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Freedom of Speech in Lebanon: Gebran Ghassan Tueni (1957 - 2005)
In the Beginning There Was a Country
This story begins back in the mists of time and the evolution of Lebanon as a haven for persecuted people. Throughout its history, this country has struggled with its identity and role with regard to its populace. From the early days, however, there was a strong individualist, nationalistic and proud streak in all its variant populations. This was no peaceful co-existence, but an intermittent tolerance for mutual benefit.
At the culmination of the Great War (WWI), the Ottoman Empire collapsed, leaving the Near East to be carved up by the Western powers. Lebanon's five Ottoman provinces (mutasarrifat) were mandated to France until independence in 1948. The year before saw Israel's creation as a state within the borders of what was Palestine. This strange coexistence is on Lebanon's southern borders alongside a Lebanese Shia population with a history many centuries old.
Gebran Ghassan1 Tué ni, the Grandfather
In 1942, Gebran Tué ni, the grandfather, established what has since become a flagship of press freedom in the Middle East – An-Nahar (Arabic for 'the Day') daily newspaper. Among his many efforts was to uphold and protect freedom of the press and to demand legislation assuring fair trial and protection from arbitrary suspension. Before his death, he tried to ensure that the new government of Lebanon after independence conformed to expectations by opposing emerging nepotism and a nonchalance towards the needs and desires of the people.
Ghassan Gebran Tué ni, the Father
In 1947, Gebran Tué ni passed away and his son, Ghassan Tué ni (born 1926), cut short his graduate studies at Harvard University to take over the headship of the paper. Committed to his father's work, Ghassan developed a new team of journalists, modernising the editorial content and its production. An-Nahar was at the time Lebanon's foremost daily and the Arab world's most credible and authoritative newspaper.
Ghassan Tué ni spent much time in prison in the 1950s and 1970s for his beliefs and visibility. Despite this, he was elected to the Lebanese Parliament while continuing in his passion as a journalist.
Then, in April 1975, civil war broke out. During this era, many newspapers turned into mouthpieces for the many and various militias and their foreign patrons; An-Nahar, however, managed to keep its independence and presented a balanced analysis of events. The editorial policy was vehemently anti-war in its message:
A vicarious war of impossible victories.
This stance was taken despite great risk to the safety of staff, several of whom, including the editor, Michel Abou-Jaoudé , were kidnapped by the many and various militias of the day. An-Nahar's perseverance helped reduce tensions somewhat by rising above sectarianism and providing a forum for discussion. Ghassan Tué ni is known as the 'Dean of the Press' in Lebanon.
In 1976, Syrian troops entered Lebanon on a peace-keeping mission and very soon were found occupying An-Nahar's offices2. Publication was initially suspended for 18 days then the paper relocated and took on a disguise; to avoid Syrian censorship in 1977, an Arabic weekly was published in Paris under the name of An-Nahar Arab and International (ANAI). At this time, the young Gebran Ghassan Tué ni was studying in France.
Gebran Ghassan Tué ni, the Son
There can be no democracy without press freedom.
In 1979, the publication returned from Paris and re-launched in West Beirut with Gebran Ghassan Tué ni as Editor-in-Chief. His staff was made up of hardened journalists, marked by war and dedicated to their work. Over years of war and counter war, the staff of An-Nahar were chased out of their premises by armed Palestinians (1981), bombarded by invading Israelis (1982) and shelled by local militias (1983). They had their archives destroyed (1984) and were once forced to shut down altogether at the tail end of hostilities (1990) with Gebran Ghassan Tué ni forced into exile in France for two years after which he returned to celebrate An-Nahar's 60th anniversary and once again re-launched the paper.
This time, in 1992, An-Nahar dramatically changed its make-up into a publicly-owned publishing group with a broad-based shareholding. The paper shifted operations to desktop publishing and weekly supplements were launched. These supplements were particularly poignant as all the news for twenty years had been saturated with war and death and destruction and despair.
Among other changes was the securing and publishing of the paper's archives. As the paper's site declares with pride:
In line with the best technological devices, An-Nahar, the memory of the Arab World, is now available on CD-ROMs.
Gebran Ghassan Tué ni – Political Commentary
Tué ni was a regular lecturer and guest on television and radio programmes, discussing political and humanitarian issues. He also produced and hosted his own television shows. He was an advisor to UNESCO and a member of Le Mondial de La Publicité Francophone.
Gebran Tué ni was not one to pass up an opportunity to rebut any action or word harmful either to his beloved country or his adopted cause (Freedom of the Press and Speech). His vocal and energetic rebuttals to what he saw as inequities and idiocies were received with delight by a population that had learned to be afraid to voice any opinion.
In 2003, Tué ni reacted publicly to Nasrallah's3 assertion that HizbAllah had not yet fulfilled its role as defender of Lebanon against foreign incursions and their envy of its water. Tué ni publicly demanded of the government: Who governs Lebanon? Who sets public and foreign policy? In translation:
Is it necessary for Lebanon to continue to provide the sharp end of the thrust of Arab efforts against Israel? Is no-one in our government able to see that these [HizbAllah] declarations again deny Lebanon the right to breathe and resolve the traumas of its long civil war? Must we continue to suffer these consequences because a solution conforming to 'HizbAllahite theories' eludes the Middle Eastern conflicts?
Tué ni, an intensely intelligent and humorous man, was General Secretary of the Lebanese Front from 1986-1989. He came from an Orthodox Christian family and held firm to the rights of Christians in Lebanon. At a public speech in Europe he stated (in translation):
The Arab world is suffering a crucial and dangerous cultural haemorrhage, demographically, politically and economically: the uninterrupted emigration of Arab Christians. This will have important repercussions for the Arab world and will not only modify the multi-confessional character of the region but also the foundations of its economic prosperity... The presence of the Christians prevents the society from descending into the violent fanaticism leading the region into catastrophe...
