BEIRUT: Many of Lebanon’s lawmakers and media experts have identified that the country’s outdated media laws urgently need updating.
There is, however, little consensus on what the new legislation should look like, and as a result, a number of different laws have been introduced to Parliament, with each law having the potential to dramatically shape the future of free expression in Lebanon if passed.
The regulations affecting Lebanon’s media were largely legislated through the 1962 Press Law and the 1994 Audiovisual Law.
“Since then, there has been absolutely no clarification or amendment, especially after the digital revolution,” Lebanese Forces MP George Okeis, the author of a law put forward earlier this month, told The Daily Star.
Okeis described his law as aiming to prevent the pretrial detention of activists, while also more than doubling the penalties for slander and defamation. The recently elected MP said that the law was brought about in response to “many cases where political activists are required to [attend] police stations for hours, or sometimes days, to put pressure on them not to criticize this political man or other.”
The law is the briefest of three currently going through Parliament, containing only one article. The others are a comprehensive media law first submitted in 2010 by then-MP Ghassan Moukheiber, in cooperation with media NGO the Maharat Foundation, as well as an e-transactions law that was approved by the joint parliamentary committees last month and is on the agenda for Monday’s legislative session in Parliament.
Both contain articles intended to address the lack of clarity surrounding online blogging, social media and protections for online activists in the existing media laws. However, due to the size of Moukheiber’s proposed media law, and the fact that it has yet to be assigned to a parliamentary committee, its “life cycle within the Parliament is still very long,” said Georges Ghali, executive director at human rights watchdog ALEF. Whether or not the e-transactions law is passed, Ghali cautioned it was more limited in scope with regard to protections for online activity than the media law.
According to various experts, the need for the laws to be updated has never been more pressing. Both the Maharat Foundation and SKeyes Center for Media and Cultural Freedom said that the number of cases of people being summoned for questioning regarding online activity had risen dramatically since the formation of the last government.
Widad Jarbouh, a researcher at SKeyes, said the number of summonses had increased from about eight to 10 in 2015, and to 27-30 annually since the formation of the government in 2016. SKeyes has this year recorded 12 summonses for investigations issued by the Internal Security Forces’ Anti-Cybercrimes Bureau, and five by Army Intelligence, all for posts on social media.
Statistics from the Maharat Foundation do not all directly tally with those of SKeyes, and no official statistics have been released by the government. Nevertheless, Maharat program manager Layal Bahnam told The Daily Star that the number of arrests or calls for investigation for activists’ and journalists’ online activity is increasing. Like SKeyes, Maharat has already documented 17 this year, while it only documented 10 throughout 2017.
A recent high-profile case was the summoning of Lebanese Center for Human Rights President Wadih al-Asmar to the Anti-Cybercrimes Bureau last month, allegedly regarding a joke posted on Facebook referencing Maronite St. Charbel.
However, both Maharat and SKeyes said that the majority of recorded summonses have been for posts or activity referencing politicians, particularly caretaker Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil or President Michel Aoun.
Neither Bassil nor Aoun’s office responded to requests for comment from The Daily Star, but caretaker Justice Minister Salim Jreissati vehemently rejected that freedom of expression was under threat or that any reported rise was related to the president or caretaker foreign minister, his colleagues in the Free Patriotic Movement.
Jreissati said that concerns over a crackdown on freedom of expression in Lebanon are politically motivated and intended to put pressure on the president. “There is a campaign against us, against our political clan. There is not a freedom struggle ... in Lebanon,” he said.
Jreissati said that the president had personally asked him and the public prosecutor in the first month after the government was formed “not to launch any legal proceedings against people expressing their opinion against him.”
The minister added that he had requested from the public prosecutor last year that he only detain people if he received a “direct complaint.”
While charges are rarely brought, some of those questioned as a result of complaints over online posts have alleged improper treatment during detention. Activist Khaled Abboushi, who was brought in for questioning in July by Army Intelligence in Tripoli, said that he was blindfolded, handcuffed and beaten for a Facebook post comparing Aoun and Bassil to Syrian President Bashar Assad and his late father.
