During the last twenty years, it may seem that judicial affairs have enjoyed remarkable attention in Lebanon. In fact, newspapers and television programs have devoted their pages and segments towards covering numerous issues, such as the trials of Samir Geagea (1994-1999), the closure of the television station MTV (September 2002), and the judicial appointments crisis which took about four years to resolve (2005-2009). However, upon close examination, it quickly becomes apparent that this media coverage has focused on the political side of these issues and has usually ignored the legal and social dimensions, particularly the core issues of strengthening the judiciary, protecting its independence, and enhancing the effectiveness of the work of the judicial institution.
Today, media coverage of judicial affairs is declining significantly and being replaced by more coverage of political and security issues. This decline has reflected directly on newspapers, as most judicial pages have been abolished or merged into other sections. Meanwhile, the judiciary is cautious when interacting with the media. This caution reinforces the media’s tendency to follow judicial matters in a perfunctory manner restricted, for example, “to covering the activities of the Supreme Judicial Council by adopting itinerary-type coverage (who met whom)”, as one journalist described to us. Facing this state of affairs, The Legal Agenda decided to address, in this article, the relationship between the judiciary and the media by shedding light on some of the problems therein, and opening up discussions to find solutions that help develop this relationship. The author will firstly diagnose the state of press coverage of legal matters (the legal press) in order to discuss its role and, finally, present some of the programs for developing communication between the media and the judiciary that have been incorporated into France’s educational curricula. Journalists interviewed did not wish to be identified.
The Reality of the Legal Press: What Priority is Given to the Judiciary and its Problems?
“The legal media (in Lebanon) is nonexistent. The idea of legal media is inchoate because the media, society, and institutions do not see the judiciary as an independent institution that warrants following”, expressed one journalist in an interview with The Legal Agenda. In fact, the space allocated to the legal press has in recent years contracted remarkably. A brief survey of Lebanon’s main newspapers reveals that only al-Mustqbal newspaper has retained a page for covering judicial affairs (“Police Stations and Courts”), although one of the journalists interviewed referred to this paper’s coverage of judicial issues as “perfunctory”. On the other hand, Annahar dispensed of its page for legal issues, and al-Akhbar merged its “Justice” section with its “Society” section. The space allocated to covering a judicial issue today varies according to the political significance of the event in question. “[Judicial] news occupies the first page if it relates to those political issues. If not, it is published on some other page in no more than 700 words”, disclosed another journalist.
Journalists and media activists we interviewed agreed that behind this state of affairs lie a number of causes. The first is the difficulties faced by journalists working within the courts. “The justice system is a closed-off place and obtaining information is difficult”, one of the journalists explained. Although the Media Office of the Supreme Judicial Council was established in 2013 to institutionalize the judiciary’s interaction with the media, it quickly provoked some criticisms and reservations because its statements focused more on casting doubt over the legitimacy of discussing judicial affairs rather than on clarifying media misrepresentations.
The second cause is the judicial institution’s policy on the media. The judiciary is usually cautious towards the media. Because the judiciary has fiercely confronted the media several times in the past, it does not actively seek to develop its means of communication with the media. One of the journalists described this policy as one of “intimidation” under which the publications court’s sword is drawn against journalists who try to address issues of corruption, or the lack of independence within the judicial institution.
The third cause is the discretionary manner in which the media often deals with judicial affairs. Despite the positive and effective role that the media plays in such issues, its interest in them remains tied to people’s prior engagement with them. Hence, rarely do we see innovative journalistic investigations that aim to monitor judicial work and expose positives or deficiencies within the judicial institution, and thereby create public discussion instead of echoing it. “In the view of newspaper publishers and television station owners, these topics do not capture the public’s interest”, according to one of the journalists.
Another key factor contributes significantly to the decline in interest in the judiciary: the absence of a press specialized in judicial affairs. Most journalists in the printed press come from media and political science academic backgrounds. Few chose to study law after entering the media, and some were forced to become acquainted with fundamental judicial issues in order to keep up with their work. As a result, the media, especially the visual kind, is prone to making grave errors because, in particular, media personnel “are not sufficiently acquainted with legal issues and terminology”, which prevents them from maintaining the necessary critical distance from what their judicial sources tell them. “The television correspondent only goes to the justice system when the case is important” or, in other words, political.
In light of this, journalists’ background knowledge is the most important factor enabling them to perform their occupational duty. However, most of the journalists initially took on the job [of judicial reporting] because a paper needed a correspondent to cover the justice system, not because of any previous specialization or interest. Some did not hesitate to accept the job, and some have found it tiring and have repeatedly sought to withdraw from it: “I didn’t choose to join the judicial affairs section in the newspaper. They only needed a correspondent in this section when I started, and I stayed there. It is very difficult for me to change now. Transferring to another section will cost me two years of acclimatization and building new knowledge that enables me to pursue my work broadly and precisely”, said one journalist.
