January 16, 2013
BEIRUT – On arrival to Lebanon’s capital city, all seems very functional and normal on the surface, as the city runs business as usual.
Below the surface however, there is a feeling of trepidation, an unspoken collective worry that a city and country who has gradually managed to pick up the pieces from the decades-long conflict which stretched through the 70’s and 80’s, an Israeli occupation of its south, followed by a brief, albeit destructive, ‘33 Day War’ with Israel in 2006 – might once again be dragged into another sub-regional conflict. It goes without saying that police and security services in Lebanon are on high alert.
Tourism Hit Hard
The neighboring conflict has also had a very negative impact on Lebanon’s tourism, keeping away the much-needed outside currency for which many jobs, independent hotels and other SMEs are dependent for their economic survival. But despite the recent problems, Beirut is still moving ahead, still attracting some foreign investment made visible by the hundreds of new building projects springing up all over the city. And as expected, the restaurants seem busy and the cafes are still buzzing.Already there is a tangible presence of Syrian refugees in Lebanon and in the capital Beirut, who have fled from the fighting and breakdown of society currently unfolding next door. The impact of the Syrian conflict on its neighbor Lebanon in such a short space of time is substantial.Latest reports put the number of Syrian refugees recently accumulated in Lebanon at 300,000. This figure is contrasted by the number of Palestinian refugees whose ancestors fled Israel’s ethnic cleanings in 1947-48, still housed in Lebanon today – which is currently estimated at 500,000.
The Issue of Sectarianism
Lebanon is, more than ever, a demonstration of sectarianism par excellence. In of country of 4 million, there is differentiation within the Christian community – Greek Orthodox, Maronite, Melkite, Greek Catholic and Roman Catholic, as well as within and the Muslim community – Sunnis, Shi’ites, and Druze. In addition to this, there is a substantial Armenian community, a large community of foreign nationals from the US and Europe, Asian and African migrant workers, and a small Jewish community. One might also note that the internal rifts between Christian and Muslim factions are almost as great as the polarity separating Christians and Muslim as a whole.That said, it is also the only society in the region where contrasting religions and cultures are completely intermingled and where tolerance has evolved into a virtue.
In its totality, Lebanon consists of some of 19 religions and dozens more ethnic , groups. Many a thesis and book have sought to chronicle (and will continue to argue no doubt) this strive towards cultural détente in the Levant. One such writer is Lebanese-American Professor Walid Phares, who sums up the country’s current alignment as follows:
“Although multi-ethic and multi-religious, Lebanon was viewed by the political establishment as a unitary republic which can only have a majority and a minority. Therefore, and without a mechanism of decentralization, Federation or simply pluralism, that establishment was vying over who really represents the “majority” of all Lebanese, and who reduced to a “minority.” The debate was then about numbers, census, demographic changes, communities who have allegedly increased in numbers because of poverty versus communities who have decreased in numbers because of emigration. But that was a false problem.”Much of the country’s political energy has been expended over the course of the last half century in determining who is the majority and who is the minority, and although the intention was to present a fair solution to representation in its central government, it has also been the source of internal power-politics, which some believe laid down a fertile soil for the sharp upheaval Lebanon experienced from 1975 onward.
Nowhere is the nation’s simmering ‘political ratio’ reflected more than in its own constitution – a document which goes to extraordinary lengths to secure some form of socio-religious balance. The Lebanese constitution mandates that the office President should be held by a Maronite Christian, the Speaker of the House held by a Shi’ite Muslim, and the post of Prime Minister held by a Sunni Muslim.
Many academics such as Phares, feel that the future would be brighter if Lebanon would embrace its multicultural reality and take a feather out of Belgium’s or Canada’s cap, and consider phasing out its historical obsession with ethnic and religious minorities and majorities. In other words, if Lebanon could embrace ‘multiculturalism’, it wouldn’t need the old system. This idea is easier said than done, as vested political interests and blood spilled over decades has, to a large degree, cemented traditional political and social paradigms into place.
