Time for Transparency at Der Spiegel?

By Franklin Lamb – Beirut

"We don’t know where the Der Spiegel magazine did get their information from and we don’t know where they brought this story from. No one in the prosecutor’s office has spoken to the German magazine about anything. We have a clear policy of not leaking any information about the tribunal through media outlets, and we have been stressing this since the beginning. When Der Spiegel spoke about Bellemar’s spokesperson, they meant me. They emailed me and asked a few questions. My answer was that the tribunal does not deal with investigation files through the media and adopts the policy of direct announcement by the part of Mr. Bellemar. If we had something to say, we would have said it directly, not through media outlets." — Radiya Ashouri, Spokeswoman for the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) (5/24/09)

"It is a black fabricated campaign adopted by known groups to harm Hezbollah. It is not the first time such lies are published. The timing of the accusations and the immediate hype of the report by Saudi Arabia’s Al-Arabiya TV-"which is known for its political affiliation"– leaves no doubt that it is a campaign aimed at affecting Lebanon’s upcoming elections  and to deflect attention from the news about the dismantling of spy networks working for Israel on the other." — Hezbollah Media Relations Department statement 5/24/09 

The Der Spiegel headline was dramatic. Even provocative. Some Lebanese were surprised but others said they knew it all along.  It offered bold “new information” that the strongly pro-Israel German Weekly Der Spiegel claimed came from secret sources based on documents reporters and editors may have seen. No documents were published and no blurred or redacted copies shown to its readers.  The shocking claims were said to based on “Inside investigative sources who were working on the Rafic Hariri assassination and they had now solved the mystery and the case could soon be wrapped up. Eye catching.

The Der Spiegel breakthrough ‘exclusive’ with ‘new evidence pointing to those who were guilty. It was published on October 24, 2005, nearly four years ago.

The Headline screamed, in arguably poor taste: 

UN Report Links Syrian Officials to Murder of Former Lebanese Leader”
By Erich Follath et al. 

That was then back in 2005. Syria was accused in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri of being the ‘real’ assassins. A massive international anti-Syria campaign was launched by the Bush Administration and Israel to demonize its government.

But things have changed. This weekend, a new exclusive, secret, investigative report showing the real assassins was published by the same weekly, Der Spiegel.  Same author. Same editor. New target. 

This time Der Spiegel’s Erich Follath claimed  solo that the international committee investigating the assassination of former Prime Minister martyr Rafik Hariri has reached “surprising new secret conclusions”, this time pointing to Hezbollah.

The new Der Spiegel head line (5/24/09):

New Evidence Points to Hezbollah in Hariri Murder
By Erich Follath

According to this weekend’s article, which offers information provided by the Der Spiegel source, the long investigated case may finally have been "cracked."

The German weekly claims the target is now Hezbollah after the Tribunal pressured the Lebanese government to release four Lebanese Generals last month for lack of evidence- given the growing outcry in the international legal and human rights community. After the generals release, more questions are being raised such as why the four Generals were never charged if there was inadequate evidence, or release years ago or given a bail bond, house arrest, or allowed to face their accusers or even see the supposed evidence against them. The credibility of the Tribunal diminished with each day the four remained jailed.

In many respects the 2009 Der Spiegel article is similar to the 2005 piece:

"There are signs that the investigation has yielded new and explosive results”, "Spiegel has learned from sources close to the tribunal and verified by examining internal documents that the Hariri case is about to take a sensational turn”, "Intensive investigations in Lebanon are all pointing to a new conclusion, this time that it was not the special forces of Syria, but instead special forces of Hezbollah that planned and carried out Hariri’s Feb. 2005 murder, the weekly said.

Similar to 2005, Der Spiegel claimed the investigator’s “apparently want to hold back the information that they have been aware of for about a month”.

Without offering any proof, Der Spiegel asserts that "According to the Lebanese security forces, all of the telephone numbers involved (by the assassins) apparently belong to the ‘operational arm’ of Hezbollah.”

