Friday, 20 January 2012

The cost of gagging Beirut (Part IV)

Riad Taha was president of the Lebanese Press Federation (LPF) for 13 years.

The first time we spoke was on the telephone, in April 1975.

The last time we spoke was also on the telephone, in July 1980 – the month he was machine-gunned mafia style after a car chase on Beirut’s seafront.

Born in Hermel in 1927, Riad Taha spent 38 years of his life in journalism – the last 13 of them as president of the LPF (grouping the Lebanese Publishers’ Union and Lebanese Journalists’ Union).

He received his education at the Jesuit School in Homs, Syria, the Oriental College in Zahle in Lebanon and the Patriarchal College in Beirut.

At the age of 15, while he was still a student in Homs, he put out his first publication – the al-Siraj literary magazine. Two years later, he put out another literary magazine, al-Awtar, and in 1945, he was named editor in chief of the al-Tala’eh magazine.

In 1947, he became co-owner of the Akhbar al-‘Alam political weekly, but the government suspended its publication after four months, because of its radical contents.

In 1949, he founded the first local news agency in Lebanon and the Middle East. He also published several dailies and weeklies (al-Ahad, al-Kifah, al-Afkar) during his long journalistic career, and a number of books.

In 1952, he survived an assassination attempt but was treated in hospital for several wounds. The LPF adopted the article that had led to the attempt on his life and published it in all Lebanese newspapers.

Some 30 bullets tore through Taha's Buick in Raouche
He was an outspoken critic of the country’s feudal leaders and struggled unceasingly for freedom of the Lebanese press. In one of his last statements, he said, “Journalists in Lebanon are laboring under a yoke of terror imposed by armed forces inside and outside the country.”

In 1967, he was elected LPF president, a position he held until his murder on July 23, 1980. His term had been renewed on December 19, 1979.

He was a candidate in parliamentary elections for the Baalbeck-Hermel district several times, but never made it to Parliament.

When Najib Azzam (see Part II in this series) was shot and killed in January, 1976, he wrote in Monday Morning: “I was stricken with grief at the loss of this friend and colleague, whom I consider one of the martyrs of the press and of freedom in this country… I shared the sorrow of the owner of Monday Morning, of the Monday Morning family, of the Azzam family over this tragedy. I was, like them, one of the bereaved.”

When Edouard Saab, editor of L’Orient-Le Jour was shot and killed in May 1976, Taha wrote in Monday Morning: “If in the West journalism is known as ‘the profession of trouble,’ we can rightly claim that for us in Lebanon, journalism is the profession of martyrdom.”

That statement was justified over and over, as one journalist after another succumbed to the Unidentified Gunmen infesting Lebanon.

Taha laid claim to martyrdom as he was driving through West Beirut to keep an appointment with then-outgoing Prime Minister Selim Hoss.

He left behind his own message to the Lebanese people.

“Without the freedom of the press,” he wrote, “it would not be long before all other freedoms in Lebanon vanished. How long would the freedom of political parties remain without the freedom of the press? What would happen to the freedom of assembly? All freedoms will soon wither and vanish without the freedom of the press.

 Taha behind his desk at the Lebanese Press Federaion
“So, I feel the fight for the freedom of the press should not be waged by the press alone. This is a public issue that will eventually affect the life of every citizen.”

Taha’s appeal to his people to throw their weight behind press freedom appeared in Monday Morning in November 1976. It was with the charge that some Arab countries were pressuring the Lebanese authorities into muzzling the press.

“There can be no doubt,” Taha wrote, “the majority of the Arab regimes, if not all of them, now favor applying pressure on the Lebanese authorities to abolish the freedom of the press in Lebanon, or to at least restrict it. Arab pressure toward the muzzling of the Lebanese press has started…

“Press freedom is unknown in the Arab countries and in nearly all the Third World… It is only natural that regimes that exercise some form of oppression should gang up against the free press of Lebanon, because it exposes their failings and reveals the truth about them. The free press of Lebanon is an embarrassment to other Arab countries…

“The final goal is not to restrict the freedom of the Lebanese press, but to abolish it.”