When asked about the desire to leave the section, one of the journalists attributed it to the effort that working in the justice system requires: “I felt like I was entering a labyrinth. Where would I get information? How could I verify it? When I entered the field, I discovered that the situation isn’t much different from what I had imagined. The judiciary, to me, is like the social security system. I really dread these two institutions”. Another journalist left the section because of his “bitter experience with the judiciary”. He described every time he entered the justice system as being like “a slab falling on my chest. What I write now is nicer and more relaxing”. His colleague corroborated this when he explained that few journalists “persevere within the justice system. Many have come and gone. They couldn’t bear it”.
What is the Role of the Legal Press?
In addition to the difficulty of working inside the courthouses, experiences have proven the process of specifying and regulating the parameters of the relationship between the press and the media faces many difficulties. If these two institutions want to cooperate, then these difficulties must be broken down. This is especially true because, in the view of one journalist we interviewed, “the judge sees the journalist as a scarecrow and a policeman. I am the policeman standing in the way of the judge who represents the government”. Why, then, does all of this caution and fear exist between the judiciary and the media?
A number of the media personnel that we met admitted that the press commits several errors in its work, the most prominent being:
Publishing information that damages an individual’s reputation and violates the presumption of innocence. “You cannot publish all the information that you obtain. You must put a limit on the way that you handle the story.”
Striving to thrill and excite at the expense of maintaining accuracy in some cases. “The visual [media] is more inclined towards scandals than towards the intellectual side. This is usually because the visual media seeks to excite.”
Journalists also believe that the judiciary only wants to focus on the positives inside the judicial institution. “They ask the media to only illuminate the positives in the judiciary’s work.” Moreover, a number of factors prevent journalists from accomplishing their work, including:
The duty of reservation. Some senior judges believe that this duty prevents them, along with all the other judges, from expressing any opinion on any topic, even a legal one. This forces journalists to seek information from other sources;
The modus operandi of the Supreme Judicial Council’s Media Office. “The Media Office issues trivial responses that possess no legal dimension and, furthermore, is miscommunicated. At the same time they ask, why does the media fight us? They accuse the media of organizing a campaign against the judiciary. No, you don’t know how to communicate with the media”, said one of the journalists;
The desire of judges, especially the older ones, to “maintain the status quo and prevent any attempt to develop or improve communication between these two institutions”, according to a journalist we interviewed. He went on to say that “the situation among younger judges is totally different. They are eager, ardent, motivated, and they want change. They are trying to introduce sophisticated work methods”; and
The fact that the judiciary does not realize its own need to cooperate with the media. “These judges seem to have chosen to live on an island, far from the world, even though their principal work is related to the citizens and the media”, according to one of the journalists.
Subsequently, the relationship between these two institutions today is afflicted by many deficiencies that prevent them from working together. Yet, domestic and international experiences have proven that cooperation serves public interest, especially by helping to ensure the judiciary’s transparency and independence. In Lebanon, the case of Roula Yaacoub proves the importance of the role of the media, which picked up the case and was able to turn it into a public issue. In France, judges have, in a personal capacity, resorted to the media to shift public opinion towards their cause. In 1991, investigative Judge Thierry Jean-Pierre took the Urba case to the media. He stated that his goal in taking this step was to ensure the independence of judges and to prevent any political interference in a court case. “We turned to the media to overcome these obstacles, and we were able to realize our demands. We obtained judicial independence and we applied the necessary reforms.” Another example is the case of corruption within the Olympique de Marseille football club. Éric de Montgolfier, the public prosecutor charged with the case, chose to resort to the media despite the restrictions imposed on judges’ freedom of expression. He explained that he took this action “in the name of the law, in the name of the public’s right to know information, in the name of transparency, and, finally, because of a desire for the judicial body to open up to the press. We must not remain in our ivory tower. We must not remain isolated from the world and reality”.
Given these incidents, it is clear that the media can act as a fortress protecting judges against political pressures and interference from the top of the judicial hierarchy. In fact, once the media takes hold of a case, the opportunity for political interference diminishes. This is because any dubious decision potentially resulting from pressure or interference becomes a focus of public monitoring and inquiry, which breaks the judge’s isolation before the interfering authorities. By adopting the media as an ally, the judiciary also increases opportunities to ensure its autonomy in the face of political interference and strengthen the transparency of its work. It thereby allows the public to monitor its work and judge on the basis of it, although confidentiality must of course be maintained in some proceedings and investigations.
The aforementioned interference may take the form of direct pressure on a judge, or the top of the hierarchy of judicial authority may be used to change the course of a case’s proceedings. In the case of direct pressure, leaking information and shedding light on the case proceedings helps prevent the [interfering] politician from acting at will. Consequently, pressure on the interferer, who is being watched by the public, increases, and the judge finds themselves in a better position to act appropriately. Regarding interference from judicial authorities, in some cases influential persons can call upon a judge at the top of the judicial hierarchy to transfer a case from one judge to another judge who may be closer to the executive branch. Media attention might lead to the abortion of such attempts.
