Kassir's portrait hanging over the "An-Nahar" newspaper building this week. Reuters
A column written in blood
By Zvi Bar'el
Samir Kassir promised his wife that when the Syrians left Lebanon, he would stop smoking. But last Wednesday, in the evening, as he was sitting with friends in a cafe, he was still lighting up. Maybe there was one Syrian left on Lebanese soil, he jokingly remarked to his friend Muhammad Ali Farhat, so he would have an excuse to keep smoking. The Syrians served Kassir not only as a reason to smoke, but also as a subject of his excellent articles. But last Thursday, at the age of 45, Kassir left his apartment on the seventh floor of a residential building in Beirut's prestigious Ashrafiyeh neighborhood, turned the key in the ignition of his white Alfa Romeo, and blew up.
"Samir Kassir will not write today," was the headline Ghassan Tueni gave to his article mourning Kassir. Tueni, who is the owner and editor of the important An-Nahar newspaper, in which Kassir's weekly column came out every Friday, wrote in his article: "Kassir wrote his column yesterday in blood."
Kassir's assassination was not unexpected; he had been complaining for some time that Syrian intelligence was following him. He said he had received anonymous threatening letters and that the former head of Lebanese intelligence, Jamil Sayyed, who resigned about a month ago in the wake of the assassination of Rafik Hariri, had indirectly threatened his life. The reason: a series of articles Kassir had published under the heading "The Army Against the People," in which he accused Syria and intelligence elements in Lebanon of oppressing the country. The fact that his origins are Syrian on his father's side and Palestinian (from Jaffa) on his mother's did not help him. In the eyes of the Syrians and his opponents in Lebanon, Kassir was a plague that had to be eliminated.
Kassir, who embarked on his journalistic career about 25 years ago as a columnist in France's Le Monde Diplomatique and in the Arabic newspaper Al Yawm al Seb'a (The Seventh Day), published a political and cultural magazine called Orient Express and wrote a column for the important London-based newspaper Al Hayat. He combined academic work and journalism, politics and philosophy. He wrote his doctoral dissertation at the Sorbonne on the civil war in Lebanon, and one of the four books he published became a basic text for understanding that war. That was the war that brought the Syrians into Lebanon and engendered courageous writers like Kassir, Jubran Tueni, Joseph Samaha and others, journalists who brought about and nourished the protest movement against the Syrian occupation.
The results of the activities of this protest movement, which was born from articles by Tueni and Kassir five years ago, after the Israel Defense Forces' withdrawal from Lebanon, are now evident in the parliamentary elections, the third and penultimate phase of which will take place on Sunday. This is a campaign in which the editor of An-Nahar, who according to reports from Lebanon was the attackers' preferred target - will become a member of parliament and can contribute to the next move to which the opposition aspires: deposing the pro-Syrian president, Emile Lahoud. To a large extent, the assassination of Samir Kassir can be seen as a warning to his boss, Tueni. Journalists, certainly in Lebanon, are not sacred.
In the course of Lebanese history, 26 important journalists have been murdered, from the 1916 execution of 10 journalists by agents of the Ottoman sultan to the assassination of Kassir. His murder may also have been a warning to his wife, the well-known journalist Giselle Khoury, who for years edited and presented the popular programs "The Eighth Day" and "Life Interview" on the Lebanese television network LBC. Khoury is considered the most important woman journalist in the Arab world and was named one of the most important female journalists in the world by The New York Times.
Her acute and uncompromising interviews have earned her many enemies, especially in the Syrian and Lebanese establishments. Following pressures from them, her programs were rescheduled to the late-night hours, impossible to watch for most viewers in Lebanon, and ultimately she was fired from the network. Khoury immediately found a more important home: the Al Arabiya network, which gave her a political interview show that competes with programs on large networks like Al Jazeera and Abu Dhabi.
A friend of Kassir, who agreed to discuss his death in an e-mail on condition that he not be identified, wrote to Haaretz: "The great tragedy of the loss of our colleague Samir Kassir cannot conceal a no less important matter: The regime here is afraid of the press. If there is a positive result in this tragedy, this is where it lies. In other places in the world, including Arab countries, the authorities `make do' with detaining journalists, arresting them or even threatening them. Here the situation is different. I hope that Kassir's assassination is not the beginning of a Syrian wave of violence against journalists, after the Syrians have found out just how much trouble Lebanese public opinion can make for them."
This statement is not entirely accurate: Journalists have been murdered or have disappeared in most of the Arab countries, as well as in African countries, Russia, Turkey and Iran, but there is a difference. In most of these countries, journalists who were "disappeared" were acting against specific targets: Mafia bosses, corrupt police officers, racist organizations and so on. In Lebanon, the opposition press in recent years has been fighting for the state's independence. Therefore, with an ongoing election race there that could be considered historic - the first in many years not being conducted under Syrian auspices - and with Syria watching its bastions of power there potentially evaporating, the panic in Damascus is growing more acute.
Last week, a Kurdish Syrian cleric, Sheikh Ma'ashouq Haznawi, who had demanded civil rights for Kurds in Syria, was found dead. A number of Syrian intellectuals were also arrested in Syria, and the Al Attasi discussion club in Damascus, the only one that was active since the "Syrian spring" that began when Bashar Assad became president, was closed under orders. These steps did not prevent important intellectuals, who in the past also made their voices heard against the regime, from publicly condemning the assassination of Samir Kassir this week. It is doubtful that this time there will be anything that can silence the Lebanese press.