Lebanese journalist gets prison sentence for 'defaming' foreign minister

The conviction of Fidaa Itani is the latest in a growing list of legal actions taken against journalists in Lebanon
Friday 29/06/2018
Lebanon's Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil (L) at a joint press conference in Ankara on November 16, 2017. (AFP)
Lebanon's Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil (L) at a joint press conference in Ankara on November 16, 2017. (AFP)

TUNIS - Journalist Fidaa Itani has been sentenced in absentia to four months in prison and a fine for comments he posted online critical of caretaker Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil over the treatment of refugees within the country.

According to a statement issued by Lebanon’s Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), the Christian party led by Bassil, Itani was convicted of defaming the minister after referring to the “random killings,” “hundreds of arrests” and "forced return, (of refugees) to Syria,” a judicial source told Lebanon’s Daily Star on June 29.

Itani’s conviction is the latest in a growing list of legal actions taken against journalists in Lebanon and comes during a period of growing hostility between Bassil, who is also the president’s son in law, and international agencies over the future of Lebanon’s 1.5 million Syrian refugees.

In March, owner and editorial director of the website Lebanon Debate, Michel Kanbour, was sentenced to six months imprisonment and ordered to pay a fine of 10 million Lebanese pounds (around $7,000) after a successful libel action by the Director General of Customs, Badri Daher.

In November 2017, TV host Marcel Ghanem was prosecuted after he allowed a Saudi journalist to criticise the president, speaker and foreign minister, (Bassil) on air and accusing them of being "Hezbollah's partner in terrorism." The case was later dismissed.

The same month, the journalist Ahmad el-Ayoubi was jailed for defamation following a successful suit by Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s office.

Itani’s criticism of the foreign minister’s treatment of refugees is timely. The issue of the refugee’s future in Lebanon has dominated much of the country’s media over recent weeks, with Hezbollah, which has been fighting to support the regime of Syrian President Bashar Asssad in Damascus, as well its allies within the Lebanese cabinet arguing that refugees should be encouraged to return to Syria now that it is safe to do so.

However, resistance to any suggestion of their forced repatriation has been stark, not least among aid agencies. Earlier this month, presumably as part of his efforts to speed the refugees’ return, Bassil accused staff members of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) of intimidating refugees and discouraging their voluntary repatriation by asking whether they had a place to live, about compulsory military service that may be owed and security conditions within their regions.

At the time of writing, Itani has not responded to the Court’s decision. On his Twitter and Facebook pages, the journalist merely relayed messages of support he had received, but refrained from commenting personally.