BEIRUT: Al-Jadeed TV and one of its senior editors pleaded not guilty to charges of contempt in their controversial first hearing at the Special Tribunal for Lebanon Tuesday, as the court set May 29 as the date for the initial appearance of the Al-Akhbar newspaper’s editor-in-chief, who did not attend his hearing.
The two media outlets are charged with contempt and obstruction of justice after they published news reports that disclosed details of alleged court witnesses in a case that has sown further division between the tribunal’s supporters, who say it is protecting witnesses, and its opponents, who accuse it of throttling freedom of the press.
“I came here to your headquarters in The Hague rather than speaking to you from afar because whoever is in the right fears nothing,” Karma al-Khayyat, the deputy head of news at Al-Jadeed, said in remarks before the tribunal.
“The search for truth and tracking information is a holy right for the press according to all international covenants on liberty and human rights,” Khayyat added.
“I have come to the tribunal so I do not become a way through which the press is robbed of its freedom under the banner of justice.”
The journalist, seated next to her British defense lawyer, Karim Khan, said her TV station’s only crime was to shed light on the court’s errors in the interests of justice. The STL claims the reports published by Al-Jadeed were aimed at intimidating witnesses and victims and undermining confidence in the court’s work.
“The Lebanese people and the victims have a right to an impeccable trial,” Khayyat said.
She criticized the Lebanese state for ceding authority to the tribunal, saying that if she were to be tried it should be in a Lebanese court.
“My nation has unfortunately surrendered its sovereignty again, and substituted Syrian tutelage for Chapter 7,” she said.
The STL was established under Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter, which empowers the Security Council to impose economic sanctions or military measures against countries that do not comply with related Security Council resolutions.
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 political turmoil and ending 29 years of Syria’s military domination of its neighbor.
The court has indicted five members of Hezbollah in the case. Their trial will resume in absentia in June.
Khayyat’s defense lawyers have until June 16 to file preliminary motions in the case. These are likely to include challenges to the court’s right to prosecute the journalists.
Kenneth Scott, the prosecutor for the case, said he would complete the disclosure of all the evidence collected to Khayyat’s lawyers by the end of the month.
Meanwhile, Ibrahim al-Amin, the editor in chief of Al-Akhbar, refused to attend his afternoon hearing.
In a written exchange with the court, Amin said he had been unable to assign defense lawyers and needed to delay his initial appearance.
Initial hearings are usually intended to formally present the charges to the defendants, rather than addressing legal questions.
Amin instead followed the hearing from Al-Akhbar’s office in Beirut. The editor was shown on TV closely watching the proceedings at his desk next to a female staffer under a North Korean flag, and smoking several cigarettes.
Francois Roux, the head of the defense office at the STL, said Amin’s request was reasonable in light of the sensitivity of the case and the fact that it pertains to issues of freedom of the press.
The STL’s contempt judge, Nicola Lettieri, who presided over the cases, postponed Amin and Al-Akhbar’s hearing until May 29 to allow the newspaper to appoint defense lawyers, while alluding to the fact that the court can hold in absentia hearings.
After the sessions, Amin told reporters that two weeks were likely not enough time for him to appoint defense lawyers. He thanked the defense office for understanding the sensitivity of the case and raising the issue of freedom of the press, but he said he would not appear at the hearing unless the STL addressed a number of procedural issues that he said might impede the administration of justice.
Amin’s concerns, which he described Monday in an interview with The Daily Star, include the powers of defense lawyers in the case, the ability to call STL staff members as witnesses, and the question of whether the tribunal contravened Lebanese laws and its own rules in prosecuting journalists.
Journalists and officials expressing support for the two media outlets followed the STL hearing at the headquarters of Lebanon’s Press Federation in Beirut. A Twitter hashtag set up to oppose the contempt trial, called “#STLP” (Support The Lebanese Press), was trending in Lebanon during the hearing.
Media watchdog Reporters Without Borders expressed concern over the case.
“We are concerned by the grave charges against these two Lebanese journalists and their news organizations and we stress the importance of freely reported and responsible news coverage in Lebanon’s tense political context,” said research director Lucie Morillon.
“We urge the STL and Lebanese news providers to work together to ensure that those responsible for former ... Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s assassination are brought to justice.”