Radwan Mortada is one of Lebanon’s leading investigative journalists, with almost two decades of experience working with the country’s biggest media outlets.
I met Radwan a decade ago while we were both working at Lebanon’s daily Al Akhbar, he for the Arabic newspaper, me on the English-language website. A veteran security journalist covering military institutions, wars, terrorism, extremism and the layers of intrigue in between, he is one of those rare reporters who can gain access to any information, and call up just about anyone, at any time.
Lebanon has more press freedoms than any country in West Asia, partly because it is politically split in two, with no one party having more power than the others. That rare balance has allowed its media to openly question and criticize all parties and individual political figures, with few of the negative consequences that occur in other states and regions where journalists are roughed up, detained and even killed in ever-rising numbers.
It isn’t often journalists here end up in the slammer for unearthing dirt on the country’s political or business elite, usually because no one person has the power to see it through.
So, when Lebanon’s military court – a body that has absolutely no legal jurisdiction over media activities – sentenced Radwan to imprisonment on 26 November for “the offense of insulting the military establishment,” without providing due notice to the defendant, and in absentia, it created a storm.
The Lebanese Press Editors Syndicate (LPES) immediately expressed its “astonishment” at the decision, and announced that it had assigned its legal advisor to review the case against Mortada with the possibility of filing an appeal.
According to the statement by the LPES, this ruling is a “violation of Article 28 of Legislative Decree No. 77/ 104, as amended by Law No. 330 of 18/1994, which abolished pre-trial detention for publication crimes and the penalty of imprisonment for journalists from most of its rulings.”
Other LPES officials say they will not allow authorities to set a precedent for the imprisonment of journalists who conduct investigative work.
And just today, Reporters sans frontières (Reporters Without Borders or RSF) tweeted:
“RSF condemns the conviction in abstentia of Radwan Mortada by the military court to more than one year in prison for “defaming the army”: an illegal pressure to silence a critical journalist, now forced to move from his home to protect himself and avoid any sentence.”
#Lebanon: @RSF condemns the conviction in abstentia of @radwanmortada by the military court to more than one year in prison for “defaming the army”: an illegal pressure to silence a critical journalist, now forced to move from his home to protect himself and avoid any sentence. pic.twitter.com/fnqPSvc0tP
— RSF (@RSF_inter) November 29, 2021
Lebanese media outlets across the political spectrum have covered this story in Radwan’s favor, and the country’s Minister of Information George Kordahi weighed in by saying the ‘Publications Court’ is the only Lebanese body authorized to rule on media affairs, based on the constitution and the laws regulating freedom of opinion and expression.
So why did Lebanon’s military court take action against a leading Lebanese media figure, well outside of its legal jurisdiction? Why now, in the midst of the country’s excruciating economic collapse and with terror and strife within its borders? Was there nothing more important for Lebanon’s military court to address – than this? And who instigated these proceedings?
The Cradle went directly to the source to answer some of these questions. This is what Radwan Mortada had to say:
The Cradle: Lebanon’s military court has sentenced you to one year and one month in prison. Before getting into the details, could you please tell me why a military court is involved in sentencing a journalist? Is this even legal?
Mortada: Military courts have no authority to try journalists for verbal offenses. They cannot prosecute me, and it would be illegal to do so. But the army commander, General Joseph Aoun, uses the military court as a weapon to fights those mentioning him to suppress freedom of opinion and expression. My words about the army command’s responsibility in the Beirut port explosion greatly angered Joseph Aoun, so he decided to make his own law.
First, he decided to ban me from entering the military court without legal justification. When I confronted him by saying that he did not inherit the court from his father to control it as he wishes and break the law, he sent a military force to raid my house and besieged the TV channel where I work to arrest me by force.
The Cradle: We have heard that you were not at the hearing or the sentencing. How is it possible that you were not even allowed to defend yourself? Why was this sentence delivered in absentia?
Mortada:My trial was a sham and a show. The president of the military court, Brigadier General Munir Shehadeh, violated due process because I was not notified of the trial date. This is against the law and exposes the implicit intent to prosecute me in this martial method. Also, the president of the court is an officer under the command of the army commander who filed the complaint against me. How could he be a judge between me and my opponent? The judge is a lower rank than the commander and has to respond to his orders by saying: ‘Yes, my commander.’
There is also a legal precedent issued by the military court itself. Hanin Ghaddar had previously been sentenced in absentia to six months in prison. But the president of the court at the time, Brigadier General Hussein Abdullah, ruled that the military court had no jurisdiction to try journalists after the United States withdrew his entry visa to America.
The Cradle: What are the military court’s charges against you?
Mortada: Offending the Lebanese Army, disparaging the military institution, and harming national security and the prestige of the state.
The Cradle: You believe the ultimate responsibility of the ammonium nitrate stores in Beirut’s Port lies with Lebanon’s military establishment. In essence, the Beirut blast happened under Joseph Aoun’s watch. Why hasn’t he been held accountable by the lead investigative judge, Tarek Bitar?
Mortada: Here is the root of the problem. I was the first to announce the responsibility and negligence of the army that led to the explosion of the Port of Beirut on 4 August 2020. I said that if the army had done its duty as it should have, the explosion would not have happened. This is a fact because the law holds the army exclusively responsible for dealing with ammonium nitrates.
But the judicial investigator, Tarek Bitar, is weak before the army and the current leadership represented by Joseph Aoun, so he did not dare to summon him. The responsibility of the army exists even if there are no traceable documents or if paperwork has been destroyed. If the army says it was not aware of the presence of a time bomb weighing 2,755 tons perched in the heart of Beirut for seven years, that is an even greater catastrophe since its most basic mission is to maintain security in the country.
