Home OpinionComment A new strategy to defend Lebanon’s free press

A new strategy to defend Lebanon’s free press

Taking cases to the courts is the way forward

by Ayman Mhanna

For those who believe in a free and independent press in Lebanon, our latest report on media freedom in the country makes depressing reading. In total, in 2013 there were at least two cases a month of journalists being assaulted across the country. These abuses ranged from being shot at in Tripoli, being illegally detained by Hezbollah, Salafists and other non-state actors, to even being beaten up by security forces in Beirut.

Most worryingly, there is a growing silence following such cases, with impunity for the perpetrators all too common. Virtually none of these abuses have been prosecuted, despite seemingly unequivocal evidence in some cases. Simply put, the government is not doing enough to protect these most basic rights.

In the long run, what is needed to protect freedom of speech are changes to the country’s laws. Foremost among these is the passing of the 2009 draft law on freedom of information. This law, debated by parliament in 2012 but never passed, would give journalists new protections to question those in authority.

The second legal change that is needed is the decriminalization of libel, slander and defamation. While it is right that people should be held accountable for what they publish, these are matters that should be dealt with in a civil court. No one should ever face going to jail as this threat pushes reporters into not asking the toughest questions.

Judicial hope

Yet if we are honest, these legal changes do not look forthcoming. Lebanon’s politicians have a pretty woeful record of passing legislation at the best of times. Right now we have a parliament that last summer (arguably unconstitutionally) extended its own mandate by 17 months. Since doing so, they have passed precisely zero legislation. Simply put, the chances of getting the changes we need right now are negligible.

With the new government due to disband in only a couple of months, in the short-term the judicial system is our only fully functioning institution. As such, it is our best hope of better protecting the values we hold dear. Parts of that system have shown themselves open to defending freedom of expression. In the 1999 Marcel Khalife case, for example, the judge ruled in favor of the artist who had been sued by Dar al-Fatwa for putting a Quranic verse to music. The ruling set a major precedent for the protection of cultural expression.

This and other examples show that there is clearly a possibility that the judiciary will back liberal values. The most recent ruling by judge Najj Al-Dahdah in a LGBT case is another sign that things can move in the right direction through the judiciary.

Yet there are in fact two areas of the judiciary that deal with media freedom in Lebanon. The main judicial system, on the one hand, which would rule on cases of physical abuses, unlawful detention and death threats, and, on the other hand, the Publications Court, which deals with cases against media publications (including online) covering issues of libel, slander and defamation.

This duel system can sometimes end up with bizarre paradoxes. Al Akhbar journalist Mohammed Nazzal, for example, exposed clear corruption in the judiciary – leading directly to a judge being demoted. Yet the Publications Court declared he had brought the judiciary into disrepute, and therefore fined him. This is clearly illogical – we need protection for those exposing injustice in any form.

Taking the initiative

Going forward, therefore, it is no longer enough to merely defend journalists that are unjustly beaten up, detained or sued. We must empower those that have their rights abused – initiating action and giving them the legal support and capacity to take their cases to court. To that end, SKeyes has launched a strategic litigation program and invites journalists subjected to violations to come forward so that, with our support, they can seek justice through all available legal means.

By putting these cases directly in front of the judiciary, we increase the pressure on judges to protect freedom of speech. Key cases could be the attacks on journalists from New TV in downtown Beirut on November 26, 2013 or the attacks on bloggers and civic activists demonstrating in June 2013 against the postponement of parliamentary elections. The evidence against those that attacked them appears so compelling – there is huge amounts of video footage of the events – that if and when it eventually comes to trial, the right decision is crucial.

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Ayman Mhanna

Ayman Mhanna is Executive Director of the SKeyes Center for Media and Cultural Freedom, a Beirut-based free speech organization.

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