And then his bombshell:
'Mesdames, Messieurs, bonsoir,
Tué ni's Lebanese Youth
One of Gebran Tué ni's main goals within Lebanon was to bequeath to the youth a knowledge of their own power. The paper encouraged young Lebanese to get involved in their country's political life. To enable this, he established the youth supplement, Nahar Al Chabab, which organised Mahrajan Al Chabab, a Youth Festival in which over 25,000 young people gathered in May in downtown Beirut for a day-long celebration. The event was held in Martyr's Square among the ruins of the city centre.
This massive gathering of young people, the first of its kind, allowed for a mingling of Lebanese of all faiths just as the civil war had ended. During the day, a 'Hyde Park Speakers' Corner' style free speech area hosted numerous young speakers who were able for the first time to express publicly what they privately felt. They also engaged in debates with politicians who were in attendance.
Nahar Al Chabab (the Day of the Youth) is a supplement for many thousands of university, college and secondary school students, offering them a place to express their views and overcome the fear and apathy of the war years. A small section of the Nahar Al Chabab became so popular that it evolved into a supplement to the Nahar Al Chabab supplement. This 'Hyde Park' supplement is an uncensored, unedited forum for the youth to express views on whatever subject they choose. It is a unique platform from which an important segment of society can say what's on its mind without government censorship or editorial interference.
Another supplement planned by Tué ni before his death was Houkouk al-Nas or the Rights of the People:
This is a forum for the people in which they can submit legal cases which will be discussed by a panel of lawyers who will clarify their legal rights. With the massive backlog of cases in the courts and with the inability of many to afford a lawyer, Houkouk al-Nas will be the first place they turn to.
Gebran Tué ni - Global Activist
Gebran Tué ni was active worldwide in the movement for the freedom of the press. He was a lecturer as well as a journalist. An-Nahar continued leading the Arab world press in its efforts to confront government attempts to limit press freedom. In 1994, they hosted the First Pan Arab Conference: a two day affair with journalists sponsored by An-Nahar and FIEJ (International Federation of Newspaper Publishers) brought together European and American journalists with their Arab counterparts. On the final day of the conference, Mr Tué ni and An-Nahar were presented with the FIEJ award. This had been awarded only twice before: to Nelson Mandela and Vaclav Havel.
Gebran Ghassan Tué ni – Martyr to the Cause of Freedom and Liberty
In the months prior to his assassination, he was pushing publicly and loudly for international scrutiny into mass graves found near the Syrian headquarters in the Bekaa during their occupation. In his last editorial just four days before his death, Tué ni accused Syria of committing 'crimes against humanity' in Lebanon, trying to reclaim their hold on Lebanon.
He had been in France for an award ceremony where Mr Villepin honoured his father, Ghassan, for free press activities. He arrived in Lebanon on Sunday night, 11 December, 2005, in secret; he had admitted in a Paris interview earlier to having seen the hit list that named him for assassination and had promised to be more cautious. He was killed by means of a massive car bomb on the morning of Monday, 12 December in Mkalles, a Christian suburb of Beirut. Instantly church bells were ringing throughout the land, traffic was stopped by mourners jamming the streets and pavements as they converged across town to the Martyr's Square in Beirut. This is not only the address of An-Nahar HQ, but poignantly also the place of the Mahrajan Al Chabab of years earlier and the Freedom March earlier in 2005 in response to Hariri's assassination. It was the impetus and energy of these huge demonstrations and the vocal protests which forced the subsequent withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon.
God have mercy on Gebran and An-Nahar will remain the beacon for freedom.
Speaker of the House and Shia leader, Nabih Berri, described him as a voice that shouted in the wilderness of a nation against oppression.
French President Jacques Chirac, in a letter to Tué ni's widow, said the killing was 'a tragedy for Lebanon' and expressed his 'great pain' over the assassination and continued: Tué ni symbolized 'Lebanon's combat for democracy, independence and freedom,' Chirac wrote. 'Lebanon is not alone; its friends are mobilized and the international community knows its responsibilities.' Tué ni's death 'is the opportunity to redouble the efforts so that the Security Council resolutions are fully put to work'.
The U.S. embassy condemned 'in the strongest terms the barbaric attack ...With this heinous act, the forces of oppression and tyranny have taken from the Lebanese people one of their greatest champions for liberty and freedom and have killed a courageous advocate of Lebanese independence and sovereignty'.
The European Union condemned the cowardly killing, calling it a crude act of political violence. EU Ambassador Patrick Renauld called for the establishment of an international court to 'try the criminals ... and protect Lebanon'.
Jack Straw said, 'The EU is deeply concerned at this latest in a series of attacks against supporters of Lebanese democracy... Those who seek to destabilise Lebanon and the region through such cowardly attacks will not succeed. I reaffirm the importance of bringing the perpetrators of this and all the preceding attacks to justice.'
The Immediate Repercussions
Ghassan Tué ni, a frail 80-year-old, returned from Paris on the day of his only surviving son's murder and walked into the An-Nahar headquarters with these words:
No tears, Gebran is not dead because we shall continue his work.
The Lebanese Parliament subsequently passed an unprecedented overruling of its pro-Syrian president and called for an international court to preside over the investigation into the attempted and successful murders of several opposition leaders and patriots targeted in the last two years, including Prime Minister Hariri and Gebran Tué ni.
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