BEIRUT: The Special Tribunal for Lebanon’s decision to prosecute Lebanese journalists is a message to witnesses that the court will protect them, the tribunal’s spokesman told The Daily Star Friday.
Marten Youssef said both Al-Jadeed TV and Al-Akhbar newspaper had agreed to participate in an initial hearing Tuesday ahead of a trial for contempt, over the decision by the two outlets to publish personal details of individuals they said were court witnesses.
Youssef also said the hearing is a platform for the two outlets to weigh in on allegations that they deliberately interfered with the administration of justice by intimidating witnesses.
“We recognize that there is a free press in Lebanon and our intent is not to silence that free press whatsoever,” Youssef said in an interview with The Daily Star. “That said, we have a responsibility to the preservation and protection of witnesses who are willing to put their lives at stake so that they can be a part of the process of searching for the truth.”
“These particular contempt charges are a serious commitment by us to demonstrate to the witnesses that we are taking the judicial measures to ensure that you are protected, to prove to the Lebanese citizens that the tribunal takes these issues very seriously,” Youssef said.
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 by the court of “knowingly and willfully interfering with the administration of justice.”
They are scheduled to appear in an initial hearing on May 13 ahead of a trial for contempt.
The allegations are linked to two articles by Al-Akhbar and video reports by Al-Jadeed containing information on alleged witnesses in the case.
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. The court has indicted five members of Hezbollah in the case, and began their trial in absentia earlier this year.
Youssef said he hoped that Al-Jadeed and Al-Akhbar would cooperate with the court, saying the initial hearing offered a platform for them to express their points of view.
“They are innocent until proven guilty,” he said. “There are no arrest warrants, there is only a summons to appear, so we are not trying to silence them, quite the opposite.”
“We are actually inviting them to come and speak at the tribunal, to come and address this issue, because witness intimidation and interference in the judicial process in any jurisdiction, national or international, is a serious crime and a serious allegation,” he added. “They are being given a platform in which they can present their particular arguments.”
Youssef said the court had been informed that both outlets would participate in the hearing, though it was still unclear whether they would appear in person or via video before the contempt judge.
In its decision ordering the launch of contempt proceedings, the court describes incidents in which victims and witnesses made phone calls triggered by the publication of the alleged witness details – likely out of concern that their names were made public.
The court had avoided in the past saying whether any of the names in Al-Akhbar and Al-Jadeed’s stories were of actual witnesses, saying only that the reports put the lives of the individuals at risk whether or not they were witnesses.
“This is why we’re doing this,” Youssef said, referring to the safety of witnesses.
“Let’s not lose sight of that.”
The court has so far heard the testimony of 15 prosecution witnesses. Just five of those have had their identities concealed.
Youssef said the contempt charges were not a violation of freedom of the press, saying media outlets had a responsibility to avoid publishing information that interfered with justice and adding that such limitations were recognized in both Lebanese and international law.
Youssef also defended the STL against charges of double standards by critics who argued that the court did not prosecute Western news outlets that published sensitive details of 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 about the investigation.
But Youssef said the STL did not prosecute Lebanese outlets including Al-Jadeed when they published confidential information like the names of four Hezbollah suspects indicted by the court before their names were made public.
Youssef said this proved the tribunal did not want to silence its Lebanese critics, but to protect witnesses from intimidation.
“Why are we only comparing with CBC or Der Spiegel?” he asked. “Why don’t we compare it with Haqiqa leaks which were also on Al-Jadeed, or information that was published in so many other Lebanese media that published confidential information?”
“All that proves is that the tribunal is not after silencing the press at all, but one of its foremost responsibilities is to prevent witness intimidation, to make sure that witnesses can testify free of intimidation, free of threats to their lives, and when that happens we are bound to take judicial action,” he added.
Youssef reiterated the findings of the investigation that the alleged witness details did not come from current or former tribunal staff.
“We must keep in mind that just because it’s being labeled a leak does not constitute an actual fact,” he said.
Youssef said he knew the court would be subjected to criticism for the move to prosecute the journalists, but said it had an obligation to act anyway.
“There is recognition that this step would be criticized by the media and this is a natural reaction,” he said. “What we are trying to do is to provide the facts: that this is ultimately about witness protection, about those who interfere in the judicial process with the purpose of intimidating witnesses.”