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LEBANON: The Special Tribunal for Lebanon’s communications problem

March 3, 2011 |  6:10 am

Editor's note: Analysts at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace are included among contributors to Babylon & Beyond. Carnegie is renowned for its political, economic and social analysis of the Middle East. The views represented are the author's own.

6a00d8341c630a53ef0147e2e4070f970b-800wi The absence of a coherent and disciplined communications strategy by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) is one of the main factors contributing to the current political crisis in Lebanon.

One of the tribunal’s most serious communications problems has been the frequent leaks of information to the media — specifically, its alleged controversial plan to accuse members of Hezbollah of killing former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, whose son Saad Hariri’s government collapsed in January. The leaks were widespread, appearing in outlets from Germany’s Der Spiegel to Canada’s CBC television. With little response from the tribunal, it appeared as an uncontrolled institution at the top. Most importantly, much of the Lebanese public believes today the highly charged information is true.

The tribunal also has lacked any real communications plan to build its credibility as a politically independent judicial body, including in the eyes of pro-Hezbollah and March 8 coalition supporters, who have doubted its credibility.

The public’s perceptions are hardly surprising. From its inception, the STL should have established itself as a new institution completely independent from the initial organization — the Detlev Mehlis investigation commission — charged with investigating Hariri’s assassination. That commission publicly accused Syria of Hariri’s murder and has received strong political backing from Western powers that have historically opposed Syria and Hezbollah.

In the extremely volatile Lebanese political environment, the STL should have better explained that its role was to conduct a thorough judicial investigation, looking at all possibilities no matter where they led. Instead, the tribunal gave the impression that it was continuing the political work of the commission by focusing only on Syria and then Hezbollah.

For example, when Hezbollah Secretary-General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah accused Israel last August, in a TV appearance, of assassinating Hariri, the STL should have publicly expressed more willingness to explore the leads he suggested. Those leads made sense in the opinion of many Lebanese. Instead, the tribunal only asked, in a press release, for more documents, leaving the public with the impression that it did not consider the idea that Israel could be responsible for Hariri’s death.

In addition, the tribunal has missed important opportunities to clarify misperceptions about its work. In April 2009, when the tribunal’s pre-trial judge, Daniel Fransen, released the four Lebanese generals arrested after Hariri’s assassination, the public perceived this act as the tribunal’s attempt to correct its earlier mistake. However, the arrests were actually made in 2005 by the separate investigation commission. The release could have been used positively to remind the public that the tribunal disapproved of the commission’s decision to make the arrests shortly after they occurred.

These message mistakes, the communication strategy inconsistencies and the constant bickering among the STL’s communications staff, have caused many senior members to leave. They have also undercut the tribunal’s reputation — the exact opposite of what a communications strategy is intended to do. And they have contributed to rising tensions as Lebanon eagerly and nervously awaits the tribunal’s findings.

-- Nadim Hasbani in Beirut  

Nadim Hasbani is communications director at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut.