Lebanese Journalist Dr. May Chidiac Keynotes William & Mary Law School’s Human Security Law Center Symposium on Media Freedom & Human Rights

By Rachel Sleiman, William & Mary Law School ’23 (see full bio at end of article).

On Friday, January 28, 2022, William & Mary Law School’s Human Security Law Center held its annual symposium online, with this year’s topic centering on Media Freedom and Human Rights.  The Symposium hosted experts from around the world to address various issues surrounding freedom of expression, hate speech, incitement, and digital media.  This article is the first of a three-part series about the Symposium’s featured panel events.[1]  The Human Security Law Center welcomed renowned Lebanese journalist Dr. May Chidiac to open the Symposium as keynote speaker, which also featured Professor Jenik Radon of Columbia University’s School of International & Public Affairs (SIPA) as moderator.

In her Keynote Address, Dr. May Chidiac shared the inspirational story about her career rise as a television journalist in Lebanon, where she became known across the Middle East for her hard-hitting and outspoken political broadcasts.  Dr. Chidiac shared the details that led up to an assassination attempt that nearly took her life and how she returned to television “with audacity,” remaining steadfast in her convictions by continuing to vocalize her advocacy for the sovereignty of Lebanon.  Dr. Chidiac also discussed her life after leaving television journalism, which included a political appointment as Lebanon’s Minister of State for Administrative Development in 2019, and the press freedom she continues to advocate for through her foundation, the May Chidiac Foundation Media Institute.  She ended her address by explaining what continues to inspire and motivate her hope in the face of what often can appear to be insurmountable challenges to freedom of expression.

Despite her legendary career, Dr. Chidiac says she stumbled upon journalism haphazardly–to support her mother and sister after losing her father and brother amid a civil war.  She set her interests in architecture and design to the side and enrolled in a university journalism program.  Soon after, she started a job as a radio news broadcaster on the Voice of Lebanon Radio Station.  That paved the way for her next role as a news anchor with the premiere private television station in Lebanon, the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation (LBC), which was established by the Lebanese Christian-based political party, the Lebanese Forces.[2]  At LBC, she became a strong female presence on television screens both as a war correspondent and news anchor.  Dr. Chidiac achieved notoriety by reporting in places where no one dared to go.  Of the experience, she said: 

At the time, I was unable to fight for my people at the front lines, so I did the next best thing–I reported the truth and brought visual proof with me.  Usually, that was accomplished by dragging my cameraman with me to places he did not want to venture.  While many would hide in fear, I was sleeping next to a photocopy machine, ready for another adventure under the bullet-filled sky.  I believe it was this tenacity that took me from a neophyte reporter to a seasoned media figure in the country.[3]

Because of the dangers provoked by the Lebanese Civil War, Dr. Chidiac placed her bourgeoning journalism career on pause at her mother’s behest and left for Switzerland from 1989 through the beginning of 1991, where she served as the press attaché for the Lebanese Ambassador to Switzerland.  However, Dr. Chidiac’s commitment to her country drove her to return to Lebanon and resume her journalistic work, critically covering the continued occupation of the Syrian regime,[4] despite the risks that many Lebanese, particularly journalists, faced for openly voicing opposition to the occupation and advocating for a free and sovereign Lebanon.  Dr. Chidiac’s voice even garnered attention beyond Lebanon’s borders, providing an opportunity to leave Lebanon for Dubai and the Al-Arabiya News network.  Yet, even with the offer of a significant salary raise and a stable environment, she “refused to trade [her] country for life-long security because [she] was making a difference”[5] as a news anchor and political talk show host.

From 1998 through 2005, Dr. Chidiac managed her morning talk show as a platform to express the opinions of Lebanon’s silent majority; she was one of the few who dared to do so.  She hosted guests who fervently opposed the tyranny of the Syrian regime and the Syrian-puppet Lebanese intelligence apparatus in power.  Dr. Chidiac faced death threats, yet she was motivated to fight for herself and the Lebanese people and pressure the Syrian regime to end its occupation of Lebanon.

