Misplaced trust

Freedom of speech under threat in Lebanon

Through discussions with Lebanese citizens about the space for free speech in the country, we have found that many Lebanese say they take solace in the belief that despite the government’s failure to provide even the most basic services, they at least are free to say, write, and joke about their predicaments, and criticize those they think are responsible.

Then-Justice Minister Salim Jreissati said in a February 2018 interview, “We are proud that in this murky, desert region that surrounds us when it comes to freedoms, we are a country of freedoms par excellence.” But many Lebanese citizens would be surprised to discover that they could not only be sued, but could be sent to jail for up to three years for a Facebook comment.

Although Lebanon’s constitution guarantees freedom of expression “within the limits established by law,” the Lebanese penal code criminalizes defamation against public officials and authorizes imprisonment for up to one year in such cases. It also authorizes imprisonment for up to two years for insulting the president, flag, or national emblem. The military code of justice criminalizes insulting the flag or army, an offense punishable by up to three years in prison. Other laws outlaw speech deemed insulting to religion or speech that incites sectarianism.

In recent years, there have been alarming developments in the use of these laws, with scores of people arrested, interrogated, detained, and prosecuted for peaceful speech, particularly social media posts. SKeyes recorded more than 90 prosecutions against journalists, artists, and activists since October 2016, with 62 in 2018 alone.

According to digital rights group Social Media Exchange (SMEX), the number of cases brought over online posts more than quadrupled between 2017 and 2018. In 2018, SMEX recorded at least 38 cases, with the majority over posts critical of politicians, security agencies, or the president—an increase from 11 cases in 2017 and five in 2016. Human Rights Watch has documented several other cases over defamatory speech in traditional media forums, including television shows and conferences.

In the latest instance, on January 9, then-caretaker economy minister, Raed Khoury, filed a criminal defamation lawsuit against Bechara Asmar, head of the General Confederation of Lebanese Workers, for comments accusing the minister of corruption. Asmar was called in for interrogation by the Internal Security Forces’ Cyber Crime and Intellectual Property Bureau.

On November 21, State Security summoned and arrested Abdel Hafez al-Houlani, a correspondent for the Syrian opposition news website Zaman al-Wasl, following the publication of an article alleging 20 pregnant Syrian women living in Arsal had miscarried after drinking polluted water. Al-Houlani was held for three weeks and referred to a court on charges of “inciting sectarianism.” The court only released him after he paid a $700 fine, and the website published a clarification that his article did not accuse any Lebanese party of responsibility.

However, it is not only public figures and journalists who are vulnerable to prosecution. On June 19, Army Intelligence brought in a 15-year-old boy, Youssef Abdullah for questioning, over the dissemination of a photo on WhatsApp allegedly mocking President Michel Aoun. Abdullah was released the next day after signing a pledge promising to refrain from insulting the president.

A particularly troubling trend is that people summoned for questioning by security agencies often are not told why they are summoned. Asmar says he was not given a reason for his summons to the Cyber Crimes Bureau, and Houlani says State Security held him for several days without informing him of the charges against him.

Further, interrogating agencies are taking measures against people accused of defamation prior to them being brought before a court, violating their right to due process and their right to free speech. Several of those detained have reported that during their initial questioning they were pressured to sign pledges promising not to write defamatory content about the accuser again or to remove their offending tweets or Facebook posts.

Lebanon’s courts rarely issue prison sentences for peaceful speech (which does not incite to violence)—except in absentia. But the use of pre-trial detention and lengthy trials have had a chilling effect on freedom of speech, as many journalists and activists now say they self-censor to avoid charges.

The laws that criminalize peaceful criticism of politicians are incompatible with Lebanon’s obligations under international law. Parliament should ensure that freedom of expression is upheld, including by clearly defining what constitutes “libel,” “defamation,” and “insult,” and repealing laws that criminalize criticism of authorities or national symbols.

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