Clinging to obsolete laws that fail to strike a proper balance between freedom of expression and defamation, and legitimate criticism and injury to reputation, Lebanon – generally hailed as a relatively liberal Arab country – has repeatedly cornered journalists, detained bloggers, and silenced activists in the name of legal justice.
Article 13 of the Lebanese Constitution:
The freedom to express one’s opinion orally or in writing, the freedom of the press, the freedom of assembly, and the freedom of association shall be guaranteed within the limits established by law.
Although Article 13 seemingly celebrates civil liberties, the broadly-worded edict and discriminatory provisions concerning media and press regulated by the Penal Code, Publications Law, Audiovisual Media Law, as well as the Military Justice Code, have given officials space to trample on constitutional rights and curb freedoms of speech and expression.
Consequently, the Maharat Foundation, in cooperation with MP Ghassan Moukheiber, proposed a draft law in 2009 that introduces necessary amendments to the current 1962 Press Law that Maharat views as a violation to the Lebanese Constitution, the International Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
As lawmakers continue to ignore the proposed draft law, journalists, filmmakers, artists, musicians, bloggers and social media users continue to suffer under Lebanon’s current law.
Boundless laws: Freedom of expression limited at the whim of an official
Article 75 of the Press Law prohibits publishing news that: “contradicts public ethics or is inimical to national or religious feelings or national unity.”
“The ambiguous terms used in stating the limitations on freedom of speech serve as a gap through which religious and sectarian institutions, political organizations, and influential parties and individuals, who are not authorized to censor publications, can interfere and protect their interests,” Lea Baroudi, co-founder of the anti-censorship NGO, MARCH, said to Al-Akhbar.
As stated in Article 19, a London-based human rights organization named after Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), laws that restrict expression or information must be “unambiguous and narrowly and precisely drawn.”
Because this is not the case in Lebanese law, journalists find it hard to disclose abuses, expose transgressions, denounce fraud and alert the public about any form of corruption without worrying about getting legally pursued by displeased powers.
According to “Censorship in Lebanon: law and practice,” a collaborative study led by lawyer and activist Nizar Saghieh, in cases where publication offenses are stipulated by the laws specific to publication,“we found it difficult to clearly define what constitutes libel (or defamation and slander) or what constitutes an attack on or affront to the dignity or character of a person or authority.”
Maharat’s draft law seeks to eliminate vague stipulations that are being used to stifle freedoms of speech and press and quell criticism of the actions or policies of government officials under the name of defamation.
This was the case on March 13, when the Cyber Crimes and Investigation Unit, part of the Internal Security Forces, interrogated Lebanese blogger Imad Bazzi for three hours after a lawsuit was filed against him by former Minister of State Panos Mangyan on charges of libel and slander because of a blog post titled “Minister’s Mustache”.
In the post, Bazzi criticized the attack on lawyer Jimmy Hadchiti by Mangyan’s guards who threatened Hadchiti at gunpoint.
Bazzi knows that he might get pursued by the Court of Publication, which has been the case for many journalists and bloggers in the recent past including Rita Kamel, a Lebanese blogger and activist, who is being sued because of an article she published on her blog about the Pan Arab Awards company.
“I have no problem in following the legal path,” Bazzi said, indicating he fears the Court of Publications will become a threat to journalists.
“The Court of Publications is clearly saying that it has decided to use its interpretations of the law to intimidate journalists and prevent them from informing the public on matters of public interest,” Pierre Abi Saab, journalist and vice-editor of Al-Akhbar, wrote on March 14.
Both Maharat and MARCH condemned Bazzi’s incident and saw it as yet another attack by politicians on the freedom of expression.
“Politicians have clearly launched a war against journalists,” Executive Magazine journalist Yasser Akkaoui told Al-Akhbar.
“We asked Gebran Bassil, minister of Energy and Water at the time, a righteous question concerning public money and now we are getting accused of defamation,” Akkaoui added.
“Laws should not be used to intimidate those who voice legitimate concerns about public bodies or public officials,” Baroudi declared.
Article 19 in The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), voted in favor of and adopted by Lebanon, states that defamation laws cannot be justified if their purpose or effect is to “prevent legitimate criticism of officials or the exposure of official wrongdoing or corruption.”
On January 15, the Court of Appeal in Beirut issued a ruling that condemned and fined Mohammed Nazzal, a journalist at Al-Akhbar, andAl-Akhbar’s editor-in-chief, Ibrahim al-Amin, in a lawsuit filed by Judge Randa Yaqthan against an article written by Nazzal in which he accused Yaqthan of releasing two drug dealers.
Even though Yaqthan was found guilty, Nazzal was still held liable for defamation.
“Corrupt politicians and other crooked figures in positions of power have joined forces to forbid the reform of unjust laws and do not allow any type of public accountability,” Ibrahim al-Amin wrote in response to the ruling.
“The problem today is not merely in the text of the publications law. It is in its interpretation, on which Judge Rizk seems to be an expert.”