The Cradle: I’ve known you and worked with you for a decade. We’ve even written articles together. I know your integrity and how you work, and I personally consider you among Lebanon’s most productive and professional journalists. So when you raise questions, I know you’re onto something. Do you trust this investigation of the Beirut Port explosion? Why or why not?
Mortada: In fact, I am personally acquainted with judicial investigator Tariq Bitar, but I am suspicious of the course of the investigation because I sense discrimination in the way this case is managed. The support Bitar has from America and some of the right-wing Lebanese parties only increases my apprehension and concern. You personally know that I have seen the documents that detail the investigation into the explosion in the port of Beirut. So I know there are officials whom the judicial investigator did not approach. The biggest evidence is his decision to exclude the current army leadership from the investigation, even though Joseph Aoun has been the head of the army since 2017 and he bears the responsibility for this neglect.
I wish Judge Bitar had dealt with this case in another way, given the sensitivity of matters in our country. He should have summoned everyone, then decided who was responsible and charged him, but the direction of the investigation created a kind of suspicion. Therefore, I declared that I did not trust the existing investigation. But in order not to prejudge its results, I am patiently awaiting the issuance of the indictment decision by Judge Bitar to announce my final position on the investigation.
The Cradle: You wrote a very courageous piece for The Cradle that identified seven Lebanese judges that must be held accountable for unloading, storing, then ignoring the ammonium nitrate stores in Beirut’s Port. Why are these judges not being held accountable either?
Mortada: This judiciary branch bears this responsibility because it serves as a protective umbrella for the judges. Judge Bitar filed complaints against a number of judges. Although the complaints came late, the delay of the Cassation prosecution in ruling against them makes it bear a great responsibility.
The Cradle: You also covered the mass shootings and killings in Tayouneh on 14 October, and were the first to point out that the Army’s statements before and after Aoun’s meeting with the US Ambassador Dorothy Shea were different. Explain that to us.
Mortada: I wrote that the negligence of the Lebanese Army caused the Tayouneh massacre, which claimed the lives of seven innocent citizens, some of whom were shot by the army. It almost erupted into a civil war, given that this took place on a contact line between areas where a Shia majority and a Christian majority live. I spoke about the army’s responsibility and its neglect in separating the demonstrators, its wrong way of dealing with the demonstration, and the shooting that erupted after the demonstration.
I also published secret investigations conducted by the army, which showed that there was an ambush prepared the night before the demonstration, which was heading to the Palace of Justice to protest the performance of the judicial investigator Bitar in the explosion of the port of Beirut. The publication of these investigations angered the army, as they were leaked from the military court.
The Cradle: Who does Joseph Aoun think he is to do this, and why is he so focused on you, one of Lebanon’s leading journalists and a veteran security correspondent with the country’s top media outlets who has broken countless stories over the years?
Mortada: I was among the very few journalists to dare to call it by its name. I was the first to talk about the army’s main responsibility for the Beirut port explosion. Many others are afraid to face them or are on their payroll. But I’m not one of them. Nobody can buy me and nobody can intimidate me. I carried my blood in my hands and went to the front lines and covered the lives of the most radical jihadist fighters. I was arrested in Syria. I was not afraid and I will not fear anyone. In my search for the truth, there are no red lines. I only want the truth. I know that this issue frightens many. Joseph Aoun is one of them.
The Cradle: Do you think Joseph Aoun has picked the wrong battle? Lebanon’s media associations have all, without exception, come in on your side.
Mortada: Definitely. Joseph Aoun has made a big mistake by deciding to go ahead with this fight. The battle with the press to suppress freedom of opinion and expression is a losing battle. The time of the police state is long gone. We are today in the twenty-first century. If he does not know it, he must change his advisors who are leading him to the abyss.
The Cradle: We all know that Joseph Aoun has aspirations to become president of the republic. He has increasingly associated himself and the LAF with the Americans, when Lebanon is clearly divided into two different political camps. Why would someone who is changing the highly-respected neutrality of the Lebanese army be fit for this position?
Mortada: I don’t think that General Joseph Aoun’s mentality qualifies him to be president of Lebanon. An officer leading an army cannot ask a military force to raid a media outlet to arrest a journalist, while he himself is thinking of becoming the president of Lebanon. Lebanon deserves better in light of the suffering of its people. Short-sightedness, narrow-mindedness, and personalization are not characteristics of a successful leader.
You know that the World Bank announced that Lebanon is going through one of the three worst economic crises in 150 years. You know the extent of the economic collapse, hunger, and unemployment that the Lebanese suffer from. I myself feel ashamed because my case came out in public at this time with all the tragedies we are experiencing. Imagine that the army chief and the president of the military court have nothing more important on their plate than going after a journalist they want to discipline, while forgetting about all the crises our country is going through.
The Cradle: What are you going to do now to fight these charges and stay out of prison?
Mortada: I will fight to the end. There is a team of lawyers that are objecting to the military court’s ruling. I will not accept any settlement and will follow up on every detail and highlight every violation. Dozens of foreign and Lebanese journalists and human rights defenders have contacted me and denounced the unjust ruling issued against me for simply expressing my opinion.
The Cradle: Radwan, I’ve learned a lot from you over the years and continue to do so. Thank you for your frankness and your courage in reporting the things we all want to know. What will you do when your name is cleared? Will you change your voice?
Mortada: Thank you, Sharmine. I assure you, this case will make me raise my voice higher and higher. I will open my eyes more to their violations and the approach they represent. I am a well-known journalist in Lebanon, and yet they attacked me. What do you think they will do to the rest of the citizens and the extent of the injustice they inflict on those who have no voice?
This ruling alerted me that I was inattentive in some areas related to the leadership of the army and the presidency of the military court. Today, I will work hard to count their every breath to shed light on any offense they commit.