Without an apology for what some thought was a ‘hatchet job’’ on Syrian President Bashar Assad four years ago, Der Spiegel’s the new article added that President Assad is no longer as suspect. “Hardly anything suggests anymore that he was personally aware of the murder plot or even ordered the killing”, Follath writes.

Suspicions are widespread this afternoon in Beirut over the Der Spiegel article suggesting a link between the assassination of Rafic Hariri and Hezbollah.

Ricocheting around Lebanon’s capitol and on the Internet (Syria.comment.org) are comments questioning the timing of the report as if aimed to cause maximum damage to the Hezbollah led opposition: the supposed source of the ‘leaks’ and why now since the UN investigative office has taken great pains not to leak or politize its work in contrast to former Investigator Detlev Mehlis; Hasan Nassrallah has never been known to order the killing of rival politicians; the 2005-2006 accusations against Syria where shown to be fallacious and based on a false witness; Der Spiegel has a rumored long history with Israeli intelligence; the “key” eight phones were never in the hands of Hezbollah but rather a Muslim Sunni organization in Trablus as Detlev Mehlis claimed to have documented; where were “the surprising new conclusions” when the Court was set up but claimed no solid case had been put together.

One claim that this observer found odd is the suggestion that a senior Hezbollah member would call his girl friend on a secure line was ‘on duty”.  I know of two cases where female students at AUB became quite angry when their Hezbollah boyfriends up and disappeared from Campus and did not even call them for a whole month. When they returned “from duty” to resume classes both tried to explain that they could not make contact while ‘working’. I find Der Spiegel’s girl friend telephone call story a bit awkward and very ‘un-Hezbollah’.

Puzzling also is the German weekly’s claim that it learned “from sources close to the tribunal” and verified by examining internal documents, that the Hariri case is about to take a sensational turn.” Der Spiegel does not make it clear if it was the source that examined the internal documents or if it was Der Spiegel that examined these documents. If it is the latter, did the source to take these documents outside the very tight security building in The Hague? Surely, the investigation should be able to track this so-called source.

No evidence is offered by Der Spiegel for any of its “revelations” such as Hezbollah members who supposedly trained in Iran, bought phones, “two men who report only to their superior” (who else would they report to?) etc. How does Der Spiegel know all these secret things and why not offer some proof? How does Der Spiegel know, for example who reports to who in Hezbollah? Far too much left to the imagination by the author. Does some of this highly secret information come to Der Siegel via recently apprehended Israeli spy cells—passed on from the three Israeli intelligence agencies known to be here in Lebanon or sources connected with them?

Too Volatile for Lebanon’s Campaign?

So far none of Lebanon’s political parties are crediting the article. As my neighbor mentioned this morning, in Lebanon there are so many ‘Reports’ that turn out not to be true that many here are very skeptical without solid proof.

MP Walid Jumblatt, Druze leader of the Progressive Socialist Party currently allied with the pro-US March 14th majority, commenting on the Der Spiegel article,  warned in a  Sunday speech dedicated to announce his Chouf candidates, that the article is "the game of nations that could, God forbid, derail justice and use it for things that we don’t believe in."

The Saad Hariri led Future Movement refused to comment on the article.

Lebanese Foreign Minister Fawsi Salloukh labeled it as “totally false and all lies”, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem challenged Der Spiegel and the author of the report to show evidence. “This article is politicized and reminds us of (former international investigator) Detlev Mehlis’s practices,” Moallem added. Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri said the report "was nothing but a new attempt to sow sedition among the Lebanese."

"This is a media fabrication that only lacked the stamp: ‘Made in Israel’," Berri said.

Hezbollah Responds to Der Spiegel

Hezbollah candidate Nawaf Moussawi predicted last month that the campaign against Hezbollah would intensify, especially after the release of the four generals who were held, without trial or charge, for nearly four years over the assassination of Hariri. “The Der Spiegel report is not the first baseless report posted by this magazine,”Moussawi said during an interview with NBN TV. He made a comparison between the magazine’s report and” previous reports by Lebanese journalists who deluded the public opinion during the investigation into the Hariri murder, and published reports about a similar scenario.”

