December 15, 2005
BY Jackie Bennion
Gebran Tueni interviewed by FRONTLINE/World at his newspaper's offices in Beirut in spring 2005.
We were shocked and enormously saddened this week by the news of the death of journalist Gebran Tueni, who was killed in a car bomb explosion in Beirut on December 12.
Our reporter, Kate Seelye, interviewed Tueni last spring for our story, "The Earthquake," about the political upheavals in Lebanon following the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
Tueni was the outspoken editor of Beirut's leading newspaper, An Nahar, and a devoted Lebanese nationalist who wanted a free, independent and democratic Lebanon. A Greek Orthodox, whose mother was a Druze, Tueni was also a strong defender of religious tolerance and of peace between Muslims and Christians.
When FRONTLINE/World spoke with Tueni, it was a tumultuous time, following the assassination of Hariri and the subsequent popular uprising that compelled Syrian troops to withdraw from Lebanon. Tueni talked about Lebanon back then as a beacon and the Middle East's best hope for democracy. Sitting in his newspaper's brand new office in Beirut, overlooking the pro-democracy protestors in Martyrs' Square, he told Seeyle, "If you want the Middle East to evolve, you should first of all be able to defend the only democratic society that you have in the Middle East, which is Lebanon. If you want the Middle East with free speech, you should preserve Lebanon. And if you want a real answer to the dialogue of culture after 9/11, you should preserve Lebanon."
Tueni also described in chilling detail how the Syrians had summoned Hariri to Damascus and threatened his life unless he complied with Syria's political designs in Lebanon.
After our story aired, Tueni was elected to Lebanon's parliament as the opposition ousted the old pro-Syrian majority. But in the months before his death, Tueni had been living in exile in Paris. Along with other prominent Lebanese figures, he'd fled the country, worried that he was next on the assassin's list. He told French radio in August that the ongoing U.N. investigation into Hariri's murder had uncovered a hit list.
"My name is on top of this list," he told reporters.
Despite the danger, Tueni felt the need to return to his country this month. He was back in Lebanon less than 24 hours, when the motorcade he was traveling in exploded, killing him and three others. His supporters immediately blamed the same suspects cited by U.N. investigators in the Hariri murder -- Syrian and Lebanese intelligence agents.
Kate Seelye filed two reports this week for our colleagues at PRI The World, giving her reaction to Tueni's death and capturing the shock and sorrow that has once again overwhelmed the country. Thousands turned out for Tueni's funeral this week in scenes reminiscent of Hariri's death.
It's the second time in six months that Lebanon's leading paper has lost a crusading journalist. Senior columnist Samir Kassir, another outspoken critic of Syria, was also killed by a car bomb in June. Kassir was interviewed in our 2003 story about the militant group Hezbollah.
The murders of Hariri, Kassir and now Tueni appear to be part of an ugly, sectarian campaign to destabilize Lebanon. Their deaths are already a matter of intense U.N. investigation. Syria denies responsibility but is under growing international scrutiny.
Tueni and Kassir's murders are also part of an increasingly hazardous landscape for journalists in the Middle East. A report in this month's American Journalism Review (AJR) reveals that more members of the media have died covering the Iraq war than those killed reporting in Vietnam, the war that never seemed to end, spanning two decades. The article says that "American firepower" is the second-leading cause of deaths among journalists in Iraq, after attacks by insurgents.
Among those killed in Iraq was veteran Reuters cameraman Mazen Dana who was shot by U.S. forces on the outskirts of Baghdad a few months into the conflict. Soldiers say they mistook his camera for a rocket-propelled grenade launcher and opened fire, killing him on the spot.
Dana was the intrepid Palestinian cameraman featured in our 2003 story "In the Line of Fire," that brought home the perils of covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the West Bank. He was a chain-smoking bear of a man deeply admired by those who worked alongside him. In 2001, when he came to New York to receive the International Press Freedom Award from the Committee to Protect Journalists, he talked, prophetically as it turns out, about the risks of doing a job he loved: "Words and images are a public trust and for this reason I will continue with my work regardless of the hardships and even if it costs me my life."
You can read the AJR's full report, "Dangerous Assignment," on its Web site.
Oftentimes, the Middle East seems like the most politically depressing region in the world, and the deaths of journalists like Gebran Tueni and Mazen Dana only make the landscape bleaker. But the courage of these men to report the truth, despite the dangers, is inspiring.
Tueni knew he was a marked man for daring to criticize Syria, but he was never intimidated. This week, his newspaper remained defiant. The front-page headline was a message to the assassins: "Gebran didn't die and An-Nahar will continue."