THE HAGUE (Reuters) - A Lebanese reporter and her TV station went on trial on Thursday accused of jeopardizing the case against the alleged killers of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri by trying to expose witnesses.
A prosecutor at the U.N.-backed court in The Hague said broadcasts in 2012 by journalist Karma Khayat and the Lebanon-based Al-Jadeed TV station had risked ruining the investigation into the 2005 assassination of Hariri.
“If witnesses are too frightened to come to this tribunal, then this tribunal is finished,” said prosecutor Kenneth Scott.
Khayat and Al-Jadeed deny wrongdoing, saying the accusations were a bid to silence the media. Addressing the court, Khayat said her reports had been aimed at exposing leaks emanating from the Special Tribunal for Lebanon — an international body that has consumed hundreds of millions of dollars in public money.
“$500 million has been paid by us for this seven-star courtroom in The Hague. It is our right to make sure these finances are being spent properly,” Khayat said.
Hariri and 21 others were killed in a waterfront bomb blast that upset a fragile peace in the eastern Mediterranean country, dragging it back to the brink of civil war.
The tribunal was set up after Lebanese politicians said their judicial system could not cope with the investigation.
Five suspects, all linked to the Lebanese Shi’ite group Hezbollah, have since been indicted for the killing. They remain at large and are being tried in their absence.
Scott said that Khayat’s interviews of alleged witnesses was “part of a campaign to undermine the tribunal”.
He said dozens of witnesses were easily identifiable from their voices, home and work addresses, and car license plates.
“What this case is really about is a media company and its management that wanted a big scoop, a high-profile, sensational, so-called exclusive, and they were willing to do whatever it took to get it,” he said.
Khayat says nobody was identifiable in her broadcasts and her lawyer said it was not the fault of the media if it exposed flaws that affected public confidence in the tribunal.
“That’s the job of the free press,” said Karim Khan. “Sometimes the emperor has no clothes.”
The tribunal told Reuters that an investigator had looked into allegations that leaks had come from within its ranks and had concluded that was “unlikely”.
Khayat could face up to seven years in prison and, along with and Al-Jadeed, a fine of up to 130,000 euros ($138,600) if convicted.
Reporting by Thomas Escritt; Editing by Crispian Balmer