He stressed the campaign launched against Hezbollah and the resistance “paves the way for the assassination scheme Israel is preparing against the party’s Secretary General Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah.”

Hezbollah Media Relations Office issued a statement on Sunday in which it dismissed allegations published by Der Spiegel and broadcast by Al-Arabiya Channel saying that it is nothing less than “police fabrications”. The statement said, “It’s not the first time that a magazine or newspaper aimed at publishing such fabrications and previously Kuwaiti paper “Al-Siyasa” has repeatedly published such reports along with other dailies.” However, the statement continued “It is nothing more than police fabrications cooked in the same black room that has been keen on fabricating such stories for over four years regarding the Syrians and the four Lebanese officers and others.”
The statement added that “publishing this report by Der Spiegel and promoting for it by Al-Arabiya is suspicious in its timing and its political and psychological exploitation especially for two reasons: “First it is a pure fabrication aimed at influencing the election campaign in Lebanon on one side, and to deflect attention from the news about the dismantling of spy networks working for Israel on other."

“The report comes just two weeks ahead of a June 7 parliamentary election in Lebanon. One Hezbollah member commented: “We look forward to seeing the purported evidence in this case."

Questions for Der Spiegel

The German Embassy in Beirut claims not to have heard about the article and would have no comment.

By press time, neither Mr. Follath nor his editors at Der Spiegel has replied to any of the following questions forwarded by this observer:

Why was the “new investigation findings” released by Der Spiegel two weeks before the election where similar rumors have been circulation from the time of the 10/24/05 Der Spiegel Report?

Could you comment on what some in Lebanon feel is the  suspicious timing of the Report at a time where Israel is being pressured at the UN Security Council over its continuing violations of UNSCR 1701, the uncovering of  several Israeli spy cells in Lebanon, growing US-Israel fears over the outcome of the upcoming election on June 7, US-Israeli concerns that Hezbollah and Lebanese security forces are cooperating closely on a number of issues and suggestions that a “solution” to Hezbollah’ weapons may be announced within the coming weeks?

How is it that Israel’s Foreign Minister Lieberman reportedly knew about the article before it was posted and apparently told aids he was “going to give this story legs” as he dictated the following statement which was reportedly embargoed until the story broke: To the best of my understanding, if this is the conclusion of the investigators an arrest warrant must be issued immediately. If it is not, he must be forcibly arrested and brought to the International Court of Justice."?

Why did Der Spiegel run the sensationalist Hezbollah story, first on its website,  departing  from Der Spiegel’s policy of posting on its website articles from its print  edition only after, not before, the latter is published? Der Spiegel website runs some Spiegel print stories but only a few days after they appeared in the print edition published them. According to someone who knows the policy of Der Spiegel this was a first ever switch. (pulsemedia.org) and the weekly was in a major rush to get the story out and to its ‘online partner” the New York times where it will may appear any minute.

Why did the author cite only an anonymous source or sources?

Why does the article allude to “anonymous documents" to bolster its claims, but fails to offer the reader any description or at least the title page of the report to give the reader some confidence in the articles veracity?

Almost all of the Hezbollah operatives allegedly involved in the assassination are dead or missing. The Lebanese officer investigating the cell phones connection was killed, and Imad Mughniyeh, who oversaw the "special forces" unit, also was killed in Damascus last year, making the allegations tough to verify.

Although the report examines both Hezbollah’s motives in wanting to assassinate Hariri and the tribunal’s motives in allegedly keeping the accusations against the group under wraps, it leaves aside questions regarding the motive of the leaker, who timed the revelations just before the Lebanese elections and at a juncture when Israel and Washington are trying to coax Syria away from Iran and Hezbollah.

Hopefully will answer these inquiries in a follow-up article.

– Franklin Lamb works with the Sabra Shatila Foundation in Beirut. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com? Contact him at: fplamb@sabrashatila.org.

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