Alarming Increased Attacks On Freedom Of Opinion In Lebanon

“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers,.

Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Freedom of opinion and expression is a right acknowledged by all and allowed by few.

And Lebanon is, unfortunately, materializing more and more as a country where such freedom is conditional to certain controversial laws implemented in 1962.

While Lebanon is considered one of the Middle East’s freest countries, it isn’t as free as assumed, at least not equally for all, and the alarmingly increasing attacks on freedom of speech denote it remarkably.

According to Article 13 of our Constitution, freedom of speech or expression is a ‘guaranteed right’ yet within limits; at least on the people and the media. This penal code protects public officials from slander and defamation, granting them ‘immunity’ against the expressions of opinions of both the media and the people.

Journalists and publications must adhere to that 1962 penal code or press law, even when it comes to reporting facts or at the account of facts.

That applies as well to the general population that can’t accuse the public officials of any wrongdoings.

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However, most people, including lawyers, deem that the problem with the terms “slander” and defamation” is that they are not clear in context, and could be left to interpretations.

As being witnessed in Lebanon, these terms could encompass any and everything, even what is not normally defined as defamation and/or slander.

For instance, when banks started to issue withdrawal limits weeks before the revolution, people took videos and photos at the banks and posted them on social media.

Among them, Lebanese journalist Amer Shibani who, according to Middle-East Eye on October 15th, was threatened by a lawyer of a major bank, “You will delete your tweet or else.” 

According to journalist twitter user @chehayebk, “Several were interrogated over accusations of slander and defamation,” just for posting photos of the banks.

In an interview with The New Arab, the Deputy Director of Human Rights Watch for the MENA region, Lama Fakih, stated that defamation laws have been used more routinely and are targeting more journalists and activists. In light of the recent uprising, this restriction of freedom is widely seen.

Article 384 of the Lebanese penal code permits a 6 month to 2 years imprisonment for insulting the president, the flag, and the national emblem.

The military code under article 157 decrees 3 months to 3 years imprisonment for insulting the Lebanese flag.

With the Lebanese nation revolting since October 17th, local media outlets were expected to duly cover the uprising. However, the blackout was remarkable at first until journalists started gradually to take a firmer stance; some with and some against.

It is to note that many of the media outlets in Lebanon belong to, or are affiliated with, politicians, which have obstructed truthful coverage and reports.

It was social media that has played the main role in conveying news, updates, and coverages of the Lebanese revolution. The Lebanese people have become since then the quickest and most straightforward reporters in their own rights via social media.

Along with reporting the news, they communicate their ideas, share their opinions, engage with each other, pour out their pain and frustration, and retweet or forward any type of information they deem necessary to be known by others.

Unlike the pre-Facebook era, little could be hidden now. People everywhere in the world have become reporters. The walls of blackout by governments have long fallen, and governments are desperately trying to regain that control on what is said and what is conveyed.

In those countries, like ours, freedom of speech and expression is paying the price. More so now during the revolution, and even more recently this week, with pro-revolution journalists and activists being targetted.

Some pro-revolutionists have seen their Twitter accounts blocked by “anonymous reports” against them.

Nidal Ayoub, Amer Shibani, and many other journalists and activists have been arrested and interrogated by the Lebanese Cybercrimes Bureau for posting material related to the ongoing uprising.

The prominent journalist and activist Nidal Ayoub was just detained and interrogated for posting a video allegedly insulting the president. The video was deemed inappropriate and damaging to the image of the state.

According to Nidal, in her interview with Daraj Media, the state only acts against the citizens and has never raised a case against any government official: “Over many years, we’ve never seen a case raised against an official or some who incited against us or assaulted us go anywhere.”

The case filed against her by Hussein Mortada accused Nidal of slander, defamation, and blasphemy, including charges of expressing contempt towards the president and undermining “the prestige of the state.”

According to tweets circulating online, Amer Shibani was interrogated by the Cybercrimes Bureau for posting a picture of the bank and people waiting in line, which he captioned: “No dollars at SGBL bank, not even at the register.”

Worth pointing out here that, in September of 2018, Lebanon co-sponsored a UN Human Rights Council resolution on journalist’s safety.

Article 19 of that resolutions calls “on creating an enabling environment for the media, including by calling on political leaders to stop denigrating journalists, and reinforces international criticism of political leaders who have sought to undermine trust in independent media.”

Even The961 founder, Anthony Kantara, was targetted abroad. In a matter of a few days, he received many death threats, had his bank accounts compromised, social media accounts hacked over forty times, his marketing company’s website hacked as well as countless attempts at compromising the security of The961’s website.

According to the Human Rights Watch, the attacks happening in Lebanon these days on journalists and activists clearly opposes Lebanon’s international obligations to protect freedom of expression.

These prosecutions and threats demand a swift and urgent change in the removal of these laws by the Lebanese parliament.

A month ago, five kids were arrested and detained for over 9 hours for allegedly tearing down a poster of the president from an electricity pole in the street, hence subject to that law, and their arrest ‘justified.’

It was soon revealed from the surveillance camera that it was a poster of the political party of MP Bassil and that they did not even touch it. Yet, the kids remained detained for 9 hours and interrogated.

Freedom of speech and expression is a universal human right that is regrettably waning in Lebanon along with the freedom of the press.

With millions of Lebanese protesting against the government and public officials for almost 3 months now, does the state intend to arrest the nation or move instead into heeding their plight to save the country?

One thing is certain, that law must not come against the UN resolutions that the state has signed.

The terms of slander and defamation must be clearly descriptive in detail, as a minimum requirement, so that law isn’t left to interpretations and misinterpretations and used and ill-used at whims.

Most importantly, the law needs to be just and fair, according to the universal laws of human rights, and be equally applicable to all, and not just the people and the media.

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