Lebanon’s Uprising Followed an Unprecedented Wave of Oppression

Sunday 17 November 201902:57 pm
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"الحكي عليه جمرك في لبنان"... كيف ارتبط قمع الحريات بتردي الأوضاع الاقتصادية والاجتماعية؟

“Lebanon is great if you want to dance all night and not take part in politics, other than that it’s hell” with this brief sentence journalist and researcher Hanin Ghaddar summed up the situation on freedom of expression in Lebanon.

Ghaddar's statement was published in a report by Human Rights Watch on November 15 at the Bread & Net conference organized by the Social Media Exchange (SMEX).

The report "Talk Is Dutiable: The Criminalization of Peaceful Speech in Lebanon," found a significant link between the repression of freedom of expression in Lebanon and the deterioration of social, economic and even political conditions, and citizens' taking to the streets to protest.”

The report which took a year to produce reviewed dozens of cases in which the Lebanese authorities using criminal laws sought revenge against journalists, activists, and citizens critical of officials or government policies, some incidents dating back to 2015.

The report, in 99 pages, monitored the period from 2015 when thousands of citizens protested the garbage disposal crisis with the slogan "You stink", until the popular uprising that began on October 17 to condemn corruption and demand the "overthrow of the regime."

Intimidation

Between January 2015 and May this year, the Lebanese Office for Combating Cybercrime opened 3,599 investigations into allegations of defamation. Between 2015 and 2018, the number of defamation cases associated with online expression of opinion increased by 325%.

Among these cases, Lebanese criminal courts sentenced at least three people to prison, one of whom received nine prison sentences (between two and six months) in various criminal cases brought by one politician.

During the same period, the Publications Court handed down at least one prison sentence, while the military court handed down three sentences, two of which were overturned on appeal.

Human Rights Watch believes that although most of the sentences were handed down in absentia and few people served their sentences, State security “inappropriately and sometimes illegally intimidated individuals accused of these cases and tried to silence them.''

The authorities used physical and psychological interrogation techniques that victims believe intended to humiliate, punish and deter them from publishing content that might be offensive or critical of the country's influential people.

Walid Radwan, who was taken to the Internal Security Information Division in Tripoli in September last year because of a satirical Facebook post about a prominent politician, said: "The interrogator asked me, 'You dog, how dare you write about (the politician)?' Then he hit me three times on the head and face. The blows were not the sort that hurt you physically but hurt your pride”.

Investigators also went through the cell phones of defendants in defamation cases, searching through their social media accounts without a judicial warrant.

Investigators pressured people to sign pledges not to criticize the plaintiff in the future, or to remove the offensive content immediately before they could defend themselves in court.

One such journalist and activist, Mohamed Awad, was asked last year to sign a pledge not to insult religious leaders or incite sectarian tension, or else he would be detained.

It was because of an article in which Awad presented his view of the willingness of some to die for Hezbollah, a sacrifice that he perceived to be against human nature.

"I told them that I would sign this paper because it had no legal effect- these things only happen in films,” Awad said.

The Daily Star reporter, Timur Azhari, was questioned for eight hours for publishing an article about the case of a domestic worker who alleged that she had been abused by her employers. The investigator demanded that he remove a tweet about it.

Azhari said: "He said to me 'whether you like it or not, you will delete it, and if you do not delete it, we will slap you, and spend a night in the cell, then delete it. So you better delete it now.' I realized then that I was in a dangerous situation, my heart beat rapidly then I had this realization: you are in the custody of the Internal Security Forces you are being interrogated by someone who is already biased against you.”

Of the 42 interviews conducted by the organization with lawyers and defendants in criminal defamation cases, most of the defendants reported that, after the horrific experiences they had lived through these cases, they practised “self-censorship”.

Some of those who were investigated in defamation cases felt compelled to exile themselves for fear of arrest or harassment, while others lost their jobs and found it difficult to find a new job. Fines and penalties had a significant impact on others.

The interrogator said: You dog, how dare you write about this politician like this? He slapped me three times, the blows didn't hurt physically, they were blows to my pride. Walid Radwan speaking of his arrest by Lebanon's Security Apparatus in Tripoli
Mohamad Awad had to sign a pledge not to insult religious leaders again before he got released from detention. He had questioned the willingness of some to die for Hezbollah, a sacrifice he perceived to be against human nature.

