Lebanese TV journalist in the dock for Hariri tribunal leaks

Lebanese TV executive Karma Khayat and her employer, Al Jadeed Television, are charged with contempt of court for airing TV programmes that prosecutors say used leaked information that compromised the identities of witnesses.

Journalist Karma Khayat and her employer Al Jadeed Television stand accused of contempt of court by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which is probing the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Al Hariri. Reuters
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BEIRUT // More than six years after the Special Tribunal for Lebanon was set up to find and prosecute the killers of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, a defendant will finally take the stand in The Hague on Thursday.

But 32-year-old Lebanese television executive Karma Khayat is not accused of assassinating Lebanon’s former premier. Rather, Khayat and her employer, Al Jadeed Television, are being charged with contempt of court for airing television programmes that prosecutors say used leaked information that compromised the identities of witnesses.

Khayat says the charges are a violation of press freedom and that the reports — which featured interviews with upcoming witnesses whose identities were concealed — were aimed at highlighting dangerous leaks that have emerged from the international tribunal since its inception.

“Our initial report was to say ‘look, once again you guys have leaks, we have the names of witnesses, we’ve confirmed they are witnesses, they have spoken to the special tribunal, so you have to do something about those leaks’,” Khayat told The National. “They did nothing.”

The most high-profile leak to date came in 2011 when the names of suspects in Hariri’s killing were obtained by the press before a formal indictment, an incident some say allowed the suspects to go into hiding and escape justice. The four Hizbollah members are now being tried in absentia.

If convicted, Khayat faces up to seven years in jail and a maximum fine of €100,000 (Dh390,500), or both. Al Jadeed could also face a fine of up to €100,000.

Another contempt of court case is being raised against the pro-Hizbollah newspaper Al Akhbar and its editor Ibrahim Al Amin. The tribunal says no trial date has been set in that case yet. Al Amin did not respond to requests for comment.

The media outlets and journalists are accused of “knowingly and wilfully interfering with the administration of justice” by publishing details about confidential witnesses.

In 2012, Al Jadeed, a Beirut-based news station, aired a series of interviews with upcoming witnesses whose identities it had obtained, but Khayat says they took care to protect the identity of the witnesses by obscuring their faces and withholding details that could have been used to identify them.

Khayat says that the case is a violation of press freedom and that a conviction would be a big blow to media freedom in the Arab world.

“We’re trying to get away from the dictatorships we have in our world,” she said. “And now this attack on freedom of speech will only give the regimes of our world more creative ways of how to shut up, how to put a stop to free-willed journalists.”

Ayman Mhanna, the director of the Samir Kassir Eyes Foundation, a Beirut-based organisation that promotes press freedom, says there is a difference in how Al Jadeed and Al Akhbar handled the leaked identities of witnesses.

While Al Jadeed’s programmes obscured their faces and did not disclose their names, Al Akhbar went so far as to publish their names, photographs, dates of birth, cities of residence and occupations of witnesses.

“What Al Akhbar did is very far from all the standards and ethics we believe in,” said Mr Mhanna. “One of the first principals of good journalism is ‘do no harm’.”

The leaks were not the first to affect the tribunal, which has seen both international and local publications obtain confidential information.

Khayat blames a 2011 leak of suspects’ identities on helping the four Hizbollah members accused of murdering Hariri to escape.

“Today we are in a trial of absentia because their names were out there,” she said. “Everybody knew their names. Therefore it’s very easy for anybody accused just to disappear.”

But so far, action has only been taken against Al Akhbar and Al Jadeed for publishing leaked information.

The cases against the two media outlets were triggered by requests from the tribunal’s head of defence and its prosecutor, said Wajed Ramadan, a spokeswoman for the Special Tribunal for Lebanon.

She said no other such requests have been made regarding other leaked information published by other news organisations.

Mr Mhanna said the tribunal must show that it deals with leaks to the press impartially and that it is not targeting specific news outlets.

“It is important that the tribunal shows in a clear and transparent way that it’s dealing with all these leaks in the same way,” he said.

“The tribunal must be much more vocal in explaining why this is the case they are pursuing and not others.”