Recent charges and prosecutions against news outlets, journalists and bloggers by Lebanese government officials reflect an urgent need to reform press and other laws to improve protection for freedom of expression.
Article 13 of the Lebanese constitution guarantees freedom of expression and freedom of the press “within the limits established by law.” But the press law and penal code, audiovisual media law and military code of justice — which media outlets are also subject to — don’t have adequate safeguards to protect the rights of journalists and bloggers. One of the critical issues with the current law is that it criminalizes defamation, authorizing prison terms for journalists and anyone else found guilty. Defamation cases in Lebanon have typically resulted in journalists being fined, not imprisoned; but the threat of prison has a chilling effect on freedom of expression, especially since defaming public figures is considered a crime. In an alarming indication of increasing restrictions, the publications court on February 12 sentenced Jean Assy, a blogger, to two months in jail for defaming and insulting President Michel Sleiman on Twitter.
In recent months, the Internal Security Forces Cybercrimes Bureau has investigated Assy among others. It brought another blogger, Imad Bazzi, in for questioning on defamation charges on March 13 over a post he wrote on December 11 on his trella.org blog, criticizing former state minister Panos Mangyan for abuse of power. Bazzi was interrogated for three hours. The next day he appeared on the LBC News ‘Nharkom Saeed’ program, which the station purposely cut short to protest the range of issues they cannot discuss for fear of prosecution. In addition, ambiguous clauses in Lebanese law have been used to charge journalists and bloggers for opinions and statements that are protected under international human rights law.
One of these prohibits publishing material that “contradicts public ethics or is inimical to national or religious feelings or national unity.” Definitions of defamation are also ambiguous.
On February 26, the publications court fined Mohammed Nazzal, an Al Akhbar journalist, 27 million LBP ($18,000) after Judge Yaqzan brought a defamation case against him for an article on judicial corruption that was published last May. Nazzal was fined even though Judge Yaqzan, whom Nazzal had criticized for unlawfully releasing two drug dealers, had been demoted for doing so. Judge Qobeissi, against whom Nazzal had levied the same accusation, resigned.
Rasha Abou Zaki, an Al Akhbar contributor, was fined 4 million LBP ($2,667) by the publications court in February for defaming former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, after she alleged corruption and embezzlement in the finance ministry. She was fined despite Judge Rokez Razk reportedly finding that she had been objective. Ibrahim al-Amin, the Al Akhbar editor, was sued for defaming and insulting President Sleiman for two articles he published claiming he was corrupt. Al-Amin is scheduled to appear before the court on April 9.
Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil is suing Executive Magazine for an article published while Bassil was energy minister. The article alleged that Bassil was seeking to monopolize control over the oil and gas sector and included allegations of bad practice against the minister.
In its 2013 annual report, the SKeyes Center for Media and Cultural Freedom detailed several examples of journalists who had been detained and assaulted by non-government figures in Lebanon, saying that police and other security forces had not protected them from such abuses. It also detailed physical attacks on journalists by members of security forces.
In one case, customs agents beat Riad Kobeissi, a journalist at Al Jadeed TV, and his colleagues, on November 26 as they tried to get access to the customs director to ask him about corruption at Rafic Hariri airport.
In 2009, Ghassan Moukheiber, a parliament member, proposed amending the press law to eliminate some of the ambiguous clauses, including what constitutes defamation, and to decriminalize defamation. The law was last debated in parliament in October 2012 but never passed.
Parliament should urgently revisit the debate on the draft law and make other badly needed legislative changes to ensure that freedom of expression is preserved, and Lebanese laws are in line with the country’s international obligations.