Wednesday, December 14, 2005

The Murder of a Journalist

Claudia Rosett, The Wall Street Journal:
At a rally of the terrorist group Hezbollah in Lebanon this past March, among the chants of "Death to America" and the banners lauding Syria, some of the demonstrators brandished posters that threatened, in Arabic: "We are going to sweep Gebran Tueni from Lebanon."

That is what someone has now done, with the car-bombing Monday on the outskirts of Beirut that murdered Tueni, Lebanon's leading newspaperman in the struggle for a free and democratic society. Tueni's assassination comes not only as a loss to the Lebanese. It's also a hideous affront to the entire Free World.

Coming within hours of the latest U.N. report of the investigation into the February bomb assassination in Beirut of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, Tueni's death also raises an important question: Is it enough to simply wait upon the further findings of this U.N. process, however admirably diligent it has been in digging into the affairs of the prime suspect -- the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad? In the matter of Lebanon's afflictions, Tueni himself spent years telling us what the problem was, and the direction he pointed was not only Syria, but Iran. READ MORE

'They can kill one, two, three of us,' but then they are 'finished.'

You had to meet Gebran Tueni. He was a cross between the hard-hitting journalists of legend and the courageous democratic politicians of the Middle East who too often end up jailed, exiled or killed for their beliefs. He played one of the leading roles in the democratic Cedar Revolution that swept Lebanon this spring and was elected this year to the Lebanese parliament.

I met Gebran Tueni twice. The first time was in 2002, before the Cedar Revolution had splashed Lebanon's red, white and green flags across the front pages of Western newspapers. In those days, Syria's generation-long chokehold still imposed on many Lebanese a terrified silence. I had gone to Lebanon trying to judge the strength of the democratic movement beneath the Syrian gloom. Tueni had been speaking up for years, and I paid him a call at his newspaper's office, then in the bustling Hamra section of Beirut, not far from the seaside headquarters of Syria's secret police.

A brisk, trim man with a neat mustache, Tueni welcomed me to an office filled with small figurines of roosters, both small and large, dignified and whimsical. He collected them, he said -- the rooster being the logo of his newspaper, An-Nahar, a name which he translated for me as "The Morning." Founded by Tueni's grandfather in the 1930s, and passed from father to son for three generations, An-Nahar was for Gebran Tueni not only a family business but a vital trust. Seated behind his grandfather's desk, he explained that his aim was to cover the full spectrum of Lebanese news and debate, to give voice to "Muslims, Christians, leftists, rightists." As a Lebanese patriot, he refused to be cowed by Syrian censorship, and in 2000 had made the first explicit call by a major Lebanese journalist for Syria to get its troops out of Lebanon. "If you accept to enter the game of blackmailing, it's your fault," he said. "We try to have an independent paper."

Asked about the dangers of such integrity, he catalogued quickly that he had been shot twice, in 1976 and 1989; kidnapped briefly in 1976; and exiled in 1990 for three years.

Tueni's defiance of despotic rule extended not only to Syrian occupation but to the presence of Hezbollah in Lebanese politics. He described Hezbollah as "an imported product from Iran. It has nothing to do with Lebanese identity." He went on to explain that Hezbollah is "a direct threat, acting in Lebanon like a state within a state," with "weapons everywhere." Hezbollah, he said, builds schools, hospitals, provides free education to children of poor families -- "but what are they teaching?" Hezbollah's strategy, he said, "is to transform us into an Islamic republic." Tueni described Iran as providing the weapons and the funding, and Syria as providing the cover.

Tueni saw democracy as the only acceptable answer. He had no illusions that it would be easy going: "Just to talk about democracy, it's not a cocktail party," he said, "You have to work at it."

When I returned to Lebanon in March of this year, Tueni was hard at work. He had moved his newspaper to new headquarters in the center of Beirut. The offices now looked out appropriately enough onto Martyr's Square, which had become the gathering place for the Lebanese democratic protests Hariri's assassination had catalyzed the previous month. An-Nahar was chronicling not only the Lebanese democratic movement, but signs of political dissent within Syria itself.

Tueni was working around the clock, both putting out the newspaper and meeting with organizers of the Lebanese opposition. The aim, he said, was to "restore democracy so we can have elections, and then we can compete with each other." On the broader front, asked about the prospects for democracy in Iraq, he had no doubts: "George Bush is doing the right job in the Middle East for us, believe me." Tueni's concern was that Lebanon, with its rich pre-Syrian legacy of democratic institutions, should have the same chance: "We really think if the big issue is about the Middle East, about changing the world, Lebanon is the answer."

An-Nahar's new building had armed guards and bullet-proof security shields and doors. But sitting in his corner office, with its big picture windows, not far from the spot where Hariri was murdered, Tueni seemed both brave and terribly vulnerable. I asked him if his own life was in danger. He said he expected a wave of Syrian-backed "assassinations, booby-trapped cars," but did not think that could stop Lebanon's democratic movement: "They can kill one, two, three of us," but then they are "finished."

He paused and smiled, "Better," he said, if they stop at "one."

They didn't. Gebran Tueni has now become the latest victim in a series of terrorist bombings that are an assault not only on Lebanese democracy, but on all those in the Middle East -- or anywhere else, for that matter -- who believe government should be a civil compact, not a rule of violence and fear. The urgent question by now is not only who precisely gave the order or laid the bomb, but who will act to put an end to this terror, and how.

Ms. Rosett is a journalist-in-residence with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.