Journalism Targeted

The silence of journalists, publications, and sites critical of government corruption and abuse of public office by the authorities of their posts in the country seemed more widespread.

Michel Kanbour, a Lebanese journalist and founder of Lebanon Debate said that he has been prosecuted for defamation charges 30 times since 2012.

Kanbour, who was tried without his knowledge and was sentenced to six months in prison and a fine of 10 million Lebanese pounds (about $ 7,000) in 2018, for an article in which he accused the director of a government institution of corruption, explained that "The Lebanese Publications Law does not respect the principles of international law because to believe the truth doesn't matter ... so any brave publication should expect a lawsuit."

In 2019, it is shameful that our courts have sentenced journalists to prison. The only justification for jailing a journalist would be because they are inciting violence. insulting someone should not be a reason.''

One of Lebanon's most notorious defamation cases involved journalist and researcher Hanin Ghaddar, who was sentenced to six months in prison in January 2018, for allegedly making insulting comments towards the Lebanese army at a Washington DC conference in 2015.

One comment was that the Lebanese army distinguishes between "Shiite terrorism and Sunni terrorism", as it has not taken action against the crimes of Shiite militias that Hezbollah controls.

Ghaddar believes that the sentence was a "message". “This free speech that we enjoyed for a while is over, and we are now back to the pre-2005 era. Only, instead of the Syrian army, we have the Lebanese state.”

"Lebanon is good if you want to dance at night and not participate in politics. Otherwise, it’s hell."

At the end of last September, the Lebanese president's office said in a statement that those who "broadcast false facts or allegations that would cause a decline in the value of our currency or to undermine confidence in the robustness of the state's cash and bonds and all bonds related to public financial confidence may face punishment of up to three years in prison and fines. "

Hours later, in early October, the cybercrime office summoned Mustaqbal journalist Amer al-Shaibani for questioning because of a tweet saying that his bank was not handing over dollars to customers and "asking" him to delete his tweet. He did.

On the fifth of the same month, four Lebanese lawyers filed a complaint against The Economist for "harming Lebanon's reputation and defaming the Lebanese flag in a report on the dollar shortage."

Investigative journalist Riad Kobaissi said a government official filed at least two defamation cases against him for publishing documents, recordings of calls and messages via WhatsApp at the end of October, revealing the official's involvement in corrupt practices. Although the Lebanese Public Prosecution accused the official of wasting public funds based on Kobaissii's evidence.

Around a dozen security agents stormed the offices of Daraj and arrested its editor-in-chief and co-founder Hazem al-Amin over a defamation case. "The way they were driving in the street, with the sirens and the convoy, was as if they had captured (ISIS head) Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi," said al-Amin.

Political Views Censored

The Lebanese authorities have also prosecuted individuals for comments on political situations, some of which have been made public and others privately.

The well-known political commentator Hani Nsouli was detained by Internal Security forces for a voice message he sent to a private group via WhatsApp in August 2018 and was interrogated for seven hours on charges of "inciting sectarian strife and disturbing Lebanon's ties to a sister state."

Nsouli told Human Rights Watch. “This is a political opinion, not a personal insult. I’m talking politics,” he told Human Rights Watch. “And the charge that I’m inciting sectarian tensions is silly. On the contrary, I am criticizing those who are doing that.”

Change the Law

Human Rights Watch fears thousands of people who recently took to the streets criticizing corruption and human rights abuses of similar reprisals and therefore recommends that the Lebanese parliament give priority to repealing criminal laws that criminalize defamation and slander to protect against similar acts of vengeance.

The Lebanese constitution guarantees freedom of expression, but "within the sphere of law," and the penal code criminalizes defamation of public officials and permits imprisonment for up to one year. The law also permits imprisonment up to two years for insulting the president and up to three years for insulting religious rites. The Military Justice Act criminalizes the contempt of the flag or the army and punishes it with imprisonment for up to three years.

The Lebanese Parliament is currently debating a new media law that amends defamation provisions related to published content. Although the proposed law prohibits pre-trial detention for all publishing crimes, it abolishes prison sentences for alleged defamation, and in some cases removes punishment by imprisonment and fines.

“Criminal defamation laws are a deadly weapon in the hands of those who want to silence criticism and debate on pressing social and human rights issues,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.” At this critical juncture, Lebanese officials should safeguard, not stifle, free expression.”

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