Friday, January 25, 2013

Witness for an execution?

Recently, the daily newspaper Al-Akhbar published the names of witnesses who are supposedly scheduled to appear before the Special Tribunal for Lebanon. Because judicial cases often require that the identity of witnesses remain secret until the last possible moment, that information should not have been publicized.

Strangely, the newspaper’s staff member most critical of the United Nations investigation of Rafiq Hariri’s assassination is the law editor, Omar Nashabe. His beef against the first investigator, Detlev Mehlis, was that he had put witnesses at risk by not placing them in a special protection program. So what did Al-Akhbar do? It published the names of witnesses who enjoy no protection, arguing that knowledge of their identity, an intimidating measure by definition, represented a “public right,” something the Lebanese people were entitled to know.

Since we’re worried about the public good, isn’t it true that Al-Akhbar has never warmed to the investigation of the Hariri murder, because those it sympathized with politically were likely the culprits in the crime? For all the talk that the paper is an invigorating and daring outlet, the reality is that it functions as the semi-official mouthpiece of the March 8 coalition, and that on the STL its agenda has been to discredit virtually everything the institution does.

In other words, the public’s right to follow a fair trial is precisely what Al-Akhbar seeks to undermine, through partisan reporting on most matters related to the UN investigation and trial. What the newspaper really wants, apparently, is for the Special Tribunal’s legal case to collapse so that it can then turn around and say, “We told you so!”

Ibrahim al-Amin, editor of Al-Akhbar, wrote a long piece justifying his paper’s publication of the witness names. It is from that missive that we took the contention earlier that the “public right” justified publication. Amin went on to argue that Hariri’s assassination was a public affair, which it certainly was, and that this had led to myriad leaks from the investigation. Presumably, Amin’s way of remedying the plethora of leaks, which he seemed implicitly to condemn, was to engage in further leaks and embarrass the tribunal.

Amin also mentioned his newspaper’s old target, Detlev Mehlis, pointing out that he “openly published witnesses’ testimony in his reports.” Perhaps, but his reports were in a way designed to do precisely such a thing. Yet he didn’t name names or give out addresses. Or perhaps Al-Akhbar is more impressed by the empty reports of Serge Brammertz and Daniel Bellemare, who not only told us nothing, but in retrospect appeared to cover up for their lack of progress in the investigation, which long delayed the start of a trial.

More ominously, Amin pointed out that “if anyone in Lebanon or the region, or even in The Hague, thinks there are any secrets or information that are unknown to those who want to know them—they are deluded and mistaken, if not deranged and excessively self-regarding.” In other words, Al-Akhbar only mirrored its environment by publishing the witnesses’ names, because it is easy for anyone, above all Hezbollah, to find out who they are and where they live.

Perhaps, but that troubling situation seems hardly to be in the public interest. Nor is Al-Akhbar’s ability to undercut the valuable principle of judicial confidentiality, particularly when names are fed to the paper to be published, and to issue warnings. But if there were doubts as to Al-Akhbar’s true intent, Amin removed them by writing that the paper had published documents “deemed necessary to counter the international campaign of fabrications targeting the Resistance.”

If defending the Resistance is the yardstick of Al-Akhbar’s journalism, then we’re entitled to ask whether the paper is a reliable outlet for anything pertaining to the killing of Rafiq Hariri. After all, Amin plainly believes that the indictments against four Hezbollah members are false. In that context, we can doubt whether publication of the witnesses’ names was an effort to inform, as opposed to frightening those helping prosecutors to make the indictments stick.

And yet Al-Akhbar would have had a good case if it bothered to examine the conduct of the investigation itself. Why has it taken a full seven years for the investigation to come to a trial? The Al-Akhbar staff knows well that after Mehlis the investigation was flawed, and that Brammertz did virtually nothing while in Beirut. The work of Bellemare, too, has been highly questionable, not because of the evidence he garnered, but because his indictments present us with a crime that is without any discernible motive.

Yes, the UN investigation for a long time was a scandal. But that’s hardly because the investigators mounted a conspiracy against Hezbollah (whose guilt still needs to be proven in a court of law). It was because the last two did much less than was expected of them. They then hid this under layers of obfuscation, all the while trying to persuade us that all was going swimmingly, when it wasn’t

That’s what Al-Akhbar should be focusing on, not on the bogus benefits derived from leaking witness names. The sole practical consequence of that will be to frighten others appearing before the tribunal. There is no public good here, just an imposition of silence.

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