Editor’s Note: In a several-part series, The Legal Agenda examines the testy relationship that has developed between the judiciary and the media in Lebanon. In this part, we publish an interview with former state prosecutor Hatem Madi conducted at the end of December 2012 The Legal Agenda has decided to publish it, in view of its importance for understanding the judiciary's strategy toward media coverage of judicial matters.
For more on judicial strategies towards the media, see:
-Media Management and the Lebanese Judiciary: Legal Pride or Political Prejudice?
-The Media and the Judiciary: Prestige and Preventive Detention
On December 20, 2012, Judge Hatem Madi, state prosecutor of the Court of Cassation, held a meeting in his office at Beirut’s Courthouse with representatives of television channels. The meeting was also attended by National Media Council Chairman Abdul-Hadi Mahfouz, Press Syndicate Head Mohamed Al-Baalbeki, Editors' Syndicate Head Elias Aoun and the directors of news in the television channels.
The Legal Agenda asked Madi about the background to his decision to call the meeting and the practical arrangements associated with it. “Our relationship with the media had gone through a tense phase because of certain [television] programs, criticisms and objections”, he said. “So I wanted us to take the initiative to put an end to this abnormal state of affairs, and to tell the press that we are not rivals, but rather, that we complement each other.” Madi further stated that “it sometimes happens”, and “that the media, and especially television stations, cover particular cases that are pending in the courts, and effectively hold, through such coverage, their own ‘trials’. They may also discuss a particular judge”.
Madi described the meeting with the media as a reconciliation and said a code of honorable conduct (mithaq sharaf) was agreed to that would not restrict press freedom, or the activities of the judiciary. He added that there was no conflict between the judiciary and the media, and the aim of the code was to avert any conflict in the future.
“Freedom of the press is sacred, not only to us but also by law, but we do not want the media to exercise this freedom arbitrarily, and/or push it to the point where it conflicts with the freedom of others,” Madi explained. “Those who participated in the meeting agreed to that.”
Madi said his message to the media representatives who attended the meeting and to those he planned to meet at a later one (in the first week of 2013) was: “Ask me anything you want about the judiciary and I will tell you on record, not as a ‘judicial source’”. He also called on the media to highlight the positive achievements of the judiciary, such as the reduction in the number and duration of detentions, and limiting them to necessary and justified cases. Madi added that progress has been made in relation to regular inspection visits by prosecutors to interrogation centers. He also added that starting the following year, “every branch of the prosecution service, including my own office, will be provided with a box in which anyone can put their complaints, protests and observations, because the justice system has nothing against ordinary people or the media”.
Asked if he personally would answer to media inquiries, Madi said he might do so or he might delegate one of his fellow judges to reply. “It matters to me that the media should know their limits,” he added. He said he wanted to solve the problems that judges might personally have with the media. “If anyone has a problem with a judge, they should come to me and I will solve it for them. If we do not hold the judge accountable in accordance with existing judicial procedure, then they are more than welcome to include me in their campaign against the judge.”
Asked if resorting to him to complain about a judge would mean that the judiciary could not the object of criticism in the media, Madi said the judiciary was accountable under the law and through the established procedures within the judiciary, and not through the media. “There is the Judicial Inspection Committee and the Supreme Judicial Council, and we are accountable,” he said.
“We won't allow anyone to take us lightly. We can enforce respect when we want to. We are on friendly terms with the media and we wish to remain so,” he added.
Madi denied his initiative was linked to criticism by the media of Judge Alice Chabtini’s verdicts in cases pertaining to collaborators with Israel. The meeting with the media, he said, was arranged prior to that development. Moreover, he pointed out, any court is free to act and take its own decisions and [Chabtini’s] ruling was made in an official and legal manner.
Madi equally denied any connection between his engagement with the media and then-Justice Minister Shakib Qortbawi’s plan for a decree setting up a media office for the Supreme Judicial Council.
Asked what effect his initiative would have on freedom of expression for judges and on their interaction with the media, Madi said, “in principle, judges are not allowed to make statements and the only person with authority to speak is me. Judges who want to speak to the media must obtain persuasion from the Judicial Inspection Committee”. Comparing the status of judges in Egypt and in Lebanon with respect to making public statements and exercising their freedom of expression, Madi said, “Egypt has a system that is different from the one we have. If we wanted to be like Egypt we would have to change [our] laws governing the judiciary”.
For his part, the head of Lebanon’s Editors Syndicate, Elias Aoun, who attended the meeting, said that Madi restricted the discussion to matters relevant to the judiciary. “He did not put pressure on the media”, Aoun explained. “On the contrary, he took us by surprise with his approach. He was very soft-spoken.”
Aoun noted that there had been respective complaints by the judiciary and the media against each other. During the meeting, Aoun told The Legal Agenda that Madi pointed out that both bodies had made mistakes, and at times, both went out of control. Aoun further said that Madi asked the judiciary to be lenient in its handling of cases brought against journalists and publications. He also called for the Court of Cassation not to simply endorse rulings [on the matter] made by lower courts.
On the question of how journalists should be treated when summoned for questioning raised by Aoun during the meeting, the latter said that “we emphasized that [journalists] should not be interrogated in police stations or security premises, but in the presence of an investigating magistrate or in the publications court”. According to Aoun, Madi was persuaded and gave instructions to all judicial and criminal units not to serve a summons to anyone, especially journalists, on Saturdays or Sundays, unless it was a criminal case.
Aoun said he did not bring up with Madi the question of an amnesty for sentences against journalists and publications. He said that he and Press Syndicate Head Mohamed Al-Baalbeki had discussed the question of an amnesty with Justice Minister Shakib Qortbawi, who then consulted the president of the republic and reported back that the president had no objection. Aoun said that when he checked with Qortbawi, he was told that Qortbawi was preparing a decree for submission to the Council of Ministers.
This article is an edited translation from Arabic.