Is Lebanon’s Court of Publications in service to journalists or politicians?

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Al-Akhbar Management

(Illustration: Pavel Constantin)

By: Eva Shoufi

Published Friday, October 31, 2014

Lebanon’s Court of Publications has been very active recently. The entire political class seems to be satisfied with its performance, and perhaps sees it as a suitable tool for repression and a new source to “make” money from journalists, who are accused of “defamation” and “slander.” Accusations of corruption leveled by journalists against corrupt officials are punishable crimes, whereas the corrupt reap millions.

In six months (from March 2014 until September 2014), Lebanon’s Court of Publications has issued 40 court rulings against media outlets and journalists, the majority of which are cases of libel and slander. The prosecutors, mostly politicians and officials, have won 37 out of 40 lawsuits, while the Court, whose responsibility is to protect media freedoms, found only three defendants to be innocent. During the same period, 36 lawsuits were filed, and rulings in these cases are not expected to be any different.

The Court of Publications appears to be very active in condemning journalists, whereas its role is to protect them and defend media freedoms, which the political authorities have continuously sought to restrict. This approach seems to be working, and it is not limited to suppression of media freedoms. In fact, for many politicians, the Publication Court has become a source to earn money, and they managed to make millions through it. All it takes is for a journalist to accuse an official of corruption, theft, or a crime to end up having to pay at least three million Lebanese liras ($2,000) [in compensation].

This is not an exaggeration or a joke. The amounts ordered by the Court of Publications (personal fines and compensation) in favor of the plaintiffs is proof of that. MP Michel Aoun, leader of the Free Patriotic Movement, is at the top of the list of politicians who have filed defamation lawsuits [against journalists] and made money as a result. In six months, Aoun has managed to win nine court rulings, eight against Al-Mustaqbal newspaper. The sum of money ordered by the court in relation to these lawsuits amounts to close to 167 million Lebanese liras (~$111,333), 135 million ($90,000) of which come from Al-Mustaqbal newspaper alone.

Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea and his party come in at second place. The Court has issued five provisions in lawsuits filed by Geagea and the Lebanese Forces. They won four cases and lost one. The amount of money ordered by the court in relation to the four provisions is 48 million LL ($32,000), of which 19 million LL ($12,666) were paid by former MP Nasser Qandil in two lawsuits filed against him.

Former head of General Security Jamil Sayyed won three cases worth 29 million LL (~$19,333). The Court also issued verdicts in favor of MP Oqab Saqr, former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, head of Hezbollah's Central Liaison and Coordination Committee
Wafik Safa, and others. Most of these payments have not been made as many cases were appealed, which often results in modification of the verdict. However, this does not change the fact that these fines ordered by the court place great pressure on journalists.

Compensations demanded by plaintiffs range from 20 million LL (~$13,333) – the amount usually requested by Aoun as compensation for “damage” caused by the “hurtful” words of reporters – to 10 billion LL (~$6.6 million), the standard compensation Geagea requests when he is described as a “criminal” or a “killer.” As for Sayyed, the compensation he demands ranges between 50 and 100 million LL (~$33,333 - $66,666). Even former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora recently demanded that journalist Rasha Abu Zaki pay 100 million LL (~$66,666) in compensation, after she accused him of resetting accounts to zero and manipulating budget numbers, although her findings were based on documents issued by the Lebanese Audit Bureau.

On August 29, Ghassan Rifi, director of As-Safir newspaper’s bureau in Tripoli, published an article titled, “When the Police Burglarize People’s Livelihoods.” Rifi criticized acts committed by members of the Internal Security Forces, who had illegally confiscated grapes from a Syrian refugee who was selling them on a cart across Azmi roundabout in the northern city of Tripoli. Pictures of the confiscation were widely shared on social media, showing witnesses who confirmed Rifi’s claims. The Directorate General of the Internal Security Forces did not show any concern for the incident, but was bothered by Rifi’s criticism of the security establishment, which “damages” its stature and thus requires his prosecution.

The Directorate filed a lawsuit against Rifi for defamation and slander. The Public Prosecutor acted immediately. On September 25, Attorney General Charbel Abu Samra listened to Rifi, who conveyed the violations of the security forces in a professional and objective manner, without slander, defamation or libel. He said that he presented facts supported by pictures and witness accounts. The case was postponed for the court to listen to witness statements.

After the hearings, the public prosecutor will have two options: either retain the complaint, or file a lawsuit against Rifi for slander, defamation, and libel, thus the case would be transferred to the Publications Court.

Ironically, journalists today have become aware that appearing before the Court of Publications, which was created to protect them, implies their inevitable defeat in court.

Based on a series of previous rulings and interpretations by head of the Court of Publications Judge Roukoz Rizk, and considering the latter’s approach in dealing with these cases through attempts to locate slander, defamation, and libel terms without thorough investigation, it is most likely that (should the case be referred to the Court of Publications) the ruling will not be in Rifi’s favor.

This conclusion is based on the Court’s recent track record. Rizk adopts a clear principle: A journalist is guilty – regardless of the information they present – until proven innocent. Even initial documents presented by journalists do not constitute sufficient evidence to acquit them as has been shown by recent rulings. After all, they have accused the corrupt of corruption.

The judiciary acts immediately, by condemning journalists and exonerating the corrupt. Rizk disregards Article 387 of the Penal Code, which “exonerates slander directed against a civil servant in connection with a public service in the event that the acts, the subject of the libel claim, are corroborated.”

The Court’s approach reinforces the repression exercised by the security institutions, politicians, and capital owners to crack down on journalists, as reflected by the large number of such cases in court.

A case in point is Al-Akhbar, which, since 2006, has had more than 85 lawsuits, mostly related to slander, defamation, libel, and false news, filed against it. The unfair verdicts issued in these cases have prompted Al-Akhbar to request that Rizk not preside over cases related to the newspaper, but he did not comply with its demands.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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