Lebanon has long had the reputation of being one of the freest Arab countries. But in recent years, civil liberties groups say, freedom of expression in Lebanon has come under attack as authorities increasingly use the country’s broad and vague defamation laws in an effort to stifle criticism of government officials and other powerful people.
Naji Karam, a now-retired professor of archaeology at the Lebanese University, is a case in a point.
About a decade ago, Karam was deeply troubled that plans to erect several high-rise buildings over the site of a 5th to 4th century B.C. Phoenician port in present-day Beirut would destroy a valuable archaeological site. But his appeals to the Ministry of Culture fell on deaf ears.
So, in a February 2013 live television interview, he criticized the then culture minister for “mismanaging” the country’s cultural heritage.
The minister responded by bringing a defamation complaint against Karam, and the professor was summoned to several criminal interrogations. As he was leaving one of the meetings, the plaintiff’s lawyer turned to Karam in the elevator and asked if he would like to settle the matter by apologizing to the minister.
“I said, No,” recalls Karam, “the minister should apologize to the Lebanese people.”
[Enjoying this article? Subscribe to our free newsletter.]
In 2017, Lebanon’s slow-moving “Publications Court,” which hears complaints involving written or broadcast media, found Karam guilty of defamation for similar comments he had made on Facebook. But the following year, a new head judge of the court reversed that ruling and exonerated Karam of all charges.
In his ruling, the judge wrote, “Justice and the law do not justify the conviction of those who point to and expose corruption in an objective manner.”
Curbs on Freedom of Expression
The outcome of Karam’s case was a rare victory for a common citizen accused of libeling a powerful government official, though in the end builders razed the archaeological site, known as Mina al-Hosn, to put up the new buildings.
“The increasing use of these defamation laws has had a chilling effect on free speech in Lebanon.”Aya Majzoub
A Lebanon expert with Human Rights Watch
But human rights activists and civil society organizations say that in the last few years, the Lebanese authorities have greatly stepped up their use of the defamation laws to punish journalists, activists, and others who call out corruption or criticize powerful individuals.
Such enforcement actions typically follow complaints by government officials, political party leaders, bank directors or religious institutions.
According to a report released by Human Rights Watch in November, titled ‘There Is a Price to Pay’: The Criminalization of Peaceful Speech in Lebanon,” the number of defamation criminal investigations increased more than fourfold in recent years, from 341 in 2015 to 1,451 in 2018, the latest full year for which figures are available.
A January 2020 report from the American University of Beirut’s Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs, titled “To Speak or Not to Speak: Tackling Recent Violations of Freedom of Expression in Lebanon,” says such violations continued apace in 2019.
The trend has come at a time of growing public discontent and protests against worsening economic conditions and government mismanagement in Lebanon. The country’s defamation laws, some of which date from the Ottoman and French Mandate periods, are vague, providing scant definition of defamation and allowing law enforcement officials to apply them as they see fit. The laws carry punishments of up to three years in prison.
‘A Chilling Effect on Free Speech’
“The increasing use of these defamation laws has had a chilling effect on free speech in Lebanon,” says Aya Majzoub, a Lebanon expert with Human Rights Watch. Between March and June 2019, the organization interviewed 42 defendants and lawyers in criminal defamation cases, as well as government officials and civic leaders.
“The boundaries have been pushed in terms of the insults people are directing toward politicians and parties.”Alexi Touma
Co-author of a recent report from the American University of Beirut’s Issam Fares Institute
“Many of the defendants reported they were self-censoring” after intimidating interrogations, Majzoub says. Defendants said that interrogators looked through their phones and social media accounts, sometimes without a judicial order.
At their interrogations, persons accused of defamation are often told to delete offending social media posts, or sometimes accounts, to avoid prosecution, and in most cases defendants do so. Some have lost their jobs following pressure on their employers from the police.
Nine of the people interviewed by Human Rights Watch spent time in pretrial detention, in one case, for 18 days.
Many of the investigations are carried out by the Cybercrimes and Intellectual Property Bureau, a unit of Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces created in 2006. Investigators pressure accused people with the threat of jail.
Between January 2015 and May 2019, according to HRW, the Publications Court sentenced at least one person to prison, criminal courts sentenced three people to prison, and military courts sentenced a further three people to prison, though two of the cases were overturned on appeal.
Most of these jail sentences were delivered in absentia, after the accused had fled the country or when people said they had not been informed of court dates. But the cases serve as warnings to others.
Human Rights Watch reported that in at least four cases, armed security officers aggressively arrested people accused of defamation in a manner vastly disproportionate to their alleged offense, in apparent attempts to intimidate defendants. In one case, about 10 armed police officers stormed the offices of the online publication Daraj and arrested its co-founder and editor-in-chief, Hazem el-Amin.
“The way they were driving in the street, with the sirens and the convoy, it’s as if they caught [Islamic State leader] Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi,” el-Amin told Human Rights Watch.
Protesters Assert Their Civil Liberties
Observers say the authorities began clamping down on freedom of expression in Lebanon after mass protests in 2015 against a crisis of uncollected garbage and other signs of government mismanagement and economic meltdown. (See a related article, “A University Wades Into the Lebanese Garbage Crisis.”)
The resumption of mass protests last October was sparked by a government announcement of a $6 per month tax on Internet calling services like WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger. The tax was soon withdrawn, and two weeks after the start of the cross-sectarian uprising, the government was forced to resign. More recently, clashes between demonstrators and the police have turned violent. (See a related article, “As Lebanon’s Protests Continue, Students Balk at Returning to Classrooms.”)
Observers say that despite the increased use of defamation investigations, many people have been emboldened by the “October Revolution” to use increasingly harsh language in chants, posters and social media to denounce corruption and mismanagement.
“The boundaries have been pushed in terms of the insults people are directing toward politicians and parties,” says Alexi Touma of the American University of Beirut’s Issam Fares Institute.
“A certain barrier of fear has been broken,” says Touma, who is a co-author of the institute’s recent “To Speak or Not to Speak” report.
The report contains several recommendations, including an urgent call for parliament to reform the country’s defamation laws. The offense should be changed from a criminal to a civil matter, the report says, and terms like “libel,” “slander,” and “defamation” should be clearly defined.
Training on freedom of expression and digital rights should be provided to government officials, lawyers and judges, it says, so that they better respect citizens’ rights. And the government should establish an anti-corruption committee to deal with one of the main concerns of the population—unchecked corruption by government officials and others.
Meanwhile, one of the reasons often given by the authorities to justify their defamation investigations—to stop incitement to sectarian tensions—is losing whatever appeal it may have had.
After all, the people who have come out at demonstrations across the country in recent weeks, sometimes in the hundreds of thousands, are protesting in a leaderless and nonsectarian manner, with Shias, Sunnis, Christians and members of other communities side by side.It is becoming increasingly clear, says HRW’s Majzoub, that the authorities merely use this excuse “as pretext to stifle debate.”