“The current media law is constructed in a way that makes it impossible for any media outlet to expose any form of corruption, whether proven or not, without getting legally penalized,” Riad Kobeissi, an investigative journalist at Al-Jadeed TV told Al-Akhbar.
On November 26, 2013, Kobeissi and his colleagues were beaten by customs agents after attempting to address the Director of Customs to ask him about a controversial evidence-based investigation uncovering corruption at the Beirut airport.
“Journalism’s code of ethics grants the exposed person the right to reply to the accusations held against him,” Kobeissi said, “and because we abide by this code in a country with a flawed media law, the accused has time to resort to “special courts” and legally prohibit the airing of our episodes.”
President, foreign leaders, army and public institutions: “special cases”
Even though Lebanon has ratified International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Article 19 which says that all public figures, including heads of state, are legitimately subject to criticism and political opposition, under articles 384, 386, and 388 of the Lebanese Penal Code and Article 187 of the Military Legal Code, allegations or affronts against the president or army are not only prohibited, but also considered as criminal offenses.
The Maharat draft law scraps jail sentences and restricts penalties to fines only, even if the alleged defamation was of the president or any other official institution.
“The amendments proposed by Maharat aim to reform laws that don’t conform with the international standards of freedom of expression, which is something that SKeyes supports,” Ayman Mhanna told Al-Akhbar.
Ayman Mhanna is the executive director of the Samir Kassir Eyes (SKeyes) Center which is a foundation that “defends the rights and freedom of expression of journalists and intellectuals,” “monitors violations of press and cultural freedom,” and “provides support and legal assistance to persecuted journalists.”
“The decriminalization of defamation is one of our basic demands,” Mhanna added, “civil defamation laws are sufficient to deal with cases where someone’s reputation is damaged by media.”
On February 13, Jean Assy, a local activist, was sentenced to two months of jail for tweets he published in June 2013 about Lebanese President Michel Suleiman.
Human Rights Watch criticized the verdict through it’s deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa who said that “criminalizing and sending someone to jail for expression that someone deems insulting or inflammatory violates Lebanon’s international obligations to protect expression.”
“Why me? Because I’m not a Salafi. I don’t bomb civilians and threaten national security. I’m not a politician and I don’t have a long beard,” Assy said to Al-Akhbar, “I’m an ordinary lebanese citizen. Thats why.”
“This is a clear violation of freedom of expression,” Baroudi asserted, “using criminal laws to censor Lebanese citizens is an embarrassing step in the wrong direction for the government.”
“Our president cannot tolerate Twitter comments but has no problem with bold, straightforward security threats,” Assy fumed, “apparently protecting his dignity is more important than protecting the country.”
Assy is thought to be the first Lebanese citizen to be sentenced for opinions expressed on a social network, though people have previously been charged, without sentencing, for similar insults under Michel Suleiman’s administration.
On March 15, 2010 , Khodor Salameh, Lebanese journalist and blogger and editor of Jou3an, was interrogated for six hours by Lebanese security forces and threatened with arrest after criticizing the president. While no charges were filed, this form of intimidation has a stifling effect on freedom of expression.
“The problem with this law is that it is based on a 1909 Ottoman law,” Salameh explained to Al-Akhbar, “updating it every now and then doesn’t change the fact that the current law has a nineteenth century spirit.”
“Lebanese laws are full of racial stratification,” Salameh added, “granting the president ‘legal prestige’ is just an excuse used to silence critics.”
“What are the limits to criticism? Who draws the line between opinion and insult?” Salameh asked.
According to ICCPR, everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference.
This right was violated on March 3 when Justice Minister Ashraf Rifi calledon the state prosecutor “to take necessary legal actions” against Al-Akhbar’s editor-in-chief Ibrahim al-Amin for “slandering” President Michel Sleiman in an opinion piece titled “Lebanon Without a President.”
In a statement, Rifi said the article “instigates disobedience and abuse of the military and security institutions,” and the Minister of Information, Ramzi Jrei, second the accusations.
Amin defended his internationally-granted right to freedom of opinion by saying that “Monday’s editorial was a political opinion about the contents of the president’s speech. It contained legitimate criticism of Michel Suleiman’s attitudes on what is a sensitive issue, that is, the Resistance. No matter what one has to say about some of the statements in the editorial, these express an opinion, and whoever wishes to understand them differently to provoke a confrontation, is free to do so.”
“No one should be liable under defamation law for the expression of an opinion,” Baroudi said commenting on the Amin-Rifi row.
“Turning an opinion into a criminal offense is unacceptable,” Mhanna declared.
Amin, who also made accusations against both the president and minister, wrote: “If some people believe that they have sufficient immunity to shield them from accountability or prosecution, then we give ourselves the right to be immune from being held accountable and prosecuted too.”
“The judiciary must act in order to prevent the political authorities from deciding what the press can publish; those type of decisions belong to the judiciary,” Amin emphasized.
Maharat, SKeyes, MARCH, journalists, bloggers, lawyers and activists are lobbying to demand serious changes to a number of Lebanon’s media-related laws, in the hope of bringing these laws in line with the latest media development and international standards of freedom of expression.