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‘Lebanon has become a police state:’ Authorities bow to Turkish pressure, sue TV host

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Turkish pressure may have led to Lebanese authorities prosecuting a TV show host for calling Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan “an obnoxious Ottoman.”

The host, Armenian-Lebanese Nishan der-Haroutounian, is accused of harming Turkish-Lebanese relations after Ankara sent a formal letter to Lebanon’s Foreign Ministry, a lawyer for the host told Al Arabiya English.

While the complaint filed by a Lebanese lawyer against Al-Jadeed TV host Nishan der-Haroutounian was initially not accepted when presented to the general prosecutor, Turkish pressure may have convinced the general prosecutor to accept the complaint to press charges, Ayman Raad, der-Haroutounian’s lawyer told Al Arabiya English.

Freedom of expression has recently regressed in Lebanon, with the head of the Beirut Lawyers Bar Melhem Khalaf saying yesterday at a press conference “Lebanon has become a police state.” Khalaf continued that the bar would not allow “the Lebanese institutions to fall under the grip of the police state.”

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This incident comes on the heels of another Hezbollah-linked judge issuing a ban on local Lebanese and foreign media reporting on comments or speeches made by US Ambassador to Lebanon Dorothy Shea.

Raad said he is “very worried” about where freedom of expression is headed in Lebanon, especially in his role as a member of the Lawyers Committee for Defending Protesters.

The Turkish Embassy in Lebanon sent a letter to the Lebanese Foreign Ministry saying the host had exceeded the limits of free expression and demanded that Lebanese media display the requisite respect for Turkey’s president and people, regional outlet al-Monitor reported.

Der-Haroutounian, the host of a program on Lebanon’s Al Jadeed TV, received a complaint for “insulting Turkey” before the Court of Publications Chamber in Beirut, al-Monitor reported.

Yeghia Tashjian, a Lebanon-based regional analyst and researcher said the move was “largely symbolic.”

The TV show host’s lawyer told Al Arabiya English that he didn’t believe the complaint had any legal basis, but der-Haroutounian is set to appear in court in October.

Der-Haroutounian had called Erdogan “an obnoxious Ottoman,” and a viewer who called into the show on June 10 made derogatory comments about the host’s Armenian roots after der-Haroutounian’s anti-Erdogan comments.

“I am at complete liberty to call Erdogan and his regime obnoxious. A million and a half Armenians were killed,” der-Haroutounian responded.

During the 1915 Armenian genocide, some 1.5 million ethnic Armenians living in the former Ottoman Empire were killed.

While there are no solid figures on how many ethnic Armenians reside in Lebanon today, most estimates put the number around 150,000, or roughly 4 percent of Lebanon’s population.

After the show, a group claiming ancestry from Turkey’s southeastern province Mardin protested outside the station, chanting anti-Armenian slogans, al-Monitor reported.

Lebanese pro-Turkish activist Mounir Hassan also posted a video online calling der-Haroutounian an “idiotic dog” and “gay.”

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“We and our Turkish and Ottoman ancestors are proud of the massacre that our Ottoman ancestors carried out against the Armenians, because you deserve it,” Hassan said, al-Monitor reported, on the video that went viral.

While freedom of expression has regressed in Lebanon over the last year, foreign governments have not typically meddled in the state’s media in this manner.

Since October 2019 when nationwide anti-government protests kicked off, more than 60 people have been called into interrogation for social media posts since nationwide anti-government demonstrations began on October 17, Human Rights Watch found. However, Raad said this number is likely to be over 100 as not everyone who is called in reports their case or requests help.