Another journalist was censored in Lebanon yesterday. Gibran Tueni, a prominent Lebanese writer and newly elected member of Parliament, was killed Monday by a powerful car bomb just outside Beirut. Mr. Tueni was one of Lebanon’s most outspoken opponents of Syria’s Machiavellian interference in Lebanese politics. And as George Bernard Shaw was quoted as saying, “Assassination is the extreme form of censorship.” Indeed, Mr. Tueni was censored.
Once again all fingers point at Syria. Mr. Tueni used his newspaper and his seat in Parliament, to which he was elected last May, to voice his criticism of Syria’s continuing role in trying to dominate Lebanon’s political life. Even after immense international pressure, mainly from the United States and France, forced Syria to pull its troops out of Lebanon or face severe sanctions, many believe Syria’s deeply ingrained intelligence services in Lebanon remained active there.
Syria’s President Bashar Assad admitted as much in a speech to the Syrian National Assembly, saying Syria’s military pullout from Lebanon does not mean the end of its involvement there.
As recently as Sunday, in an interview to Russian television, Mr. Assad cautioned the international community sanctioning Syria would destabilize the region and the world.
“The Middle East is the heart of the world, and Syria is the heart of the Middle East,” Mr. Assad said. “If the situation in Syria and Iraq isn’t good, the whole region will become unstable, and the entire world will pay for that.”
Mr. Tueni suggested some time ago in a letter to the Syrian president that relations between the two countries should be reviewed and changed. That was not well received in Damascus.
Syria, for example, has never agreed to establish an embassy in Lebanon under the pretext the two countries are far too close to merit ambassadorial exchanges.
“Today’s killing of Tueni has revived fears of Syria’s lingering control over Lebanon,” Nick Blanford wrote from Beirut in the London Times. The assassination, on the eve of the expected release of a second U.N. report into the Hariri killing sends a chilling — and not very discreet — message to any in Lebanon who dare stand in Syria’s way.
Syria has categorically denied these accusations, saying it is just too obvious. As Imad Mustapha, Syria’s ambassador to Washington keeps saying, “We are not that stupid.” But well-informed sources in Lebanon have long argued there is a Syrian hit list of noted critics of the Damascus regime. This list is believed to include politicians, journalists and even high-ranking members of the Christian clergy.
Mr. Tueni’s uncle, Marwan Hamade, a former minister in the Hariri Cabinet, narrowly escaped the same fate some months back. He owes his life to a sudden decision to switch seats with a bodyguard. He suffered some injuries but the bodyguard died.
Like several other prominent anti-Syrian Lebanese parliamentarians who received death threats, Mr. Tueni chose self-exile in Paris shortly after winning his seat in the May parliamentary elections.
Saad Hariri, son of the slain Lebanese politician who also was elected to Parliament last May, told United Press International from the safety of a Dubai residence only a few days ago that he, too, received many death threats. The younger Mr. Hariri has lived in various Arab countries in the Persian Gulf the last six months. He had planned to return to Beirut “soon.”
Similarly, Mr. Tueni chose to spend part of his time in France. Sources in Beirut say he returned home Sunday. He was driving to his office in downtown Beirut Monday morning when the massive explosion killed him, his two bodyguards and his driver.
Mr. Tueni was the publisher of Lebanon’s leading newspaper, an-Nahar, the father of four girls, and a courageous patriot who wanted to see his country freed from outside political interference. Repeated threats on his life did little to deter him. He also was my friend, someone I have known since he was about 13, when he first became interested in journalism.
The criminals who ordered Mr. Tueni’s murder are most likely the same who signed off on the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who ordered the death of journalist Samir Kassir, (who also worked for an-Nahar), and targeted several other journalists and politicians who happened to get in Syria’s way.
Coincidence? Who knows, but as intelligence professionals often say, in this business there are no coincidences. And the trend is not likely to abate.
Special investigator Detlev Mehlis’ coming report states: “given the extent to which the Syrian and Lebanese intelligence and security services infiltrated daily Lebanese life, and specifically the manner in which they monitored Mr. Hariri’s movements, there was little probability that a third party could have undertaken the necessary surveillance of Mr. Hariri and maintained the resources, logistics and capacity needed to initiate, plan and commit a crime of this magnitude, without the prior knowledge of the Lebanese security services and their Syrian counterparts.”
Shibli Mallat, a law professor and a senior fellow at the Orville Schell Center for International Human Rights at Yale Law School, said: “Lebanon remains open to the pattern of political assassinations continuing and possibly getting worse.” Mr. Mallat is running for the presidency of Lebanon.
Claude Salhani is international editor for United Press International.