Lebanon’s former security chief threatens news presenter over tweet

News presenter Jessica Azar says she will not be intimidated by Jamil Al-Sayyed, former head of Lebanon’s General Security Directorate. (Facebook/AFP)
Updated 24 February 2018
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Lebanon’s former security chief threatens news presenter over tweet

LONDON: A television news anchorwoman in Lebanon has vowed to defend her right to freedom of expression after being threatened with legal action by a former security chief who is now a candidate in the country’s upcoming elections.
News presenter Jessica Azar says she will not be intimidated by Jamil Al-Sayyed, former head of Lebanon’s General Security Directorate, who has threatened to sue her over what he considered were slanderous comments on Twitter.
“This is not how the media should be dealt with in Lebanon,” said Azar. “I have the right to defend freedom of speech and to express my opinion, and the support I have received shows Lebanon will not let freedom of speech be harmed.”
Azar’s case has sparked outrage not only from other journalists but also from the public. The hashtag #wearesupportingjessicaazar was trending on Friday, and supporters posted pictures of Azar with a gag superimposed over her mouth and the Twitter bird symbol with its beak tied up with rope.
The 31-year-old presenter told Arab News she also has the support of Melhem Riachy, Lebanon’s minister of information.
“He just called me, he supports me and he is going to tweet about it,” she said.
The furor began six days ago when journalist Diana Moukalled tweeted about Al-Sayyed’s candidacy, saying he had “mischief” on his hands. Azar retweeted the comment without adding any remarks of her own.

“On Thursday, I was off and got a call from my office saying there was a man there with some papers for me, and that if I refused to delete the retweet, I would be sued,” Azar said.
She responded on Twitter, saying she felt honored to be among Al-Sayyed’s targets.
“It is an honor that he has brought a case against me. Just a retweet has stirred Jamil’s longing for the hateful past that has become obsolete in Lebanon and the Arab world, ” Azar wrote.
On Friday, Al-Sayyed tweeted what appeared to be a veiled threat against Azar. Without naming her, he wrote: “Some female media personalities have insulted our dignity on Twitter. Our lawyers have sent them a letter asking them to ‘remove the abuse so that we do not have to complain and we hope to get a good response.’ They responded with derision. When anyone insults your dignity, there are two routes before you — you can either resort to the law or take matters into your own hands. We resorted to the law.”

Al-Sayyed’s lawyer, Charbel Ghoussoub, told Arab News that Al Sayyed had not launched a lawsuit against Azar and Moukalled but only sent them a legal warning letter, urging both to remove their “libellous” Twitter posts.
The letter was delivered to Azar’s workplace at MTV television station, but as of late Friday, Moukalled had yet to receive her letter, apparently because Al-Sayyed’s lawyers had been unable to locate her address.
Moukalled told Arab News she would not comply with any demand to remove her tweets.
“I’m not going to remove my tweets. I believe Jamil Al-Sayyed is a public figure — he was an official, he represented the government in the security office — and my comment was related to a period I have lived through in Lebanon as a journalist and as a citizen. I met a lot of people telling their stories about their ordeal with Jamil Al-Sayyed.”
Al-Sayyed, 67, was director-general of Lebanon’s General Security Directorate from 1998 to 2005, a dark period in the country’s history when it was recovering from civil war and living under quasi-occupation by Syria. He was implicated in the assassination of the former prime minister Rafik Hariri and spent four years in detention before being released for lack of evidence.
His row with Azar and Moukalled highlights the changing landscape for the press in Lebanon in the run-up to the May elections — the first for eight years. Long regarded as a bastion of free speech in the Middle East, the country appears to be conducting a concerted clampdown on journalists, commentators and bloggers.
Leading talk show host Marcel Ghanem is facing legal action because of remarks made by a guest on his popular talk show, “Kalam Ennas,” in November. In a live broadcast, Saudi journalist Ibrahim Al-Merhi accused the president, Michel Aoun, and Nabih Berri, speaker of the parliament, of being “partners” in “Hezbollah’s terrorism.”
“The Lebanese journalist used to be a pioneer for freedoms for the entire Arab World,” said Ghanem. “Is it possible that today Lebanese journalists are afraid of the spectre of the authorities?”
A military court sentenced Hanin Ghaddar, a Lebanese analyst and outspoken critic of Hezbollah based at the Washington Institute, to six months in prison for claiming the Lebanese army was soft on Shiite Hezbollah but tough on Sunni extremists.
The justice minister, Salim Jreissati, said Ghaddar’s comments — made in 2014 at a US symposium — were tantamount to accusing the army of treason, which was not protected by the freedom of speech principle in the Lebanese constitution.
Last July, journalist Fidaa Itani was detained and interrogated after criticizing the army’s treatment of Syrian refugees in a Facebook post. Diana Moukalled recalled Al- Sayyed’ s role in prosecuting writer Samir Kassir, who was killed by a car bomb in 2005.
But Azar said that in imposing the crackdown, the authorities had not reckoned with public opinion.
“It is true that attacks on the press are increasing, but the voice of the people is also increasing,” she said. “Whenever it happens, the people speak out loudly and half of Lebanon tweets about it. The Syrian phase is over.”
The US-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has also voiced its concern over increasing harassment of the media in the country.
“More journalists are being prosecuted for defamation and the use of military courts is disturbing,” said Sherif Mansour, Middle East and North Africa coordinator for the CPJ.
“What is of even greater concern is the government specifically targeting people through social media and online. In Lebanon, the authorities have invested in technologies and tools to enable the security apparatus to monitor and mount surveillance on and abuse the privacy of individuals.
“There are countries in the Middle East which have traditionally been open but which are becoming more aggressive toward critics.
“Undoubtedly, there is tension in Lebanon ahead of the first elections to be held there for years. People are looking forward to stable government, but not all parties can agree on what stable government looks like,” Mansour said.
The lawyer acting for Lebanon’s former head of General Security, Jamil Al-Sayyed, told Arab News that he had been asked to send a legal warning to Moukalled and Azar, urging both to remove their posts on Twitter.
“We addressed them with a notarized warning,” said Charbel Ghoussoub, Al-Sayyed’s legal representative.
He said the warning is not a lawsuit, but an ultimatum served to Moukalled and Azar by a court bailiff delegated by a notary public.
Al-Sayyed described the Tweet, which described him as “a man of mischievous hands,” as libelous and said it “offended him personally.”
Ghoussoub said Azar had been served with the warning at the television station where she works, but the bailiff had handed the warning to the gatekeeper rather than directly to the presenter who was not there at the time. The gatekeeper than misinformed Azar that it was a full lawsuit rather than a warning, Ghoussoub said.
Moukalled had not been served with the warning yet since her address was still unknown, he said.


