Media Management and the Lebanese Judiciary: Legal Pride or Political Prejudice?

2014-03-31    |   

In 2013, the Media Office of Lebanon’s Supreme Judicial Council (SJC) was set up. Statements made in anticipation of the office’s creation indicated that the move reflects a change in the judiciary’s approach in line with the principle of transparency, and the citizens’ right to know. The judiciary was initially opposed to media coverage and commentary relating to judicial matters, citing its inability to defend itself when needed given its abstention from commenting in public.[1]  Under the new arrangement, the judiciary would accept the principle of freedom of the press, while entrusting the Media Office with the task of speaking on behalf of the judiciary.


Yet, as its earliest released statements show, the office’s approach and its methods betray a tendency to revert to much of the same old attitude. The office often ends questioning regarding the legitimacy of discussing judicial affairs in public, rather than clarifying possible errors and misunderstandings.[2]


From Obligation of Discretion to Transparency: Reasons for Setting up the Media Office


The idea of setting up a media office was first mentioned during an extensive media and judiciary meeting on July 19, 2012, which was held at the Supreme Judicial Council Headquarters. The council was headed at the time by Acting President Said Mirza. The meeting was being held in light of media claims of [judicial] interference in the case of the killing of two Sunni clerics on May 20, 2012 at an army checkpoint.


Former Justice Minister Chakib Kortbawi justified the council’s decision to set up its own Media Office by invoking the desire to bring together the media (the “fourth estate”) and the judiciary in the pursuit of objectivity and justice. He also spoke of the desire to forge a sound relationship with citizens, in which “neither does the media distance itself from the judiciary, nor the judiciary from the people”.[3]


The main reason for setting up the Media Office was therefore to furnish media outlets with a specialized body that could steer their course of action, if they so wish, and correct it when necessary.


Indeed, the Ministry reasoned that if the media cannot be excluded from the work of the judiciary, then the judiciary -in its attempt to improve its performance- must be given the right to respond and clarify its position. In other words, the Media Office would supply a media that stands for the principle of freedom and is equipped with the necessary legal expertise, accuracy and objectivity.

In the same vein, SJC President Jean Fahed said the council’s decision to set up this office was driven by the principle of transparency. He stated that “the rule of law requires transparency and grants citizens the opportunity to learn about the work of the judiciary, and be informed of the validity of news reaching media outlets from other sources”.

He further adds that, “News coverage of judicial issues is a legitimate right. Yet it also requires protecting the privacy of citizens, obtaining credible information, emphasizing its legal and objective aspects, and presenting it to the public objectively. This office aims to help the media convey the true image of judicial activity and determine the validity of news obtained from non-official sources”.[4]


Journalist Claudette Sarkis makes the same assertions in an article published in al-Nahar on August 28, 2013. The article was published around the same time the Media Office was being set up and in its early activity. Without identifying her source, Sarkis states that the main reason for creating the office is to respond to errors and fallacies about the judiciary published in the media:


“Slighting the judiciary by way of statements in the media or fallacious publications and accusations have most often been met with silence by this institution…yet staying silent under the precarious circumstances the country has undergone and continues to go through, was perhaps seen by this institution as a source of threat to itself, and to the Bar Association it is organically linked to. The goal of creating the Media Office is thus to inform public opinion of the work of the judiciary through the Supreme Judicial Council, and also to respond to what it considers to be incorrect”.


When Authority Takes Precedence Over Reason

Were the Media Office’s statements and activities aimed at creating an objective dialogue [with the press] to clarify the issues being publicly discussed, and support these clarifications with legal or judicial aspects unknown to the public? On the contrary, did the office resort to meeting suspicion with suspicion and accusations with accusations, rendering the office another platform for issuing predetermined points of view? Based on a close examination of the office’s record, most of the office’s statements, unfortunately, served the second function by deferring to the considerations of authority. Four trends discerned in these statements bore out this conclusion.


The first trend is that of generalizing when dealing with the media, by pointing to “certain media outlets” and placing them all in the same basket. This was the case in the statements issued on January 27, 29 and 31, 2014 concerning judicial appointments, as well as the case of domestic violence victim Rola Yaacoub. Such a trend allows the Media Office to fill its comments with generalizations and insinuations, without responding to the issues raised or explaining which mistakes were made by the media.


The second trend is that of excessively resorting to arguments of authority (you must accept what I say because I say it), giving such arguments precedence over logical ones. Such a trend is in complete contradiction with the Media Office’s mandate.


