BEIRUT: A judge at the Special Tribunal for Lebanon dismissed Thursday charges against the parent company of Al Jadeed TV, but the trial of the channel’s top editor for allegedly undermining the work of the court will proceed.
Karma al-Khayyat, the deputy head of news at Al Jadeed, and the channel’s parent company New TV S.A.L. were 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.
The case has aroused opposition from critics who say The Hague-based tribunal is undermining freedom of expression in Lebanon by prosecuting journalists. The STL says its aim is to protect its witnesses.
“Freedom of the press encounters some limits and I recognize that this contempt case implicates the limits to freedom of the press,” Judge Nicola Lettieri said at an open hearing, in which he read out a summary of the decision. “Freedom of expression finds its limits in the legitimate protection of other individuals’ or societal interests.”
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.
Al Jadeed’s lawyers had challenged the court’s authority to prosecute a corporation, and Judge Lettieri agreed with their objection, ordering references to New TV as an accused to be removed from the indictment.
But Judge Lettieri rejected over a dozen appeals sent by Lebanese, politicians, human rights groups and press associations calling on the STL to drop the charges against the TV station and its top editor.
In their submissions before the court, the critics argued that the contempt case violated freedom of opinion and expression, that the tribunal did not have the authority to create new crimes such as contempt of court that were not in its founding documents, and that the STL was usurping the role of the Lebanese judiciary.
They also criticized the court for not consulting with the Lebanese authorities before pursuing the case, and for its selectivity, pointing out that the STL had not prosecuted certain Western news outlets like German magazine Der Spiegel and the Canadian channel CBC for broadcasting sensitive details about the Hariri investigation.
But Judge Lettieri defended the STL against the accusations, saying the court was not prosecuting the journalists because they had published confidential information, but because they had allegedly obstructed the course of justice and undermined the confidence of the public and of witnesses in the tribunal’s ability to protect information.
In addition, freedom of the press has limits in Lebanon, the judge said, pointing out that the Lebanese publications court routinely holds trials for media outlets to protect the secrecy and safety of investigations.
“Last week, a journalist at Al Akhbar won a case of slander against Future TV and got compensation awarded by the Lebanese Court of Publications,” STL spokesman Marten Youssef told The Daily Star. “Lebanese judges and lawyers, as well as journalists, agree that freedom of expression has limits, as this case shows. Why is this case different?”
Lettieri also pointed out that the Lebanese judiciary had never pursued a case against the outlets in the intervening months, and that no other jurisdiction could resolve the case since it pertained to STL witnesses.
He also said the court had “inherent” authority to prosecute for contempt anyone who attempted to obstruct its work, even if the crime was not specifically included in its founding documents.
On why the court failed to prosecute other outlets that published confidential information, the judge simply said that he could only rule on the cases that came before him, adding that he could not speculate about why neither the sources of leaked information from the STL or other news outlets had been investigated.
“I am not an investigator or prosecutor,” he said. “I am seized as judge of this case and I have to pronounce on its merits.”