Fourteen local and international organizations announced a coalition to defend freedom of speech in Lebanon on July 13. Along with most signatories, I share doubts about the viability of this collective action, but also a certitude about its necessity. In the 20 years I have been a journalist, rarely have I been more scared about Lebanon’s insidious descent into a police state.
Things were never perfect, but in a region where authoritarian regimes impose draconian laws against free speech, Lebanon remained a relatively safe haven. This began to change for the worse in 2015, when, triggered by a trash crisis, protestors took to the streets, for the first time raising the kellon yani kellon (all of them means all of them) slogan. The movement ultimately failed to produce change, but the prospect of Lebanese uniting against their political elite was not lost on the ruling class. The freedom to criticize, already limited by law, came under increasing attack.
This perception is borne by data. One of the signatories to the new coalition, Human Rights Watch (HRW), released a report last year detailing the increase in defamation cases from January 2015 to May 2019. Using numbers from the Cyber Crimes Bureau (CCB), HRW found that the CCB had investigated 3,559 defamation cases in that time—a 325 percent increase when comparing 2018 to 2015.
During this period oppressive measures were not exclusive to the state and suppression was not limited to political opinions. As just two examples of many, widespread xenophobia saw Syrian refugees blamed for all manners of socio-economic problems, and homophobia and threats of violence were used to justify the cancelation of a 2019 Masrhou Leila concert.
Worse to come
Since the October uprisings, attacks on freedom of expression have continued; more than 60 people have been arrested or summoned for interrogation. Amid a national economic crisis, Lebanese have been criminalized for critiquing their government and media has come under pressure for reporting economic realities. In October, the president’s office released a statement reminding that the criminal code allows for prosecution of those publishing material that threatens the stability of the economy, a day later, four Lebanese lawyers announced their intention to sue The Economist for its reporting of the unfolding currency crisis.
As bad as things are, they can get worse. Media monitors among the coalition members were able to obtain a leaked draft of the new media law being reviewed at Parliament, which, while prohibiting pre-trial detention for all publishing crimes, still allows for imprisonment due to defamation and even increases prison penalties and fines in some instances.
The work of these media monitors brings needed accountability to Lebanon’s media landscape. Contrast this to the main media channels that have been rightly criticized for the ways in which they kowtow to their political and economic sponsors. At the launch event for the coalition, a live TV transmission was cut within minutes, with the anchorwoman commenting on air that what was being said was “exaggeration.” These organizations are part of the problem.
The coalition is seeking solutions. As such, it is calling for public prosecutors and security agencies to refrain from summoning people for investigation for exercising their right to free speech, for legislative discussions in parliamentary committees to be made public, and for the new media law to be amended to bring Lebanon in line with international standards on free speech. This would mean decriminalizing defamation, removing special protections for public figures, preventing government and security agencies from bringing defamation suits, allowing truth as a defense, decriminalizing blasphemy and insults to religion, criminalizing only statements that amount to advocacy of national, racial, or religious hatred, removing all requirements for licensing of journalists and advance authorization of publications, and removing civilians and all children from the jurisdiction of the military courts.
Much still needs to be accomplished in the long battle to protect and foster freedom of expression in Lebanon, but looking at the crowd around me on that Monday morning I was comforted by familiar faces I trust. We may not have seen the worst yet. The elements that allowed for co-existence between the establishment and those who opposed it are no longer available and the system is running out of resources—real reform will mean its end and the only available tool it possesses is oppression. But while the image is bleak, it is not without hope. The battle for freedom of expression is a battle for a new future for Lebanon, and this coalition stands ready to fight.