By Ahmed Aboulenein and Estelle Shirbon
LONDON (Reuters) - The planned trial of a Lebanese journalist and her TV station over a report that allegedly hindered the work of an international tribunal could endanger press freedom in Lebanon and beyond, according to the accused and her lawyer.
Karma Khayat and Al-Jadeed TV stand accused of contempt of court by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL), which is probing the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri, an event that changed Lebanon's history.
The journalist and the TV channel will go on trial at the tribunal in The Hague on April 16 accused of "knowingly and wilfully interfering with the administration of justice" over August 2012 broadcasts relating to witnesses in the Hariri case.
The trial sets a legal precedent because it is the first time a company has been indicted by an international court, according to Karim Khan, lead counsel for Khayat and Al-Jadeed.
Previously, courts like the International Criminal Court or the special courts for the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone or Cambodia indicted only individuals, said Khan, a senior British lawyer.
"The case has potentially serious consequences for other international broadcasters and newspapers who report on matters relevant to the tribunal or who engage in investigative reporting relating to how such tribunals perform," Khan told Reuters in a written answer to questions.
Khayat and Al-Jadeed face a maximum penalty of seven years in jail or a fine of 100,000 euros ($105,780), or both.
"Just by indicting Al-Jadeed this would be a weapon to have all the other media in Lebanon afraid of speaking out, speaking the truth or being critical," Khayat told Reuters in London.
The tribunal denies that the case impinges on press freedom.
"The freedom of expression is not absolute and journalists and media organizations must comply with the law," it says in a question-and-answer page on its website about the contempt case.
The indictment said Al-Jadeed broadcast "information on purported confidential witnesses" in the case.
The disputed program did not name the witnesses, whose identities were secret at the time, but said that the channel had received a list of witnesses' names from an unknown source and confirmed it was genuine by contacting the witnesses.
"STOP THE LEAKS"
Khayat, 32, says the purpose of the report was to denounce the fact that sensitive information about the Hariri case was being leaked to the media, not to intimidate witnesses.
"Instead of going after journalists they should try to stop the leaks coming from inside the tribunal," she said.
The STL says it welcomes criticism that does not interfere with administration of justice but that "publicizing the names of protected witnesses, or even alleging such publication, may have serious consequences for the tribunal's functioning".
Hariri and 21 other people were killed in Beirut in 2005 in the deadliest of a series of attacks against critics of Syria's military dominance in Lebanon. Huge public protests over the killing pressured Syria into withdrawing troops from Lebanon after a 29-year presence.
The STL is currently trying in absentia five members of Shi'ite Muslim group Hezbollah who are accused of organizing the killing. Hezbollah denies any role and says the tribunal is a tool of Israel and the United States.
Lebanon's pro-Hezbollah newspaper Al-Akhbar and its co-founder Ibrahim Al-Amin were also charged with contempt over reports relating to witnesses.
But Khayat said other outlets in Lebanon and abroad published leaks about witnesses, including in some cases names, photos and other details, without being pursued by the tribunal.
Critics of the tribunal have also pointed to perceived missteps during the Hariri investigation, including testimony from witnesses who later recanted and the prolonged detention without charge of four pro-Syrian security officials.
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(Writing by Estelle Shirbon; Editing by Dominic Evans)