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CNN editor fired over Muslim cleric tweet

US news organisation CNN sacked veteran Middle East editor Octavia Nasr on Tuesday after she tweeted that she "respected" a recently deceased senior Lebanese cleric. Now, the Web has risen up in Nasr’s defence...


When Lebanese-American journalist Octavia Nasr took to her Twitter account to express her sadness upon learning of the death of Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, a senior cleric credited with being the spiritual leader of Hezbollah, her employer - US news organisation CNN - decided that the comment undermined her professional credibility.

With that one “tweet”, a 20-year career came to an inglorious end. Nasr was fired from her Atlanta-based position as Senior Editor of Middle East affairs on Tuesday, following the controversial statement regarding the Shiite cleric.

"Sad to hear of the passing of Sayyed Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah... One of Hezbollah's giants I respect a lot," Nasr tweeted shortly after news of Fadlallah’s death surfaced on July 4.

The post unleashed an avalanche of reactions in the US, where the former “spiritual leader” of the radical Shiite Hezbollah movement is considered a terrorist. However, the senior Shiite cleric specifically denied, especially in his later years, that he was the organisation's spiritual leader. The US accuses Fadlallah of inciting, through his sermons, the 1983 attack on the US embassy in Beirut that killed nearly 300 people. The CIA is widely believed to have attempted to assassinate Fadlallah in 1985.

A mea culpa falls on deaf ears

Nasr has now ended up on the receiving end of a lesson she might already have known: you do not pay public homage to someone like Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah when you work for a prominent US news channel.

"It was an error of judgment for me to write such a simplistic comment and I'm sorry because it conveyed that I supported Fadlallah's life's work," Nasr wrote on the CNN Web site. "That's not the case at all."

Shortly before the announcement that Nasr had been fired, she had in fact issued a long editorial to apologize and try to justify her tweet to the American public. "I used the words 'sad' and 'respect' because, as a woman with Eastern roots, I welcome his progressive views on the status of women in Islam," said Nasr. She continued by emphasizing that Fadlallah represented moderate Shiite Islam, and concluded that “the life of a man respected across the Middle East while being considered a terrorist would not have been summarized by a 140-character tweet".

However, this mea culpa was not enough. "We believe that her credibility in her position was irretrievably compromised," said Wednesday Parisa Khosravi, vice president of CNN.

Double standards of freedom of expression

The resignation has sparked a massive online campaign supporting the veteran journalist across the US and the Arab world. The US site "The Next Web," which specializes in new media trends, finds "strange" that a "simple message” would be taken so “out of context." Jillian C. York, a writer and researcher at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, described the decision by CNN as a "disgrace to the American media." She denounced the double standards of freedom of expression in a country where a politician can get away with "denying the existence of the Palestinian people."

In the Middle East, Nasr’s fate has generated public outcry. From Samih Touqan, founder of the famous Arabic portal Maktoob, to Mohamad Takriti, CEO of iHorizons, the company developing most of AlJazeera’s online portal, several Arab media barons have denounced the "unacceptable infringement of freedom of expression."

On Twitter, the messages of support are increasing. "Firing Octavia Nasr is shameful, it’s the kind of thing that is going to swell the ranks of the fundamentalist anti-Americans!", tweeted alhussainym. In Lebanon, the resignation has even had political consequences. The Lebanese Forces, a Lebanese Christian party, has launched a Web site to support the former CNN journalist.

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