In 2004, then-Prime Minister Rafic al-Hariri decided to step down in a symbolic repudiation of Syrian pressures to renew the term of pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud.[6]  Less than four months later, on February 14, 2005, Hariri’s motorcade was targeted in a car bomb that killed him and twenty others.[7]  Hariri’s murder was the first in a rampage of assassinations that rocked the country that year, which resulted in the murders of journalists Samir Kassir and George Hawi; politician and former editor and publisher of daily newspaper An Nahar, and a friend and colleague of Dr. Chidiac, Gebran Tueini; Pierre Gemayel, a notable Lebanese political leader and founder of the Kataeb political party; and many others; as well as the attempted murder of then-Lebanese Defense Minister Elias Murr.[8]

In the immediate aftermath of Hariri’s death, Dr. Chidiac described that her work and “passion finally came to fruition”[9]when she saw over a million Lebanese people gather on Martyr’s Square.  This impressive demonstration–known as the Cedar Revolution–demanded the withdrawal of the Syrian army from Lebanon and the truth behind the assassination on the one-month anniversary of Hariri’s murder on March 14, 2005.[10]  This show of resistance also attracted the attention and backing of the international community.  Inspired, Dr. Chidiac sought to tackle the motives behind the murder of Hariri and others through her own investigation.

On September 25, 2005, six months after the spark of the Cedar Revolution, Dr. Chidiac reported the findings of her investigation live on-air from the desk of her morning talk show, exposing the Syrian Baathist regime’s possible involvement in Hariri’s assassination and the violence that rocked Lebanon that year.  Of her work, Dr. Chidiac expressed that she “might have gone too far in her research” but that she “was doing what she did best­, careless of the consequences, exposing the truth.”[11]

Later that day, Dr. Chidiac visited Saint Charbel’s Monastery for some peace of mind.  She got into her car to leave, and, as she turned toward the backseat to set down her bag filled with her research, leaks, and holy water from the monastery, “the killer pressed the button.”[12]  Fighting tears, Dr. Chidiac recounted: “Suddenly everything around me shook and exploded.  It is very rare for a person to witness their own death.  I knew at the same moment that they had just plotted for my assassination.”[13]

The attempt on Dr. Chidiac’s life shocked the country, region, and the world.  It was the first time a woman was ever targeted for political assassination in Lebanon.  Due to the tremendous force of the explosion, Dr. Chidiac lost her left arm and left leg above the knee.  She endured over forty surgeries and extensive rehabilitation.  Due to her weakened immune system, she suffered from cancer, where she lost another dear part of herself, her hair.  Dr. Chidiac’s fight for her life was not only physical; it was psychological.  “It was difficult to reconcile the fact that I lost half of my body . . . especially after being the woman who showed up on screen like a butterfly with a big smile every day for twenty years.”[14]  Yet, Dr. Chidiac refused to be silenced:

I never lost hope or strength to be the voice of the Lebanese people.  Stopping my work as a journalist would have meant granting my attackers the satisfaction of silencing me.  Resuming work was my own way of standing up to their violent tactics with strength and resolve, so I worked and worked and worked.[15]

Two years after rehabilitation, Dr. Chidiac pursued her doctoral degree and published her autobiography, Le Ciel M’Attendra (“Heaven Can Wait”).  She also returned to LBC, and her television career, with a new primetime show Bi Kol Jorra (“With Audacity”), where she brought back her sharp political commentary to television screens across Lebanon and the Middle East.  Dr. Chidiac’s critical reporting garnered many accolades for her bravery in journalism.[16]

However, Dr. Chidiac’s career at LBC would not last.  On February 3, 2009, Dr. Chidiac ended her evening segment with a surprise resignation, motivated to leave by opposition she faced at the network.  In her address, she criticized her colleagues, who “have waged a relentless war against [her]” and interfered with the guests on her show.[17]  

With the close of one chapter came the turn of a new page.  Dr. Chidiac began to dedicate her time and efforts to social welfare, which included establishing her foundation to promote the upholding of media freedoms, support aspiring journalists, and monitor traditional and media freedom in Lebanon and the world by collaborating with local and international organizations like UNESCO.  At the beginning of 2019, Dr. Chidiac was appointed to the Lebanese cabinet under Prime Minister Saad Hariri as Minister of State for Administrative Reform.  She served in an environment where she faced those associated with a political party that aided in plotting her assassination.  Yet, “Lebanon was more important,”[18] and Dr. Chidiac ensured that her voice would be heard.  