In most cases, the office presumes the ill intent of media outlets that criticize its work. It thus views any criticism as an attempt to frustrate its determination to engage in reform, tear it down and sow discord within the office and among judges. At the same time, it elevates the SJC (and especially its president) to the rank of those performing their duty in the best way possible.


In a statement dated September 11, 2013, the office asserts that there is no truth to the news of disagreements among some members of the SJC that nearly evolved into a scuffle. The statement also denied that the failure of all lawyers competing to qualify to become judges was due to disagreements between the justice minister and the president of the council. Finally, it considered that carelessly publicizing such false and unverified news raises strong suspicions of attempts to tarnish the image of the judiciary. Such attempts, it added, were meant to veer the judiciary off the straight path it strives to adhere to, amid the difficult times faced by the judiciary itself and the country at large.  


Perhaps the harshest of such statements were those responding to media criticisms of the president of the SJC. One example is the statement issued on January 29, 2014 regarding the council’s ratification of judicial rotations.


After clarifying some of the issues raised in the media in very ambiguous terms, the statement asserts that the SJC performed its duty in the best possible way. It adds that “fabrications and attempts to sow confusion will be of no use. They will in no way dissuade the council from doing what is necessary to raise the work of the judiciary to the standard this country deserves, one that does justice to Lebanon’s judges, whom the world takes pride in [my italics]”.


Statements objecting to the media’s questioning of the judiciary’s work conveyed a similar disposition albeit in a softer tone. Such statements include the one issued by the SJC in the same week (on January 27 and 31) defending the judges’ concerns with the media. These statements use expressions such as “unacceptable” and “impermissible”, which suggest a high degree of authoritativeness.


The third trend is that of abusing its position and claiming expertise in order to validate specific legal or judicial stances, some of which contradict or even undermine deep-seated legal principles. This can be seen in the Media Office’s response to an article published in the al-Akhbar newspaper. The article raises objections to the fact that several individuals, including one of the newspaper’s journalists, were prevented from attending a particular court session. In its response, the Media Office seems to sacrifice the principle of public trial itself, stating that “there are limits to its public nature”. It also neglects to clarify the nature of such limits, and whether they apply to the case in question.[5]


Such a trend also appears in the Media Office’s response to media criticism of the SJC president’s visits to politicians while preparing for upcoming judicial appointments. Indeed, the statement represents a fallacious interpretation of the principle of separation of powers and the independence of the judiciary:


The Media Office legitimizes visits by the SJC president to political leaders to discuss judicial appointments, without any concern for the suspicion such visits could raise given the widespread interference of politicians in appointments.

It recognizes the right of top-level signatories of judicial appointments decree to refuse to ratify it, if they so wish. Such a right contradicts interpretations that render such a ratification a mere formality that these signatories are obliged to perform.

Finally, the Media Office points to the existence of norms that govern discussions between the SJC and political leaders without specifying what those norms are. This increases the likelihood of politicians interfering with the work of the judiciary by portraying such interference as commonplace. The council thus neither confirms nor denies allegations of discussions held with politicians, but merely justifies everything on the basis that there is no cause for suspicion. Indeed, one should assume that the SJC president is above all suspicion, because he “obviously” is.


The same applies to statements by the Media Office dealing with facts on the ground. Here too, the statements of the Media Office seem open to criticism. These statements appear to aim at steering public opinion towards accepting a certain “truth”, even if it does not correspond with reality. A prime example of this concerns the case of Rola Yaacoub, in which the media was urged to read and publish the text of the indictment. If it had failed to do so, then the Media Office itself would have published the text.


Of course, such insistence on referring to the text of the indictment raises pertinent questions. If the council did not yet examine the case in its entirety, then its stance is tantamount to baseless prejudice. If it did in fact examine the case, then it’s reference to the indictment is a deliberate attempt to restrict the focus of public opinion to evidence of innocence mentioned by the judge, irrespective of how weak it might be, and away from all the evidence he excluded, however strong that evidence may be. In either case, it is perfectly legitimate to raise questions about the Media Office’s own objectivity and commitment to the level of accuracy and professionalism it demands of the media.


What is most dangerous about the Media Office’s zealous approach is perhaps the fact that it places the Indictment Division looking into the appeal against this indictment in a difficult position. Indeed, the division would now appear to stand in opposition to the SJC if the former decides to invalidate the indictment and broaden the investigation, as the media demands. Seen in this context, it would be no exaggeration to say that the two statements issued by the Media Office come very close to exerting pressure and “sowing confusion”. In other words, they interfere with the work of the judiciary – something the council all too readily accuses the media of.


