People outclass politicians on women’s rights, expression rights, and responsibilities

Photo by Greg Demarque | Executive
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The fourth discussion in Executive’s roundtable initiative was comprised of two broad topics: access to rights, with particular focus on the rights of women, and access to information, with additional focus on freedom of expression and media responsibility. Both topics were deserving of roundtables in their own right and had initially been planned as separate before timing constraints necessitated they be brought together.

The fourth roundtable took place on November 20, with participants asked to consider the following topics in advance: 1) The empowerment of women and minorities, in corporations, in small and medium sized enterprises, in politics and public administrations, and in civil society organizations, 2) the breaking of glass ceilings and challenging existing social structures, 3) legal measures against domestic violence and exploitation, 4) implementing the access to information law, 5) data ownership and privacy, 6) the role and responsibility of media and digital networks as countermeasures to fake news, and 7) the dangers of surveillance and manipulation in a digital society.

Participants came from a range of backgrounds and expertise, but while discussions on the day were clearly delineated between the two broader topics, with the moderator inviting those with backgrounds on the subject at hand to take the lead, there was passionate and dynamic debate among all participants.

The women’s revolution

To kickoff the roundtable, participants were asked for their views on the role of the government in ensuring gender equality and the legal measures necessary to guarantee protection from violence and discrimination. This led to two main considerations around the table: the importance of culture versus legislation when tackling equality issues, and the importance of a unified personal status law under a non-sectarinized system that would ensure equality for women under the banner of civil rights for all.
There was a general consensus that the perception of women’s roles had shifted as a result of the then-month long civil thawra (revolution), in which women had taken prominent leadership roles, organizing protest marches and creating human chains on the frontlines of protests to act as a barricade between security forces and male protesters.

It was in this context that it was argued by one participant that discussions about capacity building and empowerment were no longer relevant—women were empowered and acting as leaders within the protests—instead, what was lacking was access to equal opportunities and resources, which was tied by several participants into the need to ensure that women have equal rights as citizens. Among the legal steps cited were laws that would grant women the right to grant their children the Lebanese nationality, further protections against sexual harassment, and guarantees that women are treated equally in matters of inheritance.

There was debate around the table about the extent to which women’s equality could be legislated, given that many of the issues being discussed were linked to cultural and social norms. To two participants, achieving gender equality did not necessarily need to be tackled through legislation. Instead, since gender inequality was a cultural issue in their perception, it could be countered through education and awareness raising for society to accept women as equals, especially when it comes to equal pay. Financial independence for women, they argued, would go even further than legislation in achieving gender equality.

Others linked the idea of addressing cultural issues back to the thawra by noting that women suffered most under a political system that was tied to patriarchal norms, but argued that society and Lebanese culture at large was supportive of equal rights for women—seen through women’s leadership and participation in the protests—and as such, the people were more advanced than the political elite, and so changing the political system would be the entry point to securing equality for women.

Participants had differing views over the roles of quotas in ensuring female participation in the government and in boardrooms. Several participants believed that quotas were necessary to ensure women were granted opportunities that society would otherwise not accept, another raised concerns over inequality of representation in rural or impoverished areas. Another disagreed entirely with the premise that there was gender inequality in terms of high ranking positions in Lebanon, citing female ministers and department heads within ministries—this was met with significant opposition from around the table, with other participants noting that there were few female representatives within syndicates or the judiciary, and that women in prominent roles—such as activists or journalists—were often subject to online harassment and bullying tactics.

Amid disagreements among those present, one participant made a note that the perspectives of those around the table—educated women (and men) in high ranking positions—may differ from those of women from rural or impoverished areas in which rights that were being taken for granted by those present may not exist in practice. This, it was argued, was why legislation on the national level was necessary, particularly revisions of laws on personal status, nationality, and minimum age for marriage.