Dr. Chidiac accomplished a lot in the short period she served as Minister of State for Administrative Reform.  In her political role, Dr. Chidiac developed the National Anti-Corruption Strategy with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to address Lebanon’s significant economic and financial challenges and combat the corruption that has stymied the country’s growth.  She successfully introduced the 1325 Resolution to enhance women’s peace and security in Lebanon.  Dr. Chidiac also represented Lebanon on the global stage, in her capacity as both a Lebanese political figure and Lebanese female journalist, by participating in the first Global Media Freedom Conference, which took place in London, England, and signing the Media Freedom Pledge on behalf of Lebanon.

On October 17, 2019, when protests erupted across Beirut against the Lebanese political establishment,[19] Dr. Chidiac, along with her fellow ministers, resigned from the cabinet to pave the way for positive change.[20]  Since then, Dr. Chidiac has devoted her work to the mission of her foundation, the May Chidiac Foundation Media Institute.  There, Dr. Chidiac and her team advocate for the freedom of speech and the protection of journalists.  The Foundation also serves to educate media professionals on their rights in the face of violence, online threats, and defamation lawsuits–which are now regular occurrences in Lebanon.  Dr. Chidiac also maintains a presence supporting her country.  After an explosion at Beirut’s port killed over two hundred twenty people and injured over five thousand,[21] she joined rehabilitation efforts by heading the GROUND-0 Beirut Relief Committee.

Today, Lebanon is still reeling–not only from the devastating Beirut port explosion, for which justice remains glaringly absent twenty-one months later,[22] but from the economic and political crises that have plunged the country into both literal and figurative darkness.[23]

Asked what gives her hope in the face of all that she has endured and the current Lebanese climate, Dr. Chidiac expressed that she relies on the resilience of the Lebanese people, her faith in God, and her own inner strength.

There is a mission for me [to] stay[] alive. . . . I have the choice[] to be positive, to believe that anything can be done, even if the fight will continue in struggle . . . I believe that I need to support my country.  My country gave me a lot; I need to give back.[24]

With Lebanon’s elections approaching in mid-May, Dr. Chidiac expressed optimism in a free and democratic electoral process to serve as a catalyst for a new independent government reflective of the tenacity of the Lebanese spirit that ignited the October 17, 2019, revolution.

About the Keynote Speaker

Dr. May Chidiac is an award-winning Lebanese veteran television journalist, Professor of Journalism and Radio/Television at the Notre Dame University–Louaize and served as Minister of State for Administrative Development in the Lebanese government.  Throughout her journalistic career, Dr. Chidiac spoke out against tyranny and advocated for the freedom and rights of the Lebanese people.  Because of this, she faced numerous death threats, and in 2005, a planned car bomb nearly took her life.  Dr. Chidiac’s tenacity and passion for freedom of speech and freedom in the media led her to overcome the obstacles she faced to come back to television in a prime-time political talk show called Bi Kol Jorra, meaning “with audacity.”  Dr. Chidiac later established her own foundation in promotion of upholding these freedoms, supporting aspiring journalists, and monitoring traditional and media freedom in Lebanon and the world.

About the Moderator

Professor Jenik Radon is an adjunct professor at Columbia University’s School of Public and International Affairs and an international lawyer who has lectured and worked in over seventy countries.  He is the founder and director of the Eesti and Eurasian Public Service Fellowship and associated programs, which has provided students the opportunity to intern with government authorities and civil society in emerging nations.  He has advised public authorities and civil society around the world on sustainable natural resource development, investment agreements, governance and business and human rights.

