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Figure of the Month: May Chidiac, the Ardent Champion PDF Print E-mail
Friday, 01 May 2009 00:00

By Diacorda Amosapa

Lebanese journalist May Chidiac has been selected by Al Waref Institute as the Figure of the Month of May. Chidiac is a staunch advocate and practitioner of free speech who was brutally wounded for her efforts yet made a radiant comeback demonstrating that she would not be silenced. A bold critic of government misconduct and proponent of democracy in her beloved country of Lebanon, she serves as a shining example to all who share her values.

Born in 1963 in Beirut into a Maronite Christian family, she was only ten years old when civil war broke out in Lebanon. "War has scarred me...In my opinion our most important cause, and it always has been, is the cause of our independence, Lebanon’s freedom," she stated in an interview with Euronews conducted this past September 2008.

Her career in journalism began at the Voice of Lebanon radio station while she was still a student at Lebanese University, where she obtained her Master's degree in Journalism. After three years working at the Voice of Lebanon, she joined the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation in 1985 as an editor and news anchor.  Her overall charisma and willingness to ask political officials tough questions on her show Nharkom Said (Good Day) made her one of the most popular media personalities in Lebanon.

On February 15, 2005, the former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was killed by a truck bomb. It was widely believed that the Syrian regime was responsible for the assassination and on March 14 a million or more people in Lebanon staged a mass demonstration condemning Hariri's death and demanding the withdrawal of Syrian troops from their country. May Chidiac was a prominent supporter of the demonstration and provided sustained coverage of it and related events. Though Lebanon still struggles with violent Syrian interference, Syrian troops pulled out of Lebanon, formally completed in April 2005.

On September 25, 2005, during her morning talk show Nharkom Said with An Nahar columnist Sarkis Naoum as her guest, May Chidiac expressed her fear of increased violence before the upcoming release of the UN report on the assassination of Hariri. Later that day she drove to the house of a friend who lived near the edge of the coastal city of Jounieh, north of Beirut. She parked her Range Rover near the street and rode with her friend to visit the monastery where the Maronite hermit St. Charbel lived and died. Chidiac bought votive candles, icons and bottles of holy water, then had lunch with her friend in a nearby restaurant. Afterward she returned to her car, and as she was placing the items she bought on the back seat, a bomb beneath the Range Rover exploded.

She struggled to remove herself from the vehicle with her clothes and hair still aflame as onlookers rushed to her assistance. She was transported first to a small clinic in Jounieh then transferred to Hotel Dieu Hospital in Beirut. "At first, I didn't know about my leg," Chidiac recalled during an April 2006 interview with the New York Times. "I saw my hand cut; it was still hanging by a small piece of flesh, but I didn't know that it was damaged a lot and was pointing to my hand hoping they could help me keep it." However the explosion destroyed the lower half of her left leg and damaged her left forearm so severely that most of it had to be amputated.

The attack touched off protests that even people who had political disagreements with her attended as an act of solidarity. On September 26, Reporters Without Borders registered "deep shock," characterized the attack as "barbaric" and urged authorities to solve the crime against May Chidiac. On September 28 the UN Security Council released a press statement condemning the attack and encouraging Member States "to respond positively to any request for assistance in this regard emanating from the Lebanese Government." On October 18 a letter was sent on behalf of the World Association of Newspapers and the World Editors Forum to Lebanese Minister of Interior Hassan Sabaa, expressing outrage at the attempted murder of Chidiac and calling for those responsible for the crime to be brought to justice. Many suspect, including Chidiac, that the culprit was the Syrian regime. The car bomb was one of a series of attacks against various outspoken critics of Syria, including Telecommunications Minister Marwan Hamadeh who was targeted in October 2004 but survived, as well as former head of the Lebanese Communist Party George Hawi in June 2005, An Nahar columnist Samir Kassir during the same month, and An Nahar managing editor Gebran Tueni in December 2005, who were all killed.

On November 24 May Chidiac made her first appearance on LBC since the blast. From her hospital bed she vowed to her audience that she would return after she recuperated enough to be more autonomously mobile. Soon after that broadcast she was taken to France for further medical care. Her overall recovery included undergoing 30 surgical operations and several months of intense physical therapy.

On May 3, 2006 UNESCO awarded Chidiac the UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize, and on October 27 of the same year the International Women's Media Foundation honored her as one of three recipients of the Courage in Journalism Award.

In July 2006 Chidiac triumphantly returned to Lebanon. During the event upon her arrival where cabinet members, colleagues and family warmly welcomed her back to the country, Chidiac said in a speech that "some of my body was cut, but May Chidiac is still May Chidiac. I have an artificial leg, but my mind is still my mind. I have an artificial hand, but my heart is still my heart," a declaration met with applause. The first place she visited upon her return was the same St. Charbel monastery near where she had her brush with death. There she attended a thanksgiving mass celebrated by Fr. Tannous Nehme, the monastery's superior. Just a few days later she was on the air at LBC as the host of the newly created and aptly named Bekul Gur'aa (With Audacity), a current events program that would be broadcasted every Tuesday. She still continued to receive several death threats but she refused to let them deter her from resuming her work. Chidiac wrote a book titled Le ciel m’attendra (Heaven Can Wait) published in 2007, which describes her political life and surviving the car bomb.

Prior to the car bomb attack Chidiac began working towards her Ph.D. at the University of Paris II-Panthéon Assas. Despite all the severe difficulties she suffered, she remained determined to continue with her studies and in October 2008 she successfully completed her thesis entitled "Influence of Politics on the Tele-Visual Scene in Lebanon" and received her Ph.D. in Information and Communication Sciences.

On February 3, 2009 during the end of her show and to the surprise of her guests, co-workers and viewers, May Chidiac announced her resignation. She made reference to internal struggles within the LBC and cited her desire to maintain her principles and dignity as the reason for her decision to leave. Pointedly omitted from the content of her announcement was any mention of fear of death or further injury as a motivation for her departure. There are reports that she may enter the political arena and serve Lebanon in an elected or government appointed capacity.

Chidiac endured many ordeals throughout her career yet remained an ardent champion for free expression and for the independence of her country. Acclaim for her accomplishments has spread beyond Lebanon to the Middle East region and around the globe. Her life and work serves as an inspiration for all people facing grave danger in the pursuit of democratic ideals.



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