The Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) is an international court located outside The Hague. The Tribunal was established in 2009 to prosecute the perpetrators in the terror attack in Beirut on 14 February 2005. In the attack the former prime minister of Lebanon Rafiq Hariri and 21 other persons were killed. More than 220 people were injured in the attack.
The attack had serious political repercussions in Lebanon and led to the withdrawal of Syrian forces from the country. The Syrian government and the Hezbollah organization were suspected of involvement in the assassination. Until now 5 persons, allegedly members of Hezbollah, have been indicted.
However, no-one has been arrested by the Lebanese authorities who, under the threats of Hezbollah, have refused to apprehend them. The trial started in January 2014 in their absence. The only person who is facing trial is Karma Khayat, a young journalist and vice-chairperson of the Lebanese TV network Al Jadeed, who has been investigating the Tribunal.
We recently met Karma at a press conference at the Brussels Press Club. There seems to be little interest in EU circles in the case against her although it poses a threat against the freedom of media in Lebanon – one of the fundamental values in the EU. The state of freedom of expression is already in bad shape in Lebanon.
According to the 2014 World Press Freedom Index, the situation in Lebanon has deteriorated in recent years and the country ranked 106 in among 180 countries. The media there serve mainly as propaganda outlets of businessmen and politicians – a situation quite common in many countries. In Lebanon the polarization between media reinforces the country’s social and political polarization.
Al Jadeed may be the only exception in this regard. A media network established in 1992, it started satellite broadcasting in 2001 in the Arabic language. As the only secular network TV network in Lebanon it’s not linked to any of the warring factions in the country. With its focus on investigative reporting on corruption and social issues it has been hit by arson and often by intimidation.
Karma is going to The Hague on 16 April to face a “Contempt Judge” and defend herself against charges of “interfering with the administration of justice” by broadcasting confidential information on purported witnesses in the case. According to a 32 pages long “prosecution pre-trial brief”, Al Jadeed in August 2012 broadcast five episodes of a documentary about the alleged witnesses.
Together with her the company itself, Al Yadeed, is also charged for the same thing. They risk prison and hefty fines. The court alleges that Karma and Al Jadeed created a real risk that public confidence in the tribunal’s ability to protect the confidentiality of information about, or provided by, witnesses or potential witnesses would be undermined.
To make things worse, they are also accused of having disobeyed a court order by failing to immediately remove the documentary from Al Jadeed TV’s website and YouTube channel. That was perhaps a mistake by Al Jadeed.
The Tribunal is special not only because it deals with a single crime, including other terror attacks in the same period if they are similar in nature and gravity and found to be connected to the assassination of Hariri. It has obviously also a certain jurisdiction in Lebanon and can try people under Lebanese law.
However, Karma is convinced that the she acted in line with professional and ethical standards when she investigated leaks from the Tribunal concerning witnesses. One day someone left an envelope at at Al Jadeed’s reception with names of a number of witnesses which apparently had been leaked from the tribunal. Al Jadeed decided to look further into it and contacted the witnesses.
According to the court, because of Al Jadeed’s documentary witnesses may lose faith in the Tribunal’s ability to protect them. On the other hand, if there was a leak from the court, it could be argued that it would be in the interest of other potential witnesses to know that their identities might not be protected by the Tribunal itself.
Contrary to what is implied in the pre-trial brief, the identities of the witnesses in the documentary weren’t revealed. The documentary showed pixelated faces with muffled voices of those interviewed in order to protect their identities.
Although other media around the world have also disclosed leaks from the tribunal, she and Al-Jadeed are the only ones which are being prosecuted for doing it. In this case the judge in charge was obviously satisfied that there were sufficient grounds to proceed against them for contempt. That said, the Tribunal stresses that Karma and Al Jadeed are innocent until proven guilty.
“Instead of going after journalists they should try to stop leaks coming from inside the tribunal,” she says. It’s something which the Tribunal denies has happened. The Tribunal is subject to external audit by the British National Audit Office (NAO) but its latest report published on the court’s website is from 2011 and deals only with the financial statements.
In that year NAO issued an unqualified audit opinion, i.e. no material errors were found. The Tribunal’s annual budget is about 55 million euro, financed by Lebanon, the U.S. and a number of EU member states and other countries. An internal audit function was established 2011 but its reports are confidential.
It’s obviously much easier for the Tribunal to take on Karma Khayat whose only “crime” is that she made a documentary about the court than to charge the Lebanese government for obstruction by refusing to arrest the suspects in the assassination of the country’s former prime minister. At least she is guaranteed a transparent and public trial.
Photo by Bruno Mariano, Brussels Press Clubm.apelblat