Khayyat faces a maximum sentence of seven years in prison, a fine of 100,000 euros or both.
The STL is tasked with prosecuting those responsible for the Valentine’s Day bombing in 2005 that killed former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and 21 others and ushered in an era of political assassinations that shook the country.
The court has indicted five members of Hezbollah in connection with the attack, and their trial in absentia began earlier this year.
The STL argues that the media revelations were aimed at intimidating witnesses and undermining public confidence in the court’s work, saying the prosecution of the journalists is necessary to protect anyone who seeks to testify before the U.N.-backed tribunal, which has aroused support and hostility in Lebanon.
But opposition has grown among Lebanese civil society in the weeks following the formal charging of Khayyat in May, including from prominent figures that have long supported the work of the court.
Karim Khan, the lead defense lawyer for both Khayyat and the channel’s parent company, focused in his challenge to the court’s jurisdiction on its authority to prosecute a corporate entity, saying that putting a company on trial is unprecedented in international law and violates individual criminal responsibility principles enshrined in the STL’s founding documents.
But individuals and organizations in Lebanon submitted 18 “amicus” briefs to the court – legal and political opinions that warn the tribunal of the chilling effect the prosecution could have on freedom of the press in Lebanon and urging it to refocus on its core mandate.
These included the Beirut Bar Association, a number of Lebanese MPs, the Federation of Arab Journalists, the faculty of law at Lebanese University, the Federation of Arab Lawyers, former Interior Minister Ziyad Baroud, former Justice Minister Ibrahim al-Najjar, the Lebanese Press Federation, Reporters without Borders, a number of Lebanese law firms and As-Safir newspaper.
Reporters Without Borders urged the STL to comply with international law and cast doubt on the court’s intentions because of its failure to prosecute other news outlets that revealed sensitive details of the Hariri investigation.
“The fact that no proceedings were brought against international media such as the Canadian channel CBC, the German periodical Der Spiegel and the French daily newspaper Le Figaro who all published confidential information, casts doubt on the actual intentions of the STL,” the organization’s secretary-general said in a filing before the court.
Baroud urged the court to refer the case to the Lebanese judiciary since the STL, he said, does not have the authority to prosecute it.
“It is not wise to put the judiciary into confrontation with freedom,” said Talal Salman, the publisher of As-Safir newspaper, in his letter to the court, which stressed the importance of the freedom of the Lebanese press.
“Journalism in Lebanon has made many sacrifices and lost many martyrs to ensure the freedom it enjoys,” Salman added. “The Lebanese Constitution guarantees general freedoms and freedom of the media in particular. No power has the right to restrict what Lebanese journalism has achieved in terms of the freedom to express the will, opinions and ambitions of the Lebanese people.”
Lebanese University’s faculty of law, meanwhile, urged Parliament to pass laws protecting journalists from prosecution by the STL, and urged the tribunal to dismiss the cases.
The Beirut Bar and the Lebanese Press Federation pointed out that Lebanese law had abolished imprisonment as a punishment for journalists, unlike the STL, saying Lebanese law was more merciful in this case.
Mikati, who funded the tribunal as premier and threatened to resign if Hezbollah opposed the move, also urged the court to respect freedom of the press in Lebanon.
“I stood in the face of the wind so that its gusts would not reach your offices and chambers, almost voluntarily leaving office so that you could remain at your posts and discover the truth that we all seek, the truth about the killers of Prime Minister Hariri,” he said in his letter. “In the spirit of Prime Minister Hariri’s own beliefs, I am writing to ask that you remain true to his principles by respecting and preserving liberties.”