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Lebanon: Festival Cancels Mashrou’ Leila Concert

Government Censors Indie Band Instead of Protecting Free Speech

A group of Lebanese activists chant slogans as they hold Arabic placards that read: "Freedom of expression," right, and "With Mashrou' Leila against the suppression of freedoms.  © 2019 Bilal Hussein/AP Photo
(Beirut) – The Byblos International Festival Committee has cancelled the indie band Mashrou Leila’s August 9, 2019 concert, Human Rights Watch said today. The committee cited security considerations and said it wanted to avoid “bloodshed,” following a week of pressure and threats from some individuals and some Christian groups.

The Interior Ministry neither responded to the escalating violent threats against Mashrou’ Leila, nor publicly guaranteed the safety of the festival and the concert-goers. Instead, on July 24, the public prosecution referred two band members for interrogation, which lasted six hours. State Security officers forced them to pledge to censor content on their social media accounts, in violation of their right to free speech.

“The cancellation of Mashrou Leila’s concert reflects the government’s increased reliance on overbroad and abusive laws to stifle and censor activists, journalists, and artists,” said Lama Fakih, acting Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The government’s decision to take action against Mashrou’ Leila while ignoring serious threats against the band shows that it is using insult and incitement laws selectively to censor divergent opinions.”

Mashrou’ Leila is a Lebanese band that has that gained worldwide acclaim for tackling pressing social issues in the Arab world and speaking out against oppression, corruption, and homophobia.

Mashrou’ Leila has played in Lebanon multiple times, including at the Byblos Festival in 2010 and 2016, performing songs that some individuals and religious groups now claim are offensive to Christianity. The controversy is the latest in an escalating campaign of repression against peaceful speech in Lebanon.

On July 22, a lawyer filed a complaint with the public prosecution calling on the government to prosecute Mashrou’ Leila for insulting religious rituals and inciting sectarian tensions, citing Articles 317, 474, and 475 of the Penal Code. The same day, the Maronite Catholic Eparchy of Byblos issued a statement claiming the band’s songs “offend religious and human values and insult Christian beliefs.” They demanded that the Byblos Festival cancel the show. The campaign proliferated on social media, and many internet users threatened the band with violence if the concert went ahead.

Although the Mount Lebanon prosecutor, Judge Ghada Aoun, released the band members without charge following their July 24 interrogation, State Security forced them to pledge to remove the “offensive” content from their social media accounts, issue a public apology, and remove songs deemed to be offensive to Christianity from their concert set list.

Such pledges violate the band members’ right to free speech, given that Lebanese lawyers agree that they are unconstitutional and have no legal basis. The United Nations Human Rights Committee has found that blasphemy or “defamation of religion” laws violate freedom of expression.

Several hours after the concert was cancelled, the band released a statement expressing regret that any of its songs offended anyone’s beliefs. They assured the public that: “our songs do not insult any sacred religious symbols or beliefs, and that insulting people’s feelings was primarily the result of campaigns of fabrication, defamation, and false accusations of which we were the first victims, and it is unfair to hold us responsible for them. Our respect for others’ beliefs is as firm as our respect for the right to be different.”

On July 30, 11 rights groups, led by Lebanese human rights organization The Legal Agenda, submitted a complaint to the acting cassation prosecutor. They expressed concern about the widespread threats on social media, including incitement to violence, death threats, and calls to ban the concert by force and asked the prosecutor to investigate. They said that such remarks threaten civil peace and prevent the band members from exercising their constitutionally-guaranteed rights to free artistic expression and free speech.

Rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, have noted an exponential increase in the use of criminal defamation and incitement laws to arrest, interrogate, and prosecute people who are exercising their right to free speech. Journalists and activists have told Human Rights Watch that the current climate of prosecutions for peaceful speech has had a chilling effect. Some said they have started self-censoring for fear of being called in for interrogation.

Lebanon’s constitution guarantees freedom of expression “within the limits established by law.” Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Lebanon ratified in 1972, provides that “everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression.” But Lebanon’s penal code includes several provisions that criminalize peaceful speech. Articles 474 and 475 criminalize insulting religious rituals and denigrating or distorting religious and sacred symbols, respectively. Both are punishable by six months to three years in prison. Article 317 criminalizes “inciting sectarian tensions,” punishable by one to three years, even if the speech is not likely to, or even intended to, incite violence.

Authorities should drop criminal charges for peaceful speech and parliament should urgently repeal laws that criminalize it, Human Rights Watch said.

Laws that are so vague that individuals do not know what expression may violate it create an unacceptable chill on free speech because citizens may avoid discussing any subject that they fear might subject them to prosecution. Vague provisions not only do not give sufficient notice to citizens, but also leave the law subject to abuse by authorities who may use them to silence dissent.

Instead of ensuring that all the necessary security precautions were taken to guarantee the safety of the concert, the Lebanese authorities chose to infringe on Mashrou’ Leila’s right to free speech, Human Rights Watch said.

“This incident demonstrates how criminal defamation, incitement, and insult laws in Lebanon are exploited by powerful groups and how they fail to protect marginalized voices and those who have divergent opinions,” Fakih said. “Lebanon is joining the ranks of abusive governments in the region that trample on free speech rights, pushing out the talent and debate that has made this country what it is.”

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