No right to laugh

Prison sentences for comedians showcase Lebanon’s selective justice

It is the proper application of law that separates anarchy from order, suppression from representation, people from slaves and fosters a society with a respect for the structures of governance. The opposite is just as true, where it is the selective application of law — for example when charges are conjured up to suppress freedom of expression in the name of preserving ‘public morality’ — that leads to the destruction of faith in the institution of law itself. As citizens’ distrust of their government mounts, the social contract between the two becomes less tenable and society breaks down. This is where Lebanon is today.

Following a recent string of arrests related to freedom of expression, last month actress Rawya el-Chab and comedian Edmund Hedded were in court to appeal a one-month sentence of imprisonment and a fine for committing “acts of offense against public morality”. Their crime: hosting a mock-auction of men at a pub in 2009 in order to raise money for the Brave Heart Foundation, which helps children with heart diseases. 

The General Prosecutor’s office dug deep through the Penal Code to find a way to invoke paragraphs two and three of Article 532 which cover, respectively, “words or screams that have been manifested by a person and heard by a party that has nothing to do with the act,” and “visuals presented in a public context or for a public or in exhibition or broadcasted or sold or distributed to one or more persons.” 

While Parliament’s library (yes, it does exist) is stacked with unapplied laws relating to the most basic functions of the state and serving the public — such as passing a budget, providing public services (electricity, water, telecoms) and ensuring human rights (among them the law against child abuse) — our justice system found the time to apply its energies and resources to exercise obscure laws to subdue free speech. 

But to think that the judiciary all of a sudden has the intent to weed out villainous threats to virtue and goodness would be a laughable assertion. Aside from the absurdity of a subjective concept such as ‘morality’ existing in a piece of law, an hour of local television will provide one with more than a dose of ‘immoral’ words and screams and the visuals to go with it, especially if one watched Parliament last month. Fortunately for them, our MPs can hide behind their legal immunity; we cannot.  And, as if there were not more pressing issues in the country, those who claim to defend freedom of expression — journalists from El Nashra and Annahar —provoked the judiciary by writing articles critical of the mock-auction. Indeed, the judge who sentenced the comic duo did so largely on the basis of these media articles. At the Appeals Court last month it was clear that the judge had no clue what the case was about and, worse still, after expelling the public from the courtroom, cross-examined the accused and the prosecutor, without allowing the defending lawyer to be heard; that will only happen on May 30. 

This is no laughing matter. If the General Prosecutor can convict someone for violating some backwards piece of legislation on the basis of an article, and without an investigation, then a harrowing precedent has already been set.  

Furthermore, what faith should the public have that the judiciary has any sense of ‘justice’ about it? Or that the laws passed by our government have as their intent any sort of proper governance?

What are meant to be the sacred words of our social covenant, also known as the constitution, have been defiled by the very people who are supposed to uphold them. We, the people, are not “sovereign, free, and independent,” the people are not “the source of authority and sovereignty,” the political system is not “established on the principle of separation, balance, and cooperation amongst the various branches of government.” Instead, imbeciles and their whims are given authority over our freedom of speech. 

If they wish to begin winning back the faith of the people they have so often betrayed rather than served, it is incumbent on our judiciary to see to it that these sentences are repealed, the charges dropped, and spare us their selective morality.         

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