WASHINGTON, June 6 (JTA) — A Lebanese-American journalist has been indicted by a Lebanese military court for “dealing with the enemy” after she participated in a panel discussion last year with an Israeli military official.
Raghida Dergham, senior diplomatic correspondent for the Al Hayat newspaper, was indicted in March for speaking to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in May of last year. One of the panelists was Uri Lubrani, Israel’s coordinator of activities in Southern Lebanon.
It is illegal for Lebanese citizens to have contact with Israelis, and a previous Lebanese panelist for the symposium backed out under pressure from the government.
Dergham, considered a fugitive by the Lebanese government, refused to comment when reached in her New York office Wednesday. But she previously told The Washington Post: “It hurts me that such irresponsible charges are made against me, and it offends me as someone who upholds the freedom of the press.”
Dergham’s writing has often criticized Lebanese government officials and policies, and she has been punished by the government in the past, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Dergham’s passport was revoked a year ago when she arrived in Beirut to cover U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s visit to the Middle East. Though the Lebanese government told Annan a month later that her passport privileges had been restored, the government has since refused to issue her new documents.
Joel Campagna, CPJ’s Middle East program coordinator, said he believes the charges are a pretext to punish her for her coverage of international issues.
“It’s an attempt to intimidate, and even worse, to possibly imprison a journalist simply for doing her job,” Campagna said. “Other Lebanese journalists are certainly getting the message.”
Ironically, Dergham’s comments at the Washington Institute symposium — in a discussion focused on the prospects of peace between Syria and Israel at the time of Israel’s withdrawal from Southern Lebanon — were close to the Lebanese point of view, participants said.
“She was certainly staunchly defending the Lebanese-Syrian position,” said Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum and a panelist with Dergham. “I don’t think anyone in Damascus would be terribly concerned with what she said.”
Dergham joined the panel to replace Gebran Tueni, publisher of Al-Nahar newspaper, who backed out after pressure from the Lebanese government, sources said. He had recently written an editorial calling on the Syrians to withdraw from Lebanon.
“These types of harassment have become unfortunately too common in the last couple of years,” Campagna said. “The use of the military court is a much more serious and disturbing step.”
The United States called for the charges to be dropped against Dergham, who holds both Lebanese and American citizenship.
“Needless to say, the case raises very serious concerns for us about freedom of the press, freedom of speech and freedom of association,” State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Wednesday. “Lebanon is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and we believe Lebanon has an obligation to uphold those rights.”
Patrick Clawson, research director of the Washington Institute, a non-partisan think tank, said he found the charges “absurd.”
“It is so discouraging, because we thought there was some real headway towards freedom of the press in Syria and now this is happening in Lebanon,” Clawson said.
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said the case “enforces rejectionism of Israel” and called the indictment “reprehensible and offensive.”
Dergham, who could face up to three years in prison, is due in Lebanese court Nov. 30. Her hearing last Friday was postponed so she could be present to defend herself, but it is unclear whether she will return to Beirut.
The Lebanese Embassy in Washington refused to comment on the case.
“I trust there will be a recognition of the injustice that was done,” Dergham told The Washington Post.