Lessons from life of brave Lebanese publisher

December 13, 2005|By MARK MATTHEWS

WASHINGTON -- For someone who has watched the career of Lebanese publisher-politician Gebran Tueni, the real shock of his death in a car bombing yesterday at age 48 was that he had survived for so long.

In the spring of 2000, when few Lebanese dared criticize Syria's virtual control of their country and even fewer openly campaigned against it, Mr. Tueni published a front-page editorial in his family-owned newspaper, An-Nahar, calling for Syria to end its 10-year domination of its neighbor and begin withdrawing its troops.

"You must realize that many Lebanese are uncomfortable with Syrian policies in Lebanon and with the presence of Syrian troops in the country," Mr. Tueni wrote in an open letter. This discomfort, Mr. Tueni went on, "denotes their irritation, disgust and rejection of the way Syria deals with Lebanon."

Mr. Tueni's life, work and death drive home several important lessons about Middle East journalism, Lebanon and the movement toward freedom and democracy that the Bush administration is actively trying to promote.

The first and most obvious point is the extraordinary personal courage required of independent journalists in the Middle East, so many of whom labor under threats of censorship or physical harm. The person or forces responsible for Mr. Tueni's murder were unknown yesterday, but the method used has long been a familiar form of retribution in Lebanon's faction-ridden and dangerous political scene.

Mr. Tueni, a tall, rugged-looking sportsman, got a violent taste of Lebanon's political strife at a young age, when the country was gripped by civil war. Shot in the knees by Palestinians in 1976, he was kidnapped the next year by a faction of Christian Phalangists and held for 36 hours while a prisoner exchange was worked out.

He surely was aware when he penned his editorial in 2000 that he was taking a big risk, but he seemed not to care. He drove his own Land Rover without a bodyguard. His office in downtown Beirut was easier to enter than an American newspaper building.

More recently, he took added precautions and spent much of his time in Paris. His name reportedly had appeared on a hit list uncovered by Detlev Mehlis, the German prosecutor who has been investigating the car bomb assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

The U.S. can't be expected to protect risk-taking journalists such as Mr. Tueni, but it should avoid undercutting the credibility of fledgling Middle East journalism by trying to buy favorable coverage, as has occurred in Iraq.

A second lesson is the crazy-quilt pattern of alliances, political bedfellows and ethnicities that Lebanon represents, offering hope that even the Middle East's bloodiest political and national rivalries can prove transitory.

Mr. Tueni himself was long identified with Lebanon's Christian right wing, but he was of mixed parentage, with a Greek Orthodox father and Druze mother. He saw himself as personifying a long tradition of pluralism in the Lebanese sectarian mix of Christians, Sunni and Shiite Muslims and Druze.

Even under Syrian occupation, he believed that his countrymen were hungry for information and stood apart from citizens of authoritarian Arab states whose leaders, he said, preferred to keep them ignorant and "dumb." He used to say that he wanted Lebanon, long prey to outside forces, to be "at the table," not "on the table." He timed his 2000 editorial in part to prevent Lebanon's interests from being sacrificed in U.S.-brokered negotiations then under way between Syria and Israel.

With this in mind, Americans need to understand that when they promote freedom abroad, they can't ensure that they will like the results or that other nations' forms of democracy will fit U.S. preconceptions. Mr. Tueni's family saw nothing wrong, for instance, in mixing journalism and politics, something that would be frowned upon in the United States. He himself was a member of parliament. His father kept control of the newspaper while serving as Cabinet minister and ambassador to the United Nations.

Nor will the views of freedom-seeking politicians and journalists necessarily conform to American policies. In the spring of 2000, for instance, Mr. Tueni had nothing good to say about Israel, Lebanon's neighbor to the south, which at the time was still occupying a swath of Lebanese territory; he also said Lebanon had had "enough" of the Palestinians.

A final point is the importance of individuals in securing political change. Without Mr. Tueni and his 2000 editorial, the movement ultimately dubbed the Cedar Revolution might have been slower in starting, if it started at all, and might not have galvanized Mr. Hariri and, though him, France and the United States. It would be a another tragedy - but unfortunately one in keeping with Middle East history - if the chilling impact of the Tueni assassination set back or halted the progress of freedom in his country.

Mark Matthews, Middle East correspondent for The Sun from 1999 to 2001, is writing a book about the United States and Israel. His e-mail address is mmatth2112@aol.com.

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