Beirut Port Blast Probe = Journalists Union Fallout
A probe into last year’s cataclysmic Beirut port blast requiring top political and security figures appear before an investigator led to three key resignations this week from the board of Lebanon’s Press Order when its head sided with officials’ cover-up attempts.
The resignations followed a statement by the Order’s president, Aouni Kaaki, claiming the lead investigator was politicized and followed an agenda to frame key figures implicated in the August 4, 2020 near-nuclear explosion that killed more than 200 people (some are still unaccounted for), injured at least 6,000, left some 300,000 homeless and wiped out large swaths of the Lebanese capital.
A reported 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate parked in a hangar at the port triggered a terrifying multi-colored mushroom cloud seen and felt in much of the country and heard as far as the island of Cyprus 264 kilometers (164 miles) away.
But an FBI report said only a fifth of the reported chemicals caused the devastating explosion, so questions remain as to who’s responsible, where the rest of the ammonium nitrate went and who stood to gain from all that.
“I am not surprised by Aouni Kaaki’s latest move; it is nothing but additional evidence that he is not qualified to hold his position,” said Ayman Mhanna, executive director of the Beirut-based Samir Kassir Foundation, the leading freedom of expression NGO in the Levant region. “The number of shameful statements and remarks this person has made is disgraceful to the Order that is supposed to represent Lebanon’s prestigious press sector.”
Michel Helou, executive director of Lebanon’s French-language daily L’Orient-Le Jour sent Kaaki a letter August 3, the eve of the explosion’s first anniversary, saying:
“As the statement issued yesterday (August 2) by the Lebanese Press Order is unacceptable in a modern state that believes in the independence of the judiciary, and as the role of the Order does not mean interference in an ongoing judicial investigation, but runs contrary to those who hide behind political immunities, notably in an exceptional case of this sort, and as the Order’s president did not consult board members about the statement’s content before issuing it, I hereby submit my resignation from the board effective immediately.”
Helou escalated his confrontation with Kaaki noting that the resignation was only from the board, not the syndicate, and that all three editorial chiefs who pulled out would remain members who looked forward to the next election.
The other two are Bechara Charbel, editor-in-chief of the Arabic-language paper Nidaa Al Watan, and Zeina Awad, CEO of the newsweekly Al Afkar.
“I submitted my resignation from the Lebanese Press Order’s board following its regrettable statement yesterday on the August 4 crime and immunities, and for which I was not consulted regarding content that totally contradicts my convictions,” Charbel tweeted. “For a while I thought I could participate in the board for syndicate purposes related to newspapers and their concerns, but my assessment was wrong.”
Kaaki’s statement dovetailed with officials’ positions that those sought for questioning enjoyed immunity from interrogation.
Critics slammed him for being a mouthpiece for the authorities and for colluding with officials flaunting impunity, saying the syndicate was a “hijacked institution.”
“The president of the nitrates union continues his slide and sellout, even for the worst crime,” tweeted veteran journalist and filmmaker Diana Moukalled. “Aouni Kaaki sides with the immunities that set him up as president of the shabby, tacky press order.”
The Alternative Press Order representing a new crop of journalists opposed to the traditional union’s hegemony tweeted a thread denouncing the statement, its unprofessional defamatory and misleading language against the investigator, and its sideswiping of the criminal charges in an attempt to acquit those involved.
Kaaki later semi-retracted the statement saying it had been issued in his name, not the syndicate’s, although it had the Order’s signature.
In April, Mhanna described Kaaki’s reelection to an almost uncontested third term presidency as: “A black day for the Lebanese press: Its syndicate is a hotbed of sectarian and partisan quotas that accepts a president who only spews out vulgar, racist, detestable, retrograde, filthy absurdities that even Nadine magazine would be ashamed to publish.”
Nadine is one of several publications Kaaki owns, in addition to the daily El Shark (The East).
Kaaki defended Lebanese Central Bank head Riad Salamé against money laundering and corruption charges as the latter faces investigations in several European countries, notably Switzerland, by writing “it’s rare to find a Swiss judge who doesn’t accept bribes,” and suggesting that country’s judiciary was corrupt.
Salamé and Lebanese banks are accused of collusion in a massive Ponzi scheme that has locked Lebanese citizens out of their foreign currency accounts and of spiriting billions of dollars out of Lebanon.
