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    Freedom of the press first

     

    So now the Free Patriotic Movement leader, retired general and MP Michel Aoun, is deciding what can be politicized and what can’t. In doing so, he is showing his true and very dangerous colors. On Wednesday, at the weekly meeting of his Change and Reform parliamentary bloc, he said, commenting on the fatal downing of a Lebanese army helicopter by at least one Hezbollah fighter last Thursday, that “this accident should not reflect on the discussions regarding Hezbollah’s possession of arms.”

    This is surely the most hysterically funny comment to have emerged from Rabieh in recent months (and let’s face it, the general’s HQ has not been short on side-splitting one-liners). Even before an investigation into the incident has taken place, the former soldier has declared it a regrettable accident, one to be brushed under the carpet. In this one statement, Aoun has demonstrated that either he has lost all sense of political and moral judgment, or that he is so subjugated by his new friends in South Lebanon and Iran that he has cast what credibility he had left to the four winds.
     
    If that were not farcical enough, Aoun also called for a lawsuit to be filed against Lebanon’s respected French-language daily L’Orient Le Jour for a headline it ran last Saturday that read, “Captain Samer Hanna was killed on the ground and in cold blood,” implying that the attack was premeditated by Hezbollah.  
     
    Aoun went on to accuse the newspaper, which vigorously supported him during his 14 years of exile in France, of “spreading sedition” and hoped that “the public prosecution will conduct an investigation on the newspaper.” Even more disturbing was a report in Thursday’s An-Nahar that, citing sources in the parliamentary majority, a number of L’Orient Le Jour employees have received threats after the newspaper’s coverage of the helicopter incident.
     
    As Thomas Jefferson said in 1799: “I am… for freedom of the press, and against all violations of the Constitution to silence by force and not by reason the complaints or criticisms, just or unjust, of our citizens against the conduct of their agents.” Press freedoms are also guaranteed as a basic human right in Article 19 of 1948’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a document to which Lebanon contributed through the hard work of one of its greatest diplomats, Charles Malik.  In short, the press is bound to hold accountable all the offices of state. A responsible press creates public awareness and ensures a system of checks and balances that corrects the excesses of a democratic process.
     
    We can understand if General Aoun’s allies in Hezbollah are often indifferent to these guidelines. The party is a quasi-theocracy and demonstrated in May that, in storming the offices of Future TV, they don’t care a hoot for respecting media rights. But we expected more from the FPM, a secular and liberal movement. We certainly don’t expect its leader to issue a statement that would be more at home in a fascist state than a country trying to build on its democratic aspirations.

    Aoun should not assign himself prosecutor and define tasks for the judiciary. Instead, he should be reminded that September 4 is the anniversary of the Syrian-orchestrated 2002 closure of MTV, a move that an exiled Aoun robustly condemned. We should also remember those journalists, who have died – from Riad Taha to Gebran Tueni – fighting for free speech in this country. Their memory should not be tarnished by such childish rants.

    Finally, this is not about the increasingly easy pastime of picking holes in Aoun’s progressively alarming manifesto. It’s about safeguarding a free press that is deeply rooted in Lebanon’s liberal tradition.

    NOW Lebanon
    04.09.2008

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