Afghans fear end of golden age of press freedom

Updated 27 min 52 sec ago
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Afghans fear end of golden age of press freedom

  • A recent televised news debate highlights how far media freedom has come in Afghanistan
  • Journalists alike worry a potential peace deal between the Taliban and the US could sound the death knell for a golden age of press freedom

KABUL: Beneath the gaze of the TV cameras a woman begins speaking, at first softly but with growing passion as she faces the "Butcher of Kabul" across a crowded auditorium and asks if he wants to apologise for alleged war crimes.
Without missing a beat, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the ruthless former warlord blamed for rocket attacks which reduced much of the Afghan capital to rubble in the 1990s, declined to do so.
The dramatic moment during a recent televised news debate highlights how far media freedom has come in Afghanistan, where -- for now -- traumatised civilians can stand and at least try to hold powerful men to account, live on camera.
"Years ago, these kind of questions could get you killed, but now people can challenge the most dangerous people in mainstream and social media," Mustafa Rahimi, a university student, said after watching the debate.
But today, even as hundreds of media outlets proliferate across Afghanistan, consumers and journalists alike worry a potential peace deal between the Taliban and the US could sound the death knell for a golden age of press freedom.
"We are concerned about a total or a partial ban on media," Sediqullah Khaliq, the director of Hewad TV and radio in Kandahar -- the birthplace of Taliban -- told AFP.
"There is fear that we may go back to a media blackout or having a state-controlled press."
While in power, the Taliban raged against traditional forms of mass communication and entertainment, banning television, movies and allowing only Islamist programming or propaganda to be broadcast on the only radio station, Voice of Sharia.
Anyone caught watching TV faced punishment and risked having their television set smashed and then displayed from a lamppost.
Almost all electronic products were outlawed as un-Islamic. For a while, trees in Kabul fluttered with the magnetic ribbon tape from destroyed cassettes.
Photographs of living things were illegal, and ownership of a video player could lead to a public lashing.
Afghanistan is the world's deadliest place for journalists, who face many risks covering the conflict and who have sometimes been targeted for doing their job.
Nine journalists, including AFP Kabul's chief photographer Shah Marai, were killed in an Islamic State attack in April 2018.
Media watchdog group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) reported that 2018 was the deadliest year on record for journalists in Afghanistan, with at least 15 media workers killed while working.
Despite the risks, hundreds of media organisations have blossomed since 2001, and today there are more than 100 television channels, 284 radio stations and just over 400 newspapers and magazines, according to a government report.
With one of the world's lowest literacy rates, television and radio play a huge role in Afghan culture, and Afghans have grown accustomed to outlets holding their politicians to account.
Warlords, politicians, Taliban sympathisers and government officials are openly challenged in televised debates, radio programmes and on social media.
"We now play live music, women call in and share their problems on the radio. But even if the Taliban allow radios, I don't think they would like our programmes," said Mera Hamdam, a presenter at Zama private radio in Kandahar.
"There is huge concern that we will lose all our achievements," he said.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said if they return to power, the insurgents would follow an Islamic interpretation of freedom of expression.
"We won't allow propaganda, insults and humiliation to people in society and religious values. We will allow those who work for the betterment of the society," he told AFP.
A sixth round of talks between the US and the Taliban wrapped up last week in Doha, with apparently little progress being made on several key issues.
The two foes have for months been trying to hammer out a deal that could see foreign forces leave Afghanistan in return for a ceasefire, talks between Kabul and the Taliban, and a guarantee the country will not be used as a safe haven for terror groups.
But observers worry that in a rush to quit Afghanistan after nearly 18 gruelling years of war, America might not push for safeguards of protections many Afghans now take for granted, including media freedoms and improved rights for women and other marginalised people.
"Freedom of expression as a protective value should be incorporated into any document resulting from peace talks," NAI, a leading media support agency, said in a statement.
Rahimi, the university student, said he worried about Afghanistan going back to "the dark era".