Lebanon News

A century of attacks on free expression

From left, slain journalists Kamel Mroue, Salim Lawzi, Riad Taha, Samir Kassir and Gebran Tueni.

BEIRUT: Press Martyrs Day in Lebanon, which falls Wednesday, is of special significance this year, as May 6, 2015, commemorates one century of martyrdom and sacrifices made by Lebanese journalists.

Lebanese journalists and nationalists advocating freedom from four centuries of Ottoman rule were hanged on three occasions in 1915 and 1916, in what is known today as Martyrs’ Square in Beirut.

The last group was executed on May 6, 1916, a day which would be declared Press Martyrs Day in independent Lebanon.

Among the journalists hanged by the Turks in Beirut were: Said Akl, Abdel-Karim Khalil, Mohammad Mahmasani, Abdel-Ghani Araysi, Petro Paoli, Sheikh Ahmad Hasan Tabbara, Aref Chehabi, Omar Hamad, brothers Philip and Farid Khazen, Jerji Haddad, along with Antoine and Toufic Zreik.Post-independence assassinationsIn the 72 years which followed independence, a series of prominent Lebanese journalists were assassinated for merely exercising their right to expression, which did not always satisfy certain regional powers or internal groups.

Nassib Matni, the publisher of the Tayyar newspaper, was among the first to be killed.

A journalist supportive of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel-Nasser’s policies, Matni was shot dead in Beirut on May 8, 1958.

His assassination sparked months of civil strife involving armed confrontations between loyalists of President Camille Chamoun, who staunchly opposed Nasser, and those in the opposition backed by the Egyptian president.

In September of the same year, journalist Fouad Haddad, better known as “Abul Hin,” was kidnapped in Beirut and killed. An anti-Nasserist, Haddad was a columnist at the Kataeb Party’s Al-Amal Newspaper.

But the end of the 1958 conflict did not herald the end of assassinations targeting Lebanese journalists.

On May 16, 1966, Kamel Mroue, the publisher of Al-Hayat and The Daily Star newspapers, was gunned down at his office in Beirut. Mroue was critical of Nasser.

With the outbreak in 1975 of Lebanon’s 15-year Civil War and Syria’s military intervention in the conflict a year later, many journalists who opposed Syria’s policies in Lebanon were assassinated.

Exactly 10 years following Mroue’s killing, Edward Saab, the editor-in-chief of L’Orient Le Jour, was assassinated.

Salim Lawzi, the anti-Syrian publisher of Al-Hawadeth Magazine, did not know that his ride to the Beirut airport on Feb. 25, 1980, would be his last trip.

He was kidnapped that day and his mutilated body found on March 4 in Aramoun near Beirut. The killers dissolved Lawzi’s right hand – which he used to write with – in acid.

On July 20 of the same year, Riad Taha, head of the Press Federation who opposed Syrian intervention in Lebanon, was shot dead in Beirut.

Six years later, Suheil Tawileh was killed on Feb. 24, 1986. A senior figure in the Lebanese Communist Party, Tawileh served as the editor-in-chief of the Nida magazine and was the executive director of the Tariq Magazine. Exactly one year later, LCP figure and journalist Hussein Mroueh was killed.

More journalists were to be targeted with assassinations after the end of Lebanon’s war in 1990.

On Jan. 15, 1992, Mustapha Jeha was shot dead near his house in Beirut’s eastern suburb of Sabtiyeh.

On April 26, 2005, Syria withdrew its troops from Lebanon, ending a nearly three-decade military presence in its smallest neighbor.

But this development did not bring an end to the assassination of journalists who staunchly criticized the Syrian regime’s policies in Lebanon.

On June 2, 2005, journalist Samir Kassir was killed in a car bomb near his house in the Lebanese capital.

Six months later, MP Gebran Tueni, the editor-in-chief of An-Nahar newspaper where Kassir worked, was also slain in a car bomb on Dec. 12.

Journalists killed while on dutyBesides the long list of assassinated journalists in Lebanon, there are others who were killed while performing their duties.

Photographer George Samarjian died on Feb. 1, 1990, when a bullet hit his head while covering fighting in Antelias. Samarjian was one of the many journalists killed while covering Lebanon’s 15-year Civil War.

Many others were slain when covering Israel’s aggressions on Lebanon after 1990.

Ahmad Haidar, a reporter for Hezbollah’s Al-Manar TV, was killed during Israel’s one-week aggression on south Lebanon in the summer of 1993. During the 2006 war, photojournalist Layal Najib died in an Israeli strike in the district of Tyre. She was taking pictures of the devastation and destruction.

Assaf Bu Rahhal, a reporter for Lebanon’s Al-Akhbar newspaper, was shot dead by Israel’s army while reporting on clashes between Lebanese and Israeli troops on the southern border in August 2010.

Al-Jadeed TV’s cameraman Ali Shaaban fell when Syrian troops opened fire at him on the border with Lebanon on April 9, 2012, while Al-Manar’s reporter Hussein Hajj Hasan, cameraman Mohammad Mantash and technician Halim Allaw were killed on April 14, 2014, when their vehicle came under heavy fire while covering a story in Syria.

Some narrowly escaped attempts on their livesOther Lebanese journalists had better luck, and narrowly escaped assassination. Talal Salman, the editor-in-chief of Lebanon’s As-Safir newspaper – a voice of pan-Arab nationalism – was shot and wounded on July 14, 1984, while March 14 journalist May Chidiac was badly wounded from a failed assassination attempt on Sept. 25, 2005.

“Why did those who were killed die? They died because of what they were writing, they did not simply commit suicide,” head of the Press Federation Awni Kaaki told The Daily Star.

Roula Mikhael, the executive director of Maharat Foundation, a media watchdog, said that the large number of journalists assassinated in Lebanon indicated the strong influence that their writing had.

“Lebanon witnessed the assassination of many journalists. What was common between these journalists is the fact that they had the courage to express their opinion,” Mikhael said.

“The other side, which was not satisfied with what these journalists were saying, could not endure the effect of their words,” Mikhael added. “The reaction of the other side was criminal, manifested in the physical extermination of these journalists.”

Mikhael stressed the need to end impunity for the assassins of journalists in order to protect other journalists from suffering the same fate.

“We never saw assassins brought to justice ... It is very important to say on Press Martyrs Day that impunity should end ... this is essential in order to prevent more assassinations.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 06, 2015, on page 4.




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