About the Human Security Law Center

The Human Security Law Center (HSLC) at William & Mary Law School centers on human rights, national security and international criminal justice and law.  Its purpose is to provide students with an understanding of and appreciation for national security and human rights issues, particularly through the interplay between national defense and the protection of civil rights in both the domestic and global spheres.  The Director of the HSLC is Ernest W. Goodrich Professor of Law Nancy Combs.

A Note about World Press Freedom Day

The Comparative Jurist published this article on World Press Freedom Day, which celebrates its twenty-ninth anniversary on May 3, 2022.  Initially declared by the United Nations General Assembly in 1993,[25] the day honors the anniversary of the Windhoek Declaration, a statement of press freedom principles drafted by African journalists at a UNESCO seminar in Windhoek, Namibia in 1991.[26]  Each year, the day highlights the significance of the freedom of the press, reminds governments of their duty to respect and uphold the right to freedom of expression, and commemorates the lives of journalists who have risked or continue to risk their lives to report the truth.  Together, UNESCO and the Republic of Uruguay are hosting this year’s World Press Freedom Day Global Conference on May 2-5, 2022.[27]  This year’s theme, Journalism Under Digital Siege, highlights the “digital era’s impact on freedom of expression, the safety of journalists, and access to information and privacy.”[28]

About the Author

Rachel Sleiman is a law student at William & Mary Law School (J.D. ’23) and a Managing Editor and incoming Editor-in-Chief of the Comparative Jurist.  Rachel is also involved as a staff editor on the William & Mary Bill of Rights Journal, research assistant to Professor Nancy Combs, and Student Bar Association Chief of Staff.  As a law student, Rachel had incredible opportunities to intern for the Honorable J. Michelle Childs of the District of South Carolina in the summer of 2021 and extern for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Eastern District of Virginia in the spring of 2022. This coming summer (2022), she plans to intern for the Federal Public Defender’s Office in Columbia, South Carolina. Before coming to law school, Rachel worked as a paralegal specialist supporting the U.S. Department of Justice’s Criminal Fraud Section.  Rachel hopes to pursue a career in litigation, and her education and experiences, which include majoring in International Studies and Anthropology at Case Western Reserve University and a semester studying abroad in Amman, Jordan, inspired her pursuit of a career in transnational law and human rights.

[1] See Allison Lofgren, Comparative Free Speech: An Expert Roundtable Discussion at William & Mary Law School’s Human Security Law Center Symposium on Media Freedom & Human Rights, The Comparative Jurist (May 3, 2022), https://comparativejurist.org/2022/05/03/comparative-free-speech ; and Nancy Rosen, The Future of Media & Press Freedom Globally: A Discussion with Professor David Kaye, The Comparative Jurist (May 3, 2022), https://comparativejurist.org/2022/05/03/future-media-press-freedom-globally.

[2] LBC, founded in August 1985, was the Lebanese Forces’ main channel during the Lebanese Civil War and the first media institution to break the state-owned Télé Liban monopoly over television broadcasting.  LBCI, Media Ownership Monitor Lebanon, https://lebanon.mom-rsf.org/en/media/detail/outlet/lbci/ (last visited Mar. 5, 2022).

[3] Dr. May Chidiac, Keynote Address at the William & Mary Law School Human Security Law Center Media Freedom & Human Rights Symposium (Jan. 28, 2022).

[4] Led by Hafiz al-Assad, then-President and father of current President Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s involvement in Lebanon began amid tension between the Lebanese government and Palestinian forces in 1969.  By June 1976, the Syrian army occupied Lebanon, “dominat[ing] the country and subdu[ing] it to the will of Damascus,” for the next twenty-nine (29) years.  Etienne Sakr (Abu Arz), The Politics and Liberation of Lebanon, 9 M.E. Rev. Int’l Aff. 86, 86 (2005).

[5] Dr. May Chidiac, supra note 3.