Other participants called for the bigger picture to be addressed, arguing that without the fall of the current sectarian system, it would not be possible to achieve progress in women’s rights. It was argued that there needed to be a direct link between the state and the citizen in order to ensure citizen’s rights outside of the clientelistic sectarianism in which sectarian leaders act as middlemen. What is needed, argued one participant, was a direct link between citizens and a state that could provide them with social welfare, subsidized education, housing plans not based on loans, and employment opportunities, and that, by removing the middlemen, women would be able to claim more independence. As such, one participant called for a unified personal status law for all citizens so that no one would need to go to their sect to obtain their rights.

While there was passionate disagreement among participants at the table, debate was generally carried out in a respectful and constructive manner—with one notable exception. On the issue of nationality rights for women, in particular women being able to pass on Lebanese citizenship to children with Palestinian or Syrian hertiage, there were strong disagreements between participants. When some participants argued that this issue was not related to gender discrimination, this was met with strong opposition from another participant who noted that while these points of view were common, they were based on a false premise. The participant went on to reference research undertaken by their organisation on the impact of the nationality law on women and their foreign spouses and children, and the way in which it impacts their access to education, healthcare, and residency. More specifically, it was noted that the numbers often cited by parliamentarians—that giving women nationality rights would tip the demographic balance by granting Lebanese nationality to some 100,000 – 200,000 Palestenians and Syrians—were inaccurate and amounted to little more than fear mongering.

The participant went on to explain that according to General Security, 21,796 non-citizen children and spouses of Lebanese women obtained legal residency in 2017. But a 2016 census of Palestinians in Lebanon found just 3,707 cases of a Palestinian head of household married to a spouse of a different nationality, and a 2009 United Nations Development Program-backed study found that there were only 18,000 marriages between Lebanese women and foreigners in Lebanon between 1995 and 2008. The participant noted that while these figures may not be 100 percent accurate, they are indicative that the numbers cited in political discourse were—even at the low end—massively inflated. When presenting these numbers, the participant was frequently shouted down by others at the table who were in disagreement; the moderator was forced to intervene.

In terms of practical steps moving forward, there was a three-part call by one participant for the government to first understand and ensure they are aligned with the obligations they were undertaking when signing international treaties such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). The second call was for these commitments to be translated into a strategy on the empowerment of women, complete with a budget and a set of indicators, and the third call was for equality for all on the basis of their citizenship alone. This was positively received by the other participants.

Differing interpretations

The focus of the roundtable then shifted to discussions on Law 28 (2017) on access to information and the difficulties of implementing it, as well as the broader issue of data collection in Lebanon.

Two participants discussed the access to information law in detail, explaining that there were two schools of interpretation when it came to its implementation: for NGOs and some administrations the law was being applied, but for many other bodies, the lack of implementation decrees and Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) was being used as a pretext to ignore the law.

One of the participants pointed to the mixed success their organization had in trying to obtain data using the access to information law. In their first attempt last year, only 34 out of 133 administrations replied. Of those, only 18 had appointed an information officer—15 on request of the organization—and many were unaware the law existed. A second report, released in September 2019, had more success with 68 out of the 133 contacted admininstations responding, yet, of those, only 33 complied with requests to view their fiscal budgets. Many administrations cited the lack of implementation degree as the reason why they were not complying with the law, with only some reversing this decision when shown documents from the Committee of Legislation and Consultation at the Ministry of Justice that stated the law was applicable without implementation decrees. According to the participant, the Office of the Presidency of the Council of Ministers even went so far as to say that those who had provided information were in violation of the law.

According to one of these participants, the parliamentary session that had been due to take place the day prior included several amendments that would have guaranteed the law should be implemented regardless of further decrees and the formation of the ACC, and would have increased its efficiency. This, they said, was a required step in the short term. In the short to long term, the new government, when formed, needed to issue implementation decrees to help facilitate the law and make it more efficient. Here it was noted by both participants that the current draft implementation decrees are actually problematic, as they restrict the use of the law to stakeholders with interest in the information, despite this being in violation of international agreements as well as the Lebanese Constitution and the access to information law itself. It was noted that in the course of trying to seek information through the law a common question was, “Who are you, why are you asking?”

