On March 23, 2005, less than ten days after the popular March 14 uprising in Lebanon that led to the ousting of Syrian troops, Lebanon's Daily Star published an opinion piece by Syrian expatriates minister Bouthaina Shaaban entitled "What kind of Middle East do we want for our children?"
Like in most of her other pieces, Shaaban launched a tirade against the Bush administration's Middle East policy, which she claimed "is threatening Syria with its secular heritage and historic religious coexistence."
Shaaban's piece contained the usual anti-Israeli, anti-US rhetoric used by many editorialists in the region, who see Arabs and Muslims as strugglers against "ideologies of hatred." To support her argument, Shaaban accused the US of not seeing "what actually is happening in the Middle East from the point of view of its people, for their voice cannot be heard under the policies of 'embedded journalism' and banning TV channels that attempt transmitting reality.'
Critics and even admirers of the Syrian regime would marvel at Shaaban's defense of freedom of speech, considering the oppressive nature of her government, in which she is a minister. In fact, this particular piece would never have seen the light of day had it not been for threats delivered by her government's intelligence services to the newspaper that published it.
Shortly after publishing a fiery post criticizing the Daily Star for running yet another Shaaban piece, I received an e-mail from a Daily Star staff member who spoke to me on a condition of anonymity.
According to the staff member, there is a disturbing reason why the Daily Star continues to publish Shaaban's pieces; one that might not strike you as surprising.
In early March, after reviewing the Shaaban piece I mentioned above, the paper's editorial team decided against publishing it. A couple of weeks later, their managing editor received an early morning phone call at his home from a man who identified himself as a "member of the Syrian Mukhabarat" (Syrian intelligence).
The Syrian agent demanded to know why the Daily Star had not published the article.
According to my source, the managing editor asked the man how he had gotten his phone number.
"We have all the phone numbers and addresses of every journalist in Beirut," was his chilling response.
The Daily Star's management took the safe road and published the piece on March 23 under the ambiguous byline "First Person by Syrian Expatriates Minister Bouthaina Shaaban". In the following months, as you know, numerous anti-Syrian journalists and politicians were assassinated. The Daily Star management perhaps felt vindicated for not endangering the lives of its staff, many of whom are foreigners. After all, the founder of the Daily Star, Kamel Mroue, was assassinated in 1966.
Today Lebanon's only English-language newspaper continues to publish Shaaban's propaganda. On February 14, it ran another piece, in which she likened Europeans to Nazis and said Syria was victim of a crusade. The article prompted my fiery post, which my source thought was too harsh on the DS editorial staff. To be fair here, my source pointed out that on the same day, the paper ran an editorial titled "Carrying the torch of Hariri's legacyinto the future," and two other opinion pieces, Michael Young's "Greater than the sum of its deaths" and Haytham Mouzahem's "Hizbullah must accept a national dialogue over its arms." These ran on the opinion page.
In her February 14 piece, Shaaban wrote that " 'freedom of the press' and 'freedom of expression' do not permit violating or ridiculing other people's sanctities."
Leave it to Shaaban to place freedom between quotation marks and terrorize the free press into publishing her articles.