On this date ten years ago at 10:45 AM, explosives planted beneath a car in the Ashrafieh district of Beirut exploded, taking the life of the car’s owner, Lebanese, Palestinian, Syrian journalist and author, Samir Kassir.
It was part of a series of political assassinations throughout Lebanon. If those assassinations specifically targeted politicians and journalists, bringing to mind images from the civil war, they also gave journalists back some of their importance, something they thought they had lost since the Arab states fell under the power of the “exclusive leader”.
As a matter of principle, dictatorships and telling the truth are not compatible. A dictator cannot admit his mistakes and cannot tolerate people who hold differing opinions. If we wanted to find some evidence to back this up, we can step back to the twentieth century. We find a perfectly clear example of the reality of the struggle between despotism and the truth in the events of May 6, 1916. On the orders of Jamal Pasha “the Butcher”, hangman’s nooses throughout Damascus and Beirut played host to a number of politicians, authors, journalists, and poets who had expressed their opposition to Ottoman occupation. This event led to both countries marking the date as Martyrs’ Day, remembered to this day.
There is no end to proof of this struggle in Lebanon. Following its independence, at 1:00 AM on May 8, 1958, an armed man entered the office of Nasib al-Matni, shot and killed him. Al-Matni was the Editor-in-Chief and owner of The Telegraph at that time and had spent years as a voice of dissent against the authorities, since the days of President Bechara El Khoury who had been forced to step down by public opinion in the year after a three-day general strike in response to Al-Matni’s trial in 1952. Al-Matni held to his chosen path. He stood firmly against President Camille Chamoun until he was assassinated, and that assassination, attributed to Chamoun’s supporters, triggered the 1958 revolution in Lebanon.
On May 16, 1966, another prominent journalist’s pen was silenced forever; Kamel Mroueh, who had started the Al Hayat newspaper in a room at the Annahar newspaper building. Mroueh was a prominent journalist in his time, considered one of the most courageous. These epitaphs may have come to him because of the title he chose for his column in Al-Hayat: “Have your say and go”. In addition to Al-Hayat, Mroueh founded the Daily Star and Beyrouth-Matin. He was also part of the movement to breathe new life into the work of journalists; he was an innovator in writing a brief opening editorial. Mroueh continued to press for the publication of truth in the age of Nasserism, when, though many have debated the appropriateness of political choices being made, the environment was nothing short of an “age of state police”. A young Nasserite called Adnan Soltani walked into Mroueh’s office and assassinated him.
The Lebanese Civil War followed, bringing this clash with it, and a new list of journalists as targets. At the forefront of these writers were Selim Lawzi and Riad Taha. Selim Lawzi was assassinated on March 4, 1980. He had been known for his opposition to the Syrian regime after it had occupied Lebanon. Lawzi was the founder of Al-Hawadess Newspaper, though he started out working as a writer for radio serials and the Near East radio broadcast in 1944. Later he worked for a magazine called Roza Al-Youssef in Egypt. He also worked as a correspondent for two other magazines, Al-Musawar and Elkawakeb. Lawzi moved to London during the civil war in order to escape repeated threats to himself and his family. Then he decided to go back to Lebanon in order to help support his mother. He was kidnapped on the airport road, and his body was found a few days later, horribly disfigured.
On July 23 of that same year, it was Riad Taha’s turn; gunmen fired dozens of rounds into his car in Beirut. At the time of his death he was the president of the Lebanese Journalists Union. Riad Taha was a prominent journalist for Asharq al-Awsat. He founded a number of media organizations, like Akhbar al-‘Aalam, Al-Bilad, and Al-Kifah. He was the first to set up an official Arabic news agency, the Orient News Agency. Taha was one of the voices calling for moderation and for people to set aside their differences. He was known for holding reconciliation summits for the different parties in conflict during the war in Lebanon; it was for this reason many believe he was killed.
The war in Lebanon finally came to an end, but the struggle between the press and party power – the gangs – is eternal. Assassination once again took center stage in 2005. It started with Samir Kassir, author of brash and daring articles. His articles, along with the pivotal role he played in the creation of the Intifada of Independence (also called the Cedar Revolution), were the main reason his life was taken in such a barbaric way. But Kassir was not the last; on December 12, 2005, journalist Gebran Tueni was assassinated by a car bomb as he was driving through Mkalles.
Tueni was one of the most important names to stand in opposition to the Syria’s “Era of Heredity” over Lebanon. He was the scion of a family with proud ties to the press. Gebran, his grandfather, established one of the largest Arabic newspapers, Annahar, and was a famous writer in his time. His father, Ghassan Tueni, following his father’s example, established himself as a journalist, a politician, and parliamentarian. One of the unusual points that might be worth mentioning is that Annahar stood in the gap between East and West Beirut during the civil war, in a position that seemed to confirm the neutral role that the press plays in the world. Ghassan Tueni confirmed this when he expressed his support for his son Gebran by calling for “spite to be buried with [his] son”.
The media has not been spared from being targeted in Lebanon or anywhere else, even if some of its professional journalists have been rescued from attempts to assassinate or kidnap them. Today, remembering the assassination of Samir Kassir, the situation is no different in the struggle burning between those who hold the torch of truth and those who walk in the darkness of despotism.