Shut down on government orders for 'endangering the security of the state', the venerable, angry left-wing Beirut daily As Safir was last night planning to challenge the Lebanese authorities by going ahead with publication of today's edition under a new name.
The Beirut Evening News was being put to bed on As Safir's presses last night, hours after three senior officers of the Lebanese Surete Generale arrived at the paper's headquarters and told its editor, Talal Salman, it would be closed down for a week because of an article it carried on the Israeli-Arab peace talks. The article was said to have endangered national security.
This latest offensive against the Beirut press - scarcely a week after the authorities shut down a private television station and its associated right-wing daily newspaper - is likely to cause a serious conflict between the pro-Syrian government of the Prime Minister, Rafiq Hariri, and the media, in a country that has always claimed to be proud of its press freedom.
As Safir employees yesterday appealed for help to the United States' Committee for the Protection of Journalists. They were also planning to seek support from both Pen, which protects the rights of writers, and the Middle East Watch human rights group.
The newspaper's journalists were, meanwhile, suggesting that their real 'crime' was to have published - on the same day as the peace talks 'scoop' - an article by Helga Graham from the 8 April edition of the London Review of Books. Her article was bitterly critical of corruption in Saudi Arabia and of kickbacks allegedly made to the Saudi royal family. Mr Hariri is a Saudi citizen and a close friend of King Fahd.
Officially, As Safir was ordered to close after it reported details of Israel's latest confidential proposals made to Lebanon's peace negotiators at the Middle East talks in Washington.
According to the paper, the Israelis have at last agreed to talk on the basis of UN resolutions 425 and 426, and have proposed a joint committee of military experts to meet on the Lebanese-Israeli border for security discussions along the lines of the aborted 1983 unofficial treaty between the two countries.
The Surete Generale, which also presented As Safir's director - the editor's brother, Faisal Salman - with an order to appear in court, carried a government prohibition stating that the paper's report contained 'information that should stay secret' and endangered 'the integrity of the state . . . and the nation's external security'.
Michel Samaha, the Information Minister, announced only last week that prior to the introduction of new press laws papers would not be allowed to 'undermine state policy . . . to lie about the heads of friendly or brother countries, the president of the republic or the leaders of the parliament and government.'
Lebanese journalists have not missed a striking irony: that if the law protects Syria as well as Lebanon from criticism, As Safir is well known to be a Syrian-backed newspaper. As they say in the trade, watch this space.
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