In another article written for Monday Morning, he enlarged on the theme as follows, “In a country like the United States, the safeguards are three: the Congress, the judiciary and the press. If any of these pillars is shaken, the system loses its foundation.  In Lebanon the press is the regime’s only safeguard. This is because our legislature is not discharging its duties, as neither is the judiciary. The Lebanese crisis has eclipsed the executive, legislative and judicial authorities… Only the press has survived. If this sole survivor is lost, the whole Lebanese system will lose its raison d’être…”

I first got to know Taha when I rang him in April 1975 to ask for an appointment. He received me at his LPF office and heard my complaint. I summed up my grievance as follows: “Political and armed infighting in the country leaves little apolitical content for my weekly magazine Monday Morning to publish. To cover politics in Monday Morning, I am required by law to buy an existing political publishing license, which I have already. I bought the title of weekly Al Shiraa from Monsignor Antoine Cortbawi. I applied to the Information Ministry for approval of the transfer of ownership of Al Shiraa so as to start using its title alongside Monday Morning’s. I also applied for membership in the Lebanese Publishers’ Union. The applications have gone unanswered for weeks although both are 100 percent aboveboard.”

Taha said he needed a couple of days to look into the matter. Within two weeks both applications were approved. I got the ministry’s approval and my Press Card in May 1975. With the Al Shiraa license legally under its belt, Monday Morning reworked its title page and turned political.


I bought the Al Shiraa title in 1975 from the late Mgr. Cortbawi through the good offices of my friend George Chami, now a distinguished and prolific novelist after a long mass media career.

Chami -- author of such novels as “What’s Left of (Civil) Strife,” (2003)  “Roots of Gold” (2005) and “Chinaberry Juice” (2008) – accompanied me to the meeting with Father Cortbawi at his vocational training and physiotherapy institute near Aley.

Mgr. Cortbawi accompanying my mother on a tour of his Institute
Before signing the transfer of ownership deed. Father Cortbawi told me: “You should know the Al Shiraa title is unadulterated. It was never on the market, not since I got it by a government decree signed some 25 years ago by (prime minister) Riad el-Solh. I’ll sign the deed of sale once you promise me not to use the title as a vehicle to undermine Lebanon.”

I made the promise. Father Cortbawi then took my check and looked at Chami, who nodded his head, signaling it was not a dud one. He then signed the deed, shook my hand and told me, “Congratulations. Now be safe!”

A year later, the Cortbawi Institute buildings near Aley were pillaged, scorched and left biting the dust by the Unidentified Gunmen.

Father Cortbawi died in 1979 but his institute is now thriving after being rebuilt in Adma.


From May 1975 until his murder in July 1980, Taha fended for the Lebanese press community. If he didn’t pay Monday Morning offices a surprise visit every couple of months, he would call to ask about the staff’s well being.

When magnetic tapes for our IBM Electronic "Selectric" Composer became unavailable in war-torn Lebanon, he made sure to bring a few on his return from trips to Europe.

Closure then of the English-language newspaper The Daily Star, and renewed hope the civil war was drawing to a close, drove me in March 1977 to consider publishing a new English-language daily as a stable mate to Monday Morning.

I consulted Taha on local press laws requiring every new political publication to buy a license off the market and keep the original name of that license.

He said he could think of an ideal title for an English daily that won’t need a name change, adding, “Since the title is parked with the owners, let me first find out if it is for sale.”

It was for sale.

After decades of publishing “Ayk” as an independent, nonpartisan Lebanese-Armenian newspaper, license owners Dikran and Lucie Tosbat sold me the title. I changed the spelling from “Ayk” – which means “dawn” in Armenian -- to “Ike” and started publishing it as an English- language daily in April 1977.

Riad Taha the painter at a 1974 New Year's party
What I called the newspaper mattered little. What I was offering was not a name but a service and for two years my staff did everything in their power to make the offering a worthy one. But the cycle of violence and the exodus from Lebanon caught up with Ike, which folded in mid-1979. In a country ravaged by civil war, it was easier to keep a weekly afloat than a weekly magazine and a daily newspaper at the same time.

Taha rang me a few weeks before his murder to say he was assembling an LPF delegation for a courtesy visit to the country’s president Suleiman Franjieh in Zghorta and invited me to join.

 I tried wriggling out, saying the roads were not safe. “Of course they’re not,” Taha said, “but we’ll be traveling by helicopter. Also your friend Jamil Alouf (a publisher from Zahle) will be joining us.”

I still declined the invite. Sadly, it was the last time we spoke.

In retrospect, I suspect Taha was trying in the weeks leading up to his death to appease his pro-Syrian antagonists.

The attempt proved futile. He was gunned down in Raouche, West Beirut, on Wednesday morning, July 23, 1980.

He left a widow, four sons and two daughters.

The cost of gagging Beirut (Part V) will be about the fifth victim, Janet Lee Stevens