In addition to these functions, journalists also monitor the work of judges, especially chief judges, in relation to how they practice their powers. In this regard, journalists can inform the public about judicial rulings with important social consequences and shed light on legal points that are usually obscure for the readers. In reality, the “added value” of journalistic work is in breaking down judicial and political decisions that possess a legal dimension, and presenting them to readers in a clear and interesting manner. In this regard, one of the journalists stressed to us that “the important thing is not that we fill the pages, nor is it that we write. It is that we shed light on a new legal point or remarkable piece of jurisprudence. The important thing is also that we follow the case to its conclusions: the public wants to know its outcomes”.
Attempts to Develop the Relationship Between the Judiciary and the Media: the French Example
The French judiciary has also faced these obstacles and problems. In the past, French judges did not receive any instruction in techniques of communicating with the media during their training in the French National School for the Judiciary. With regards to the media, there have been a number of attempts to enhance the modus operandi of legal correspondents, particularly because, like their counterparts in Lebanon, they do not necessarily attend lectures in law or legal media during their study. The situation changed after the French judiciary conducted a critical reading on its method of engaging with the media. This change stemmed, firstly, from the increase in the number and importance of judges’ unions, which use the media in their struggle against interference in judicial work from political authorities, and, secondly, the appearance of new patterns governing the relationship between judges and the press.
The Union Syndicale des Magistrats established an office for communicating with the media. This office’s doors remain open all week and it works day and night to supply journalists with the information that they need, as well as to inform them of the progress of the judiciary’s work. The office also communicates with the visual media to organize television programs to interview judges and encourages judges to publish opinion articles about judicial affairs in local newspapers and magazines. To this end, some French faculties have begun organizing training programs whose goal is to lay the foundations for a dialogue that brings the judiciary, the legal profession, and the media together and to determine the code of conduct between them. This may help limit the potential for conflicts between these sides, conflicts that politicians can exploit to impose their control over the judiciary.
On this basis, training in communication techniques has been incorporated into the study program that judges undertake via the National School for the Judiciary. This training is conducted in two stages: the first gathers all the judges in conferences and discussions with representatives of the major media outlets, whereas the second assembles a small group of volunteers concerned with the relationship between these two bodies in an activity titled “Activité d’Information et de Recherche” (AIR). Furthermore, all chief judges, before assuming their position or during the initial stage of their work, undergo training courses on the relationship between the judiciary and the media organized by the National School for the Judiciary, as well as an introductory course on communication techniques.
The situation in Lebanon is, of course, completely different. The Institute of Judicial Studies has, to the best of our knowledge, not yet incorporated into its program any course that discusses the problematics of the relationship between the media and the judiciary, and transcends the traditional warning about the dangers of appearing in the media. This gives the impression that “most judges understand nothing about the nature of the media’s work”, as one of the journalists commented. On their part, the media faculties in domestic universities do not offer students any classes on this subject.
The role of legal correspondents is not just exposing information or relating the details of a case or its trial proceedings to the public. Fundamentally, their job is also to expose the problems in the judicial system and to shed light on key issues related to the judiciary’s independence and its protection of rights and freedoms. They are also, by virtue of their work, entrusted with linking the judicial institution to the citizens. For its part, the judiciary, as the institution ruling “in the name of the people”, should converse with the public (its various organizations, media, associations, and universities) with the highest degree of transparency. Public opinion is virtually the only ally judges have when confronting a political authority that all too easily interferes in the work of the judiciary and the public prosecutors, as well as in judicial appointments. As one French judge said in 1972 while overseeing a case, “the traditional judiciary, which is obscure and secretive, must make way for the judiciary that does not fear working in public, that as much as possible explains the reasons for [its] decisions, and that, most importantly, does not fear criticism”.
This article is an edited translation from Arabic.
 For more information about this office’s work, see Nizar Saghieh and Perla Choueiry’s, “Media Management and the Lebanese Judiciary: Legal Pride or Political Prejudice?”, The Legal Agenda, March 31, 2014.
 For more information about this case, see Nizar Saghieh’s, “Roula Yaacoub, Two Issues in One: Confronting Domestic Violence and the Media’s Right to Question the Judiciary”, The Legal Agenda, February 10, 2014.
 The investigating judge in France Thierry Jean-Pierre revealed that the company Urba concluded commercial contracts to illegally fund the Socialist Party.
 See: Alexandrine Civard-Racinais, Le journaliste, l’avocat et le juge: les coulisses d’une relation ambiguë. Paris: L’Harmattan, 2003, p. 191.
 Ibid., p. 234.
 Ibid., p. 68.
 Ibid., p. 70.
 Ibid., p. 70.