He said that he was then forced to sign a document forbidding him to criticize either the Lebanese president or the caretaker foreign minister. “These places that are being used to detain people – animals should not be brought here,” he told The Daily Star.
In a similar case, a 15-year-old boy, Youssef Abdullah, was brought in for questioning, again to Army Intelligence in Tripoli, as a result of a WhatsApp status allegedly mocking Aoun. The boy’s father told The Daily Star that his son was also handcuffed and blindfolded, “as if he is [Daesh (ISIS) leader] Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.”
Abdullah’s father said his son was traumatized by the experience: “It was very violent and the boy was terrified. He has seen things he should never see in his life.”
An Army spokesperson did not respond to The Daily Star’s request for comment on the allegations.
One of the main points of dispute in the debate surrounding online speech in Lebanon is where the boundaries between freedom of expression and defamation should lie. Jreissati held that, “when it’s a character assassination, you have to pay fines to the guy if he complains. It’s our rules.”
Charbel Kareh, the president of the ICT Center at the Beirut Bar Association, was among those involved in drafting the e-transactions law, which, he says, holds clauses looking to prevent detentions for online activity. Nevertheless, he told The Daily Star that the definition of defamation was clear.
“When it comes to defamation, for example, you can criticize even the president of the state,” but it’s illegal to attribute certain qualities to him, “like you cannot say he’s a dog,” Kareh said. “You have to make sure what you’re posting is acceptable and objective. When it comes to subjectivity ... this will be a violation for sure.”
Bahnam, however, argued that Lebanon’s defamation laws “have very vague definitions.”
She said that too many avenues exist to crack down on speech through laws related to harming national security or preventing criticism of religious figures.
“There needs to be clear guidelines on what is reputation, what are morals and what are national security issues that would lead to the derogation of the right to freedom of expression,” Ghali said.
Padraig Hughes, legal director at the London-based Media Legal Defense Initiative, cautioned against overgeneralized laws for online activity, noting that many countries are “introducing these very broad, very vague laws in order to basically clamp down on what people are saying online about them.”
When it comes to the issue of how those accused of defamation should be sanctioned, it is generally agreed that those being detained should not be punished at their initial questioning. According to Ghali, “by asking people to remove Facebook posts, by making people sign pledges, by forcing people to delete their accounts – ordered by the prosecutor or ordered by law enforcement agencies – those are practices that violate the principle of being innocent until proven guilty.”
However, another key bone of contention is, when a case gets past the questioning stage, whether defamation should be tried in the civil courts, or, as is currently the case, the penal courts.
Criminal sentences for online posts are rare in Lebanon, but they exist. One of the most notable recent cases was a four-month prison sentence handed down to journalist Fidaa Itani in June for insulting Aoun, along with a LL10 million ($6,500) fine for a Facebook post defaming Bassil. Itani is currently in self-imposed exile in London.
Okeis said that “even in the oldest democracy in the world, [defamation is] not a civil case.”
Hughes disagreed: “Criminal defamation is very controversial. It is on the statute books of a lot of countries, including countries in Europe, but it’s very rarely used, and in particular the imprisonment of anyone for speech in the form of, let’s say a finding of defamation against them, is in particular frowned upon.
“I don’t think it’s true to say that ... this is normal,” he said.
“This is not normal at all.”
Hughes noted that when it comes to criticism of public figures like the president, “you’re balancing the right of the individual to express themselves against the right of that person to defend their reputation, and where does the balance fall?
“Then you’re taking into account that the president has the biggest ‘bully pulpit’ of all.
“There’s a strong, principled position that first of all politicians, in particular people that are in the public domain, should have a thicker skin to deal with this kind of commentary,” he added.
Ghali agreed that the laws currently being drafted should not be weighted to protect public figures.
“Defamation [laws] should be set to protect people that are weak, people whose reputation can be forever shattered, people that don’t have the venues to protect their reputation,” he said.