Last year, Kaaki attacked now caretaker Defense Minister Zeina Akar by asking if her appointment was based on her experience in defense matters, or because her looks give the impression she’s strong and a good karate player.
“I’d hoped whoever selected her had refined his taste a bit because the defense ministry needs a fully masculine man, because the defense ministry has its prestige and its value,” he wrote.
Ayman Mhanna tweeted a swift reply: “Once again, Press Order president Aouni Kaaki dazzles us with mental decline stemming from poisonous and sick misogyny. Not to defend Zeina Akar, but such discourse belongs in the dustbins of past centuries.”
Kaaki was reportedly imposed by former prime minister Saad Hariri in 2015, in a typical Game of (sectarian/political) Thrones to head an organization that lacked organization, was known for illegalities, circumvented its own internal rules and turned a blind eye to conflicts of interests.
The position has been reserved for a Sunni Muslim since an agreement was reached during the administration of the late president Elias Hrawi.
The head of the other union, the Journalists Syndicate is reserved for a Maronite Christian and the Audiovisual Media Council goes to a Shiite Muslim, all according to sectarian and political divisions stifling the country.
Other Sunni Muslim candidates were considered for the post but Kaaki was reportedly chosen for his allegiance to Hariri and Saudi Arabia as well as his attacks on a former mufti (top Sunni cleric) accused of theft and corruption.
Interestingly, Kaaki is also accused of having flipped at some point in his “career” from flunky for Syrian intelligence to pro-Hariri lackey, after the assassination on Valentine’s Day 2005 of the premier’s father, Rafik Hariri, also an ex-prime minister.
In 2015, the print media court — the regulatory authority overseeing print journalism — fined Kaaki 22 million Lebanese Liras (about $14,700 at the old exchange rate to the greenback before the currency collapsed) following a defamation lawsuit against him by a pro-Syrian former director general of general security (now a member of parliament) in the case of Rafik Hariri’s assassination.
Kaaki replaced the late Mohammad Baalbaki who headed the union for 33 years while his Maronite Christian counterpart at the Journalists Syndicate at the time was glued to the top post there for 40 years. Both unions’ elections have long been criticized as rigged to serve dinosaurs.
Journalists regularly complain membership in either syndicate is reserved for the presidents’ cheerleaders, namely supporters who ensure their reelection and the status quo.
The two unions’ structures must comply with Lebanon’s print media law dating back to 1962 that activists and civil society groups have been trying to change for years, to no avail.
Draft legislation languishing in parliament would subject online arms of legacy print media to laws regulating newspapers. But personal blogs would be exempt from those rules.
Even the Press Order’s 1974 code of ethics is a throwback to days gone by and hasn’t been touched since.
Tweep @pierrebeirut wrote: “The Lebanese press was a reference for honest news but has mostly become ‘whoever pays more gets more,’ particularly when its union president, Kaaki of cabarets and prostitutes, worked as a pimp for assorted and sundry in his free time.”
In April, tweep @lebanon009613 posted a video clip of a Kuwait member of parliament in an open televised session asking about money a Kuwaiti cabinet minister had paid to Kaaki.
He said: “Who is Aouni Kaaki? Aouni Kaaki is editor-in-chief of Nadine magazine. What’s this magazine? It’s a magazine that publishes pictures of prostitutes. The minister is sitting with him (he shows a picture of Kaaki with a Kuwaiti minister and a graphic stating Kaaki had received 60,000 Kuwaiti dinars, or US$ 199,650, from the minister in what seems like a PowerPoint presentation of an investigation). What’s his relationship with him (Kaaki)? What service did he render to Kuwait to hand him 120,000 in two installments from a Kuwaiti bank account?”
In July 2020, El Shark published an article with pictures of then U.S. president Donald Trump grabbing his daughter Ivanka’s arms and hips with a suggestive headline “Is there a secret relationship between Trump and his daughter Ivanka?”
One of the pictures shows the two almost kissing on the mouth.
Kaaki’s magazine Nadine, describes itself as “packed with the latest in celebrity news, star exclusives, the biggest stories and gossip, the best photographs, entertainment and recent social events.”
It usually features scantily dressed women and one of its sections is called “Scandal.”
In a tweet responding to Tunisian star Latifa thanking fans in Arabic for viewing her latest song on YouTube, Kaaki replied in English: “U r a grate womaan in all feildes.”