Even before Syria pulled its last soldier out of Lebanon, Gebran Tueni had been an outspoken critic of the occupation. This week, Tueni was killed by a car bomb, becoming the third prominent journalist in Lebanon to be targeted for assassination since Syria's withdrawal. Michael Young, opinion editor for Beirut's Daily Star, tells Bob why he thinks the Lebanese media still pose such a threat to Damascus.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. When Syria withdrew its last soldier from Lebanon this past April, after nearly three decades of occupation, outsiders could be forgiven for thinking that Lebanon was on the brink of a new era of democratic rule. But this week, we were reminded that transitions often come at a cost. On Monday, the editor and publisher of the prominent newspaper An-Nahar was killed when a car bomb blew his SUV off a cliff in a Beirut suburb. Gebran Tueni's assassination was the latest in a string of recent attacks on journalists in Lebanon. In fact, Tueni had just returned from a few months in Paris, a trip prompted by death threats. Suspicion fell immediately on the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, currently in the crosshairs of a U.N. probe into another assassination, that of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Like Hariri, Tueni had been one of Assad's most outspoken critics. Joining me now from Beirut is Michael Young, opinion editor for the Lebanon Daily Star. Michael, welcome back to the show.
MICHAEL YOUNG:: Thanks for having me.
BOB GARFIELD: Tell me first, please, about Gebran Tueni and his family.
MICHAEL YOUNG:: Well, I mean, the Tueni family is a prominent newspaper family in Beirut, a Greek Orthodox family. Gebran's grandfather, who was also named Gebran, founded the family's paper, An-Nahar, but it was really Gebran's father, Ghassan, who, starting in the 1950s, turned it into the national institution it is today. It's embraced a lot of very different ideologies amongst its very varied staff, so that in a rather strange way, by embracing these different points of views, it also managed to retain its independence vis-a-vis all of them. And I think that's the real genius of the family. They've managed to give a newspaper an identity in support of democracy, of free speech. At the same time, they've also managed to allow a lot of people who don't necessarily share their views to write in it.
BOB GARFIELD: After Hariri was killed and the Syrians left, Tueni was elected to the Lebanese Parliament on Hariri's ticket. Do you think Tueni was perceived more as a journalist or as a political figure?
MICHAEL YOUNG:: Always very much of both. I mean, you know, journalists in Lebanon are also often political figures. I mean, you don't have the same clear dividing line that you may have, for example, in the United States. Gebran would fluctuate between the two. His father was also, by the way, the same way. His father was a government minister at one stage. He was Lebanon's representative at the United Nations.
BOB GARFIELD: If this was, in fact, an act of intimidation, it's certainly blown up in the face of Syrian government. Has it, however, had its effect as an intimidator? Do you think journalists, such as yourself, will be cowed by the assassination?
MICHAEL YOUNG:: Well, I don't think it was an act of intimidation. I think it was very simply an act of murder. I think that they wanted to get rid of Gebran Tueni. Their calculation was that if you get rid of Gebran, you essentially knock the main pillar out from under An-Nahar, which has long been a thorn in the side of the Syrian regime. Now, in response to the second part, will people be cowed? Well, no. I don't think journalists are going to react to this, very simply because there is not much logic in what's taking place. There is a sense amongst many journalists that the Syrian regime has essentially taken a strategic decision that if it's going to go down because of the Hariri investigation, then it will take down as many of its enemies as it can.
BOB GARFIELD: There was a time, I suppose, maybe a decade ago, that if you could neutralize An-Nahar you could substantially eliminate a lot of the criticism of the Syrian regime. But this is a different world we're living in, with pan-Arab satellite networks, you know, all over the Middle East, especially Al-Jazeera. You know, hasn't the blow-back for Syria vastly overwhelmed any political advantage it may have gotten from silencing Gebran Tueni?
MICHAEL YOUNG:: Well, I think we have to understand a few things. First of all, Syria has not been one of the strongest victims of the Arab satellite channels, especially channels like Al-Jazeera, who tend to be more sympathetic to regimes like the Syrian regime. We have to understand that An-Nahar, as well as, for example, the number one Lebanese television station, the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation, these are essentially Syrian media. Syrians can watch Lebanese television, you know, without a satellite connection. An-Nahar, although it is not allowed into Syria, many Syrians download it from the Internet, and they photocopy and they distribute it. And I think it's very important for the Syrian regime to ensure that the Lebanese media not serve as a platform that may undermine them domestically inside Syria.
BOB GARFIELD: Let me ask you one more question. You've already expressed the view that having murdered Hariri, the Assad regime is, you know, perfectly content to keep picking people off one at a time, because after all, in for a dime, in for a dollar. Now, you have been quite outspoken yourself against the Assad regime. Are you concerned that, you know, you're on the list?
MICHAEL YOUNG:: Well, I hope I'm not, and, you know, it's a concern that all journalists have and many politicians have as well. There doesn't seem to be much rhyme or reason to who is picked off on a specific occasion. But the fact of the matter is that ultimately this is indeed proving disastrous to the Syrian regime. If anything, the Syrians have provoked the divorce between Lebanese and Syrian society that I think will take a long time to be repaired. I think also they've made it extremely difficult for their allies in the U.N., for their allies inside Lebanon to justify their alliances with Syria. Essentially what I'm trying to say is I don't understand this policy in the long term. It doesn't make much sense to me.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, Michael. Well, once again, thank you very much.
MICHAEL YOUNG:: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Michael Young is opinion editor for the English-language Daily Star in Beirut, Lebanon.