”It is by the goodness of God that in our country we have those three unspeakably precious things: freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and the prudence never to practice either of them," said late American journalist Mark Twain, a quote that perfectly describes Lebanon these days.
In Lebanon, next to the three precious things Twain mentions, there is a fine line between freedom of expression and criminal offenses. There has been confusion over when one could be on either side of this line, given the number of subpoenas and lawsuits filed last year against people who expressed certain opinions.
Theoretically speaking, the difference should be obvious between an opinion that one may not like, and another that is insulting and punishable by the law. Yet in reality, the difference is barely clear.
It seems that there is a Lebanese "ghost" who has multiple long arms and has been working hard on erasing all kinds of differences in views, with only the official line allowed. He also gives himself the right to determine what is right and what is wrong when it comes to freedom of expression.
In the process, this ghost enables anyone to call for the imprisonment of one person or the repression of another through lawsuits, only because they do not like what they say.
And not only do people face charges of slander and liability for legal sanctions, but their personal safety is also threatened amid a state of lawlessness.
Comedy, politics, poetry
Among the latest victims of such cases was satirist Hicham Haddad, who was indicted upon the request of Lebanon's Prosecutor General Samir Hammoud for mentioning Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman during his TV show, "Lahon W Bass", early in January.
Satirical shows are likely to face lawsuits. However, the show host, LBCI network and the production company were staggered over what the lawsuit was based on, according to general manager of Shoot Production S.A.L Firas Hatoum, who spoke to Raseef22.
Two segments of Haddad's episode are what have mostly urged the prosecutor to take action. In the first, the comedian makes fun of clairvoyant Michel Hayek's advice to Bin Salman to avoid junk food. In the second segment, Haddad cracks jokes about the appearance of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Al-Hariri in a New Year's Eve party in Beirut. The lawsuit also refers to the mentioning of Ahmed Al-Hariri, the Secretary-General of the Future Movement, in the show.
— Hicham haddad (@HichamHaddad57) January 25, 2018
Mount Lebanon Public Prosecutor Ghada Aoun referred the lawsuit to the Court of Publications based on Article 23 of the legislative decree 77/104, which stipulates that if a publication patronizes the head of state or a foreign counterpart, "a lawsuit will be filed [even] without a complaint from a plaintiff".
None of the three figures Haddad is accused of insulting has ever been a head of state. Moreover, Hatoum said that LBCI, which airs the show every Tuesday, had contacted the Saudi ambassador to Lebanon as well as Saad Al-Hariri and Ahmed Al-Hariri. The three of them explicitly said they were not bothered by the content of the show.
It seems to Hatoum that the lawsuit is filed only to target Haddad and his show. "Whoever is behind it seems lazy because he didn't look any further to find a more sensible reason to base the complaint on," he said.
Earlier, there was also a complaint from Lebanese Justice Minister Salim Jreissati against host Marcel Ghanem, whose political show is also aired on LBCI. The complaint is also against the network's news editor Jan Faghaly as well as two guests over an episode about the reported detention of Lebanon's premier Al-Hariri in Saudi Arabia last November. The episode stirred up controversy, with accusations triggered against Ghanem that he pushed the guests, two Saudi journalists, to voice criticism against Lebanese President Michel Aoun.
In another case, a military court has sentenced in absentia journalist and researcher Hanin Ghadar, who lives in Washington, to four years in prison, a verdict that has cast light on the excessive trials of dissents before civil and military courts in order to protect the system.
Ghadar was tried because she had said in a forum that the Lebanese army cracked down on Sunni terror yet turned a blind eye to Shia terror. This was in 2014 yet the video of the forum resurfaced these days, presumably because someone wanted to turn up the heat on her after she recently appeared in an event alongside an Israeli researcher.
In another case, poet Mostafa Sebeti was put behind bars over a poetic Facebook post that was considered to be insulting Virgin Mary. He has apologized for the post, saying he wrote it while he was drunk and going through a hardship. Sebeti has asked for forgiveness, citing Jesus who forgave "those who insulted him". However, he has already spent two weeks in jail; it is yet to be seen if he will be reprieved.
The differences between comedy, politics and poetry are numerous and fundamental; the three aforesaid cases cannot be looked at through the same legal perspective. However, they all took place during a short period of time along with other similar lawsuits filed against journalists and activists, such as Ahmed Ismail, Ahmed Al-Ayoubi, Fidaa Itani, Dima Sadek and Mohamed Zebib.
Concurrently, there have been calls to ban movies -- some of which have indeed been taken off cinema screens -- either for inciting hatred of Israel or blasphemy. For instance, 15 scenes were removed from Egyptian film "Mawlana", which tackles the life of a leading Imam. Also, social movies were trimmed such as "The House Beach", Roy Dib's first narrative feature film.
The apparent wide crackdown on freedom of expression has come alongside political changes that Lebanon has witnessed since Michel Aoun was elected president in October 2016.
More repression or more obvious repression?
Bassam Khawaja, a researcher with Human Rights Watch (HRW), says it is not clear whether repression in Lebanon has increased or only grown more obvious. There is a notion that trials related to freedom of expression have been on the rise, which cannot be confirmed because the Ministry of Justice does not reveal the number of such lawsuits, he explained.
Khawaja highlighted that journalists and activists might be tried for expressing certain opinions, while others who express the same opinions would not suffer such legal consequences. He also pointed out to an HRW report on civilians who illegally stood military trials.
On his side, Lebanese lawyer Nizar Saghieh says there are several issues that need to be tackled to assess the margin of freedom in Lebanon, most important of which is the lack of judicial independence.
Saghieh believes the general prosecution office has always acted upon political interests and by far served authorities. "The prosecutor general has authority over all prosecution offices," he said, adding that the status-quo is not exceptional. "There are a lot of problems related to freedom of expression, which could either go up or down based on certain circumstances," he said.
"The main problem is that the political leaders' tolerance is growing thinner while feeling they're losing their legitimacy, which they try to preserve by blowing things out of proportion and filing liable and slander lawsuits," Saghieh said. "Amid a fierce competition in the election today, such things are becoming more flagrant."
Freedom's dark side
Hatoum says he is not against the rule of law and believes that not everything should be allowed in mainstream and social media. "For instance, I would disagree with those who say that a [Facebook] status is not a crime; media figures are the most insulted and threatened in such situations," he said.
When asked about the reason why media figures often face legal campaigns, Hatoum did not have a specific explanation. All the same, he stressed that the targeted person "usually gains public support during such campaigns, which happened with Haddad".
Some people believe that the purpose of such campaigns is to keep the media figures busy defending themselves in legal battles and to be more cautious in the future. But as a matter of fact, legal action against media outlets and personalities indeed make them more prominent.
Standing against the authorities' tendency to repress freedoms is crucially important, and so is understanding their motives and redefining the term "freedom of expression". In Lebanon, those with financial muscles as well as political interests control the freedom of expression. While journalists and activists are being legally pursued, those whose opinions are indeed criminalized are left untouched amid complete impunity.