A further consideration, one deemed easy in the short term, was for all administrations to appoint an information officer. Moving forward, a practical and necessary step, according to one participant, was to pass the law on combating corruption in the public sector and to form the ACC. It was noted that the ACC had been passed by Parliament in July 2019, but sent back with around 12 objections by President Aoun. Of these objections or remarks, there was concern over the issue of whether judicial appointments to the ACC should be elected, with the participant arguing for the latter to increase judicial independence. It was further noted that the ACC law needs to be passed as its holdup has prevented effective full implementation of four other laws: Law 28 (2017) on access to information, Law 83 (2018) on whistleblower protection, Law 84 (2018) on transparency in oil and gas transparency, and Law 154 (2009) against illicit enrichment.
Digitization of data and the creation of an e-platform/referral system for active disclosures necessitated by the law—such as budgets—was under process and needed to be continued, it was argued.

In the long term, several participants noted that a lot of work needs to be done on awareness raising among citizens on their rights regarding transparency and accountability as well as capacity building for civil servants. There was, however, some disagreement on this from one participant who argued that the thawra had shown that citizens were engaged and aware of their rights.

The dearth of data
The lack of available data was an issue raised throughout the roundtable initiative, though none more so than in the discussion on access to information. When debating the issues with data collection and subsequent digitalization, one participant noted that the problem was much worse than realized. There was, according to this participant, no good classification of data, no standardization between administrations, integrity issues with the data itself, and duplicate data across various government agencies. Beyond that, it was argued, civil servants need to be educated on their responsibilities, and there needed to be agreement on what data should be collected and what can be disseminated. A practical step, according to this participant, would be to start digitizing services that would not change, such as healthcare services.

Other participants noted that if the initial data was incorrect, this would not be solved by digitalization. Further dimensions considered by participants regarding data included the need for trust between citizens and public administrations, political considerations—such as the Central Administration of Statistics allegedly being kept away from the refugee file as politicians did not want accurate data—and that digitization was yesterdays’ news and without it Lebanon would lack behind on the world stage.

Crackdown on free speech

During a discussion on freedom of expression, it was argued that the perception that from 2015 to the onset of the thawra freedoms had been under increasing attack was borne from data. One participant noted that attempts to quantify the number of defamation/insult cases in that period using the access to information law proved to be an interesting experience, and their organization had opted to get numbers from the Cyber Crimes Bureau (CCB)—which most cases were referred to—to get a sense of the scale. Between 2015 and May 2019, the CCB had recorded 3,559 defamation cases—only 60 – 80 of which had made it into media reports.
The participant went on to argue that these cases—an increase of 325 percent from 2015 to 2018—were problematic for a number of reasons: firstly, they argued, the law itself was an issue as by international standards, peaceful speech should not be criminalized, and so, defamation cases should be tried as civil not criminal cases; secondly, that truth was not a defense under Lebanese law; and thirdly, that public officials were offered greater protections under current defamation laws when this was against the public interest. Beyond that, it was alleged that there were abusive practices in place, including threats or acts of violence, summons without giving cause, and people being pressured to sign pledges with no legal bearing. It was suggested that public persecutors, who have control over these security investigations should make very clear the need to abide by the code of criminal investigation. The participant further suggested that there should be training for judges to eliminate alleged bias in proceedings.

Countering rumors amid revolt

In the last minutes of the roundtable, the discussion moved to the media’s role in countering the rapid dissemination of propaganda, particularly in times such as the ongoing uprising in Lebanon.
One participant said that in Lebanon there was no independent media; 12 political families own the media in Lebanon and so, they argued, the national media is little more than media arms from political parties. In this context, it was noted that support for truly independent media was necessary.

Participants also argued that due to the revolution media was playing a huge role now, yet lacked in-depth journalism and analysis. There was also criticism of public administrations for not providing information and so allowing rumors to spread. Again, the lack of data was raised as a barrier to analysis by the media. There was, however, some hopes raised by participants that the civil thawra and citizen journalism from it could play its role in creating an independent media in Lebanon.