BEIRUT: The Arab world is currently the most dangerous place in the world for journalists, according to experts at a conference in Beirut Friday, but the Lebanese delegates present could not agree on how to address the issue. The conference, titled “End Impunity for Crimes and Attacks Against Journalists in the Arab World,” was organized by UNESCO and brought together experts and practitioners around the world.
Officials from UNESCO noted that the organization has documented the killing of over 1,000 journalists the world over since 2006, with those in the Arab world paying a disproportionately high price.
Over one-third of those killed had been working in the region; the vast majority of them local journalists.
Accountability for the perpetrators is low: Only 2 percent of such crimes have been solved.
While Lebanon is a much safer place to practice journalism than some of its neighbors in the region, journalist and Samir Kassir Foundation President Giselle Khoury believes producing good journalism has in fact become more difficult in the country now than it was during Lebanon’s Civil War (1975-90).
Speaking particularly in reference to investigative journalism, which she says forms the “basis” of the craft, Khoury told The Daily Star: “We don’t have the environment to protect [journalists doing] this kind of journalism. It’s become worse.”
“I think there is impunity and our politicians are worse than [at] the time of the Civil War,” she added.
Khoury was responding to an assertion made by Internal Security Forces spokesperson Col. Joseph Mousallem during a panel she chaired titled “Fighting Impunity in Lebanon.” Mousallem claimed that sufficient protections exist to enable the media to help expose corruption in Lebanese institutions.
The official said that the media had unfairly criticized his office, and especially its Anti-Cybercrimes Bureau, for its practice of questioning journalists and activists over social media posts.
He said the ISF had simply acted on the orders of the judiciary and that the agency “does not pursue anyone because of their opinion.”
Lawyer and former MP Ghassan Moukheiber said he believed that while fewer journalists die in Lebanon today than during the Civil War, it is still a dangerous place for them to work.
“There are two ways to kill a journalist,” he said. “You kill [them physically], or you kill their voice. We need to guarantee their protection because they’re being silenced.”
Moukheiber was nevertheless more positive than Khoury.
He told The Daily Star that legal protections for journalists and a culture of transparency in Lebanon were both growing. As examples, he cited the passage last year of the Right to Access to Information Law, as well as that of a law in the legislative session in September to protect whistleblowers.
He said the latter included an amendment that in cases of libel would mandate that the court assist in finding evidence against a plaintiff, not just the journalist.
This, Moukheiber said, would increase protection for journalists who criticized public figures. He also called on journalists to play a greater role in advocating for the implementation of an updated media law.
Georges Ghali, executive director at human rights watchdog ALEF, said plenty of legal protections for journalists already exist.
“In Lebanon we have good laws just bad interpretation and implementation,” he told The Daily Star.
Ghali, who also took part in Khoury’s panel discussion, said that the burden should be on public officials to reform their practices in line with laws that already exist but that are frequently ignored.
He said that in the case of referrals to the Cybercrimes Bureau, public resources could be better spent elsewhere, and those summoned should not be forced to sign documents promising not to criticize public figures in the future.
“I don’t think everything can be solved through a new law,” he said.
“This is not about the law. This is about taking a stand.”