The work done by the Media Office thus has more serious consequences than meets the eye. Not only did it fail in many cases to rectify the media’s interpretation of the law or the manner in which facts are presented. Rather, it imposed alternative interpretations that contradict both the law and the facts, and in some cases undermine fundamental principles or potentially interfere with the work of the judiciary.


The fourth and most dangerous trend is that of denying the media’s right to address cases that are still being examined by the courts, in a return to previously prevalent discourse. This can clearly be seen in the statement issued on January 31, 2014 in relation to the case of Rola Yaacoub. In this statement, the SJC seems to have lost its patience with the media’s continued criticism of the indictment. It thus adopts a harsher and more emotional tone. It opposes the handling of the indictment “outside the framework of the legally consecrated review process at a time when the decision remains subject to review”. It also rejects the use of the media as “a means of pressure to confound the sound course of judicial action”.


The Media Office thus appears to have abandoned its function of clarifying news in the media. It approves of the principle of transparency, only to simultaneously demand the silencing of the media. It is as if the office is implying that there is no use for it to clarify a particular media claim or another (these are all insignificant matters). It rather rejects the very principle of addressing judicial issues in the media (a type of interference it deems is of grave consequences).


One should note that close examination of the details of this particular case blatantly reveals the importance of the media’s role in monitoring the work of the judiciary. It is worth remembering that, as stated in the indictment, the court itself sought the opinion of the country’s two syndicates of physicians “on account of the issues raised in the media, which shed doubt on the credibility and soundness of the medical reports prepared by the four coroners”. The results reached in the reports presented by both syndicates clearly show the extent of the mistakes committed by the four coroners. They show that deferring the request of the deceased’s family for an autopsy was also a mistake. These are mistakes the media had hinted at, and they may well have made it effectively impossible to determine the cause of death.[6]


The contrast between the Media Office’s responses to the media and its responses to actions committed by certain political or military parties subjects the office to further criticism.


Consider the office’s comments issued on October 3, 2013, in response to the attack against Judge Bilal Badr by soldiers at a Lebanese Army checkpoint in Beirut’s southern suburb of Msharafieh three days prior. In this case, the Media Office seemingly chose its words with utmost diplomacy to avoid offending the army’s leadership. It thus expressed “the strongest reservations”, refusing to use the term “condemn” or show solidarity with the assaulted judge. It then rushes to call for “keeping the incident within its limited context”, and asserts that there is “no need to add anything”. The statement further adds that “the verdict alone shows the truth of what happened and sets all matters in their proper place”. The office even goes beyond this to clear the name of the military institution and deem it above any responsibility in this regard. The office claims that the acts in question “do not represent a systematic policy of the institution to which those who have engaged in such practices belong”.


Another example is the Media Office’s statement regarding judicial appointments. In contrast to its outrage at the media’s insinuation that the president of the SJC might make mistakes, the statement is devoid of any terms attacking or criticizing any government bodies or political forces. It was these bodies and forces that eventually obstructed the appointments decree drafted by the council. The Media Office, however, sought to interpret the texts in such a way as to give these parties the right to do so. It is as if the office’s primary concern is to preserve the appearance of an independent judiciary, rather than preserving the judiciary’s actual independence from interference, that latter being in actual threat by those with influence.


A number of press releases issued by the Media Office largely focused on the activity of the president of the SJC, Jean Fahed. One such press release, dated September 27, 2013 speaks of Fahed heading the Lebanese delegation at the Conference of Heads of Arab Supreme Courts. It then mentions a series of meetings held by Fahed, among them one with the president of Qatar’s Supreme Judiciary Council, and another with the Attorney General of the Qatari Court of Cassation. Another press release, dated November 11, 2013 reports in detail the statements made by Fahed during his visit to the Baabda Palace of Justice. Centered around its president, such press releases represent a worrying indication that the SJC may soon turn to issuing purely ceremonial statements.


This article is an edited translation from Arabic.





[1] See: Nizar Saghieh’s “Holding the Judiciary Accountable: Steps With No Tomorrow”, The Legal Agenda, Issue No. 9, dated July 2013.

[2] Al-Liwaa newspaper, dated July 20, 2012.

[3] Interview with al-Nahar newspaper on September 13, 2013.

[4] See the letter to the editor published in al-Akhbar on November 13, 2013.

[5] See: Nizar Saghieh’s “Roula Yaacoub, Two Issues in One: Confronting Domestic Violence and the Media’s Right to Question the Judiciary”, published on The Legal Agenda website on February 10, 2014.
[6] Idem.

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