Syria Simmering Next Door
What’s foremost on the minds of Lebanese in 2013 is what will happen with Syria, and will Lebanon we dragged to their war. Alongside this, many are left questioning whether or not Lebanon will ever achieve some form of long-term peace with its southern neighbor Israel. The former is the key to its short-term prosperity, while the latter is the key to healing wounds still festering from the wars, as well as the influx of Palestinians it has had to shoulder since 1948. The situation in Syria is made even more complex by the fact that a number of foreign powers with vested interests in Damascus regime change are supplying fighters, arms, logistics, money and mass media support – which has always been a recipe for chaos throughout history. Among these foreign actors vying for position in Syria are Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, Turkey, US, UK and France (somehow, it’s all beginning to look more and more like pre-WWI power-politics). Syria has long played an overshadowing role in the stability – and destiny of its smaller neighbor Lebanon. The scares still run deep from Syria’s obtuse and often disjointed alliances with different factions over the course of Lebanon’s Civil Wars in the 70’s and 1980’s. The result of Syria’s hand in those affairs has been a dysfunctional, and often times confusing relationship between Damascus and Beirut, as well as the cause for political dysfunction within Beirut itself. In 2013, however, the alignments are markedly different from previous decades. For starters, Syria, itself, is now a major piece on the global chessboard, not least of all because of its three major allies, all of whom seem to run contrary to ‘central planning‘ in the West – namely, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Iran and now Russia. All interested parties see Syria as the key domino, and this, rightly so, is the cause for much worry right now.
Lebanon has a number of internal issues I’m sure it would prefer to sort out first before being dragged into another sub-regional conflagration – like it’s own central government, its economy, its potentially massive tourism trade, and of course, the Palestinian refugee issue. Yesterday, I was able to travel south the ancient city of Tyre, some 16km from the the Israeli border. The ruins are stunning, but so are the Palestinian refugee camp which runs alongside it. It’s was a little tragic, if not amusing to discover there that some Palestinians in need of rock for building their homes had permanently borrowed some of the antiquity ruins next door. In a certain way, some five millennia of history puts the current protracted upheaval into some perspective.
The recent past certainly has pulled Lebanon down in a spiral of social tension and extreme economic strife, but set against the larger backdrop of successive empires and cultures who have been overlaid on to this small, but historically pivotal region, it’s merely the latest chapter in a much larger epic novel. Many people outside of Lebanon – academics, archeologists, tourists – all long to see Lebanon achieve stability and one day showcase its incredible cultural and historical wealth to the world.In essence, making the difficult transition from a fractured state, to one of stability and eventual prosperity. I talked about this to one long-term Beirut resident, named Jamal, who put it simply, “To do all this, first we need to have peace.”It’s that simple. On paper anyway.….
Writer Patrick Henningsen is a roving correspondent for the UK Column, as well as host of 21st Century Wire TV programme airing Thursdays at 6pm on PSTV SKY channel 191 in the UK.
LONDON — Police say two people were killed when a helicopter crashed Wednesday during rush hour in central London after apparently hitting a construction crane on top of a building.
Two people were taken to a nearby hospital with “minor injuries,” London Ambulance Service said. The helicopter crashed just south of the River Thames near the Underground and mainline train station at Vauxhall, and the British spy agency MI6.
Video on Sky News showed wreckage burning in a street, and a large plume of black smoke rose in the area. The video from the crash scene showed a line of flaming fuel and debris.
Witness reports that the helicopter hit a crane atop a 50-story residential building, the St. George Wharf Tower, were not immediately confirmed.
The Ministry of Defense said it was not a military helicopter, and a British security official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak to the press said the incident was not terror-related.
London Fire Brigade said it was called at 8 a.m. to a report of a crash on Wandsworth Road on the south bank of the Thames.
“There was a flash and the helicopter plunged to the ground. It exploded and you can imagine the smoke coming out of it,” Paul Ferguson, an office worker near the scene, told BBC News.
“The top of the crane was actually obscured by fog so I didn’t see the impact,” Michael Gavin told the BBC. “But I heard a bang and saw the body of the helicopter falling to the ground along with pieces of the crane and then a large plume of smoke afterwards.”
Erin Rogers, who was waiting at a bus stop near Vauxhall Station, said she “heard a bang and saw bits of crane debris falling to the floor.”
“Then the helicopter was in flames. The rest of the people at the bus station were looking on going, `What was that?’”
” Police said the helicopter appeared to have hit a crane.”
Early reports indicated the crane was at St. George’s Wharf, a high rise apartment complex with apartments that offer sweeping river and city views.
The area, roughly 10 blocks from the major Waterloo train and Underground station, is extremely congested during the morning rush hour. Many commuters arrive at the main line stations from London’s southern suburbs and transfer to buses or trains there.
A former UK politician wrongly named on Twitter as a paedophile after a false report by the BBC may expand the reach of libel law with his threat to sue thousands of people over online posts.
Alastair McAlpine, 70, a former Tory party treasurer, has said he’ll take legal action against about 10,000 people who he says tweeted or retweeted defamatory posts after the BBC wrongly implied he sexually abused a boy in the 1970s.