[6] Lebanese Prime Minister Resigns, CNN (Oct. 20, 2004, 11:10 AM), https://www.cnn.com/2004/WORLD/meast/10/20/lebanon.pm/.

[7] Former PM Killed in Beirut Blast, The Guardian (Feb. 14, 2005, 1:59 PM), https://www.theguardian.com/world/2005/feb/14/lebanon.

[8] Timeline: Lebanon Assassinations, Al Jazeera (Oct. 20, 2012), https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2012/10/20/timeline-lebanon-assassinations-2.

[9] Dr. May Chidiac, supra note 3.

[10] Hundreds of Thousands Jam Beirut in Rally Against Syria, N.Y. Times (Mar. 14, 2005), https://www.nytimes.com/2005/03/14/international/middleeast/hundreds-of-thousands-jam-beirut-in-rally-against.html.

[11] Dr. May Chidiac, supra note 3.

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] See Previous Ministers: Dr. May Chidiac, Off. Minister of State for Admin. Reform, https://www.omsar.gov.lb/Ministry/Previous-Ministers/Dr-May-Chidiac?lang=en-us (last visited Apr. 10, 2022).

[17] ‘Disgusted’ May Chidiac Announces Departure from LBC Airwaves, The Daily Star (Feb. 5, 2009), https://www.proquest.com/newspapers/disgusted-may-chidiac-announces-departure-lbc/docview/432547742/se-2.

[18] Dr. May Chidiac, supra note 3.

[19] Sarah Dadouch, ‘The Country is Burning:’ Thousands Fill Lebanon’s Streets to Protest Corruption, Washington Post (Oct. 17, 2019), https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/lebanese-protesters-burn-bonfires-in-the-heart-of-beirut/2019/10/17/0eb3d19c-f143-11e9-89eb-ec56cd414732_story.html.

[20] Lebanese Forces Quits Govt. Over Cabinet ‘Inability’ to Salvage Situation, Asharq Al-Awsat (Oct. 20, 2019, 4:45 AM), https://english.aawsat.com//home/article/1953421/lebanese-forces-quits-govt-over-cabinet-‘inability’-salvage-situation.

[21] Beirut Explosion: Lebanon’s Government ‘to Resign’ as Death Toll Rises, BBC (Aug. 10, 2020), https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-53720383.

[22] Lebanese ‘Deserve the Truth’ Over Deadly Port Blast: Guterres, U.N. News (Dec. 20, 2021), https://news.un.org/en/story/2021/12/1108492.

[23] See, e.g., Kareem Chehayeb, Lebanese Fearful as Fuel and Wheat Shortage Deepens, Al Jazeera (Mar. 8, 2022), https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2022/3/8/lebanese-fearful-as-fuel-and-wheat-shortage-deepens; Julien Ricour-Brasseur, Lyana Alameddine, Souhayb Jawhar, Tales of Fumbling in the Dark, L’Orient-Le Jour (Aug. 30, 2021, 2:50 PM), https://today.lorientlejour.com/article/1273166/blackout-across-lebanon-tales-of-fumbling-in-the-dark.html.

[24] Dr. May Chidiac, supra note 3.

[25] Journalism Under Digital Siege: World Press Freedom Day 2022, United Nations, https://www.un.org/en/observances/press-freedom-day (last visited Apr. 10, 2022).

[26] Seminar on Promoting an Independent and Pluralistic Asian Media, Declaration of Windhoek on Promoting an Independent and Pluralistic African Press, U.N. Doc. CII.92/CONF.002/LD.9, KAZ/92/INF.3 (Aug. 10, 1992).

[27] World Press Freedom Day, UNESCO, https://en.unesco.org/commemorations/worldpressfreedomday (last visited Apr. 10, 2022).

[28] Id.

Citation for Cover Image: <<Free Connected Minds>> Theme of the Conference of MCF, Prestige, https://www.prestigemag.co/2016/12/free-connected-minds-theme-de-la-conference-de-la-mcf/ (last visited Apr. 28, 2022).

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