The cases may correct the view that libel on social media isn’t as bad as in print publications, said Ruth Collard, a media lawyer at Carter-Ruck in London.
“It’s no defence to say you had no idea.”“With Twitter and the internet generally, people think it’s not the same as publishing a newspaper, book or magazine, but if you are the author, then you take responsibility for it,” said Collard, who isn’t involved in the dispute. “It’s no defence to say you had no idea.”
- Ruth Collard, media lawyer
The BBC, the world’s biggest broadcaster, agreed to pay McAlpine £185,000 pounds ($284,096) after the November 2 error on its Newsnight report, which gave hints about the ex-politician’s identity without naming him. Before the mistake was uncovered, Twitter postings accusing McAlpine were already spreading, setting the stage for the biggest case of its kind in Britain. McAlpine, who was deputy chairman of the UK Conservative Party under Margaret Thatcher, wants Twitter users with fewer than 500 followers to apologise and donate to the BBC Children in Need charity, said Charlotte Offredi, a spokeswoman for McAlpine’s lawyers.
Twitter users with more than 500 followers, including a journalist at The Guardian newspaper and Sally Bercow, the wife of House of Commons Speaker John Bercow, should also apologise for naming him, she said, though McAlpine hasn’t decided what legal action to take against that group. McAlpine’s libel dispute has caught the attention of the Metropolitan Police Service in London. Officers are meeting with “interested parties” to determine whether a crime may have taken place, the service’s press office said. Until now, the highest-profile Twitter libel in Britain involved former New Zealand cricket captain Chris Cairns suing Lalit Modi, ex-chairman of an Indian league, for tweeting that he fixed matches. Modi failed to prove the claim in court and was ordered in March to pay £90,000 ($138,202) in damages.
As McAlpine brings the threat of such legal claims to average citizens, the former politician who now lives in Puglia, Italy, may create a “tipping point” in the public’s view of defamation, including libel, said Andrew Terry, a media lawyer at Eversheds in London, who isn’t involved in the cases.
“What the extreme nature of this situation shows is how easily reputations can be damaged by social media and why it is so important that there can be redress, whether those defamed are public figures or not,” said Terry.
While newspapers can defend mistaken reports by showing they tried to get it right, Twitter users don’t have the same standards and may have a hard time defending postings that are later proved wrong, Collard said. Twitter limits postings to 140 characters and users can share another person’s tweet with a few clicks. “At least if you’re writing an article you can ask the other party to comment and you can be balanced,” said Steven Heffer, a media lawyer at Collyer Bristow in London. “But in a short tweet you’re taking a risky step if you allege something, but you can’t prove it.”
It doesn’t matter if the Twitter users believed they were spreading correct information at the time, because the “good intention or honest belief of the publisher doesn’t help”, said Eddie Parladorio, a media lawyer with PSB Law in London. Although tweets that name McAlpine and accuse him of crimes are clearly defamatory, Parladorio said, a tweet doesn’t even need to cite him or the word “paedophile” to give him a case if a “reasonable reader” of the post would link him to the BBC report. After the BBC report, Bercow tweeted, “Why is Lord McApline trending? *innocent face*”. She later tweeted that the tweet wasn’t libellous.
John Bercow’s office in Parliament declined to give out Sally Bercow’s phone number and said she could only be reached through standard mail delivery. She didn’t immediately reply to an email to her husband’s office and her Twitter account has been turned off.
If the threatened cases make it to court, the defendants may be helped by a provision of English law allowing judges to reduce damage awards based on how much money someone has already received from other sources, Heffer said.
McAlpine’s potential lawsuits are “an unusual approach, particularly when he’s received a large award from the BBC,” Heffer said. McAlpine may also have a hard time identifying users who don’t name themselves on their Twitter pages and may have to sue Twitter to do it, Heffer said. Twitter, based in San Francisco, is often resistant to requests for users’ personal information. Helen Prowse, a spokeswoman for the company, declined to comment on McAlpine.
The scandal started when Steve Messham, a victim of abuse at a children’s home in Wrexham, north Wales, alleged involvement by an unnamed senior figure in the Tory party. He said he was “sold” to men for sexual abuse at a nearby hotel. McAlpine issued a statement on November 9 denying subsequent internet rumours he had been part of a paedophile ring, complaining of a “media frenzy” and saying he “must publicly tackle these slurs and set the record straight.” “A lot of people who made the allegations were just repeating what had come to them,” Collard said. The McAlpine case “may make people think more cautiously about sending on rumours or gossip without really knowing anything about it”.
Read more at Brisbane Times