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Why Won’t Lebanon Stand Up for Free Expression?

Coalition Criticizes Lebanon Abstention from Media Freedom Statement

LGBTQ Rights graffiti spray-painted at a protest site in downtown Beirut. December 22, 2019.  © 2019 Marwan Tahtah for Human Rights Watch

The “Coalition to Defend Freedom of Expression in Lebanon,” of which Human Rights Watch is a member, released a video today criticizing Lebanon’s refusal to sign a recent statement by the Media Freedom Coalition, a partnership of countries advocating for media freedom and the safety of journalists. Although one of the Coalition’s founding members, Lebanon was the only member not to sign the final statement of the ministerial meeting that took place at last week’s second Global Conference for Media Freedom.

The statement recognized the unprecedented challenges, risks, and threats facing journalists, exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, and called on Coalition members to protect journalists and defend media freedom, including by addressing risks to journalists from marginalized groups such as the LGBT community.

Foreign Minister Charbel Wehbe, who represented Lebanon at the meeting, did not officially disclose why Lebanon refused to sign the statement. He later tweeted that he did not sign due to a phrase he said contradicts Lebanese law. When asked if he was referring to the phrase about protecting members of the LGBT community, he replied, “I wish our laws would be updated.” Wehbe later deleted his Twitter account.

While Lebanon’s laws relating to sexuality do need updating, they do not explicitly criminalize being LGBT. Article 534 of the penal code punishes “any sexual intercourse contrary to the order of nature,” but several high-level judgements, including from the top military prosecutor, have ruled same-sex acts between consenting adults are not unlawful.

However, Lebanon’s murky stance reflects the authorities’ targeted crackdown in recent years on LGBT rights and organizing, using vague “morality” claims, which is part of a larger attempt to stifle free expression in the country.

Authorities have increasingly used Lebanon’s criminal defamation laws, which authorize imprisonment up to three years, to retaliate against individuals criticizing them. And violent attacks, including by security forces, on journalists and activists with views critical of the government have gone unpunished.

At this critical juncture for the country, Lebanon needs to commit to safeguarding the rights of everyone to engage constructively in public debates about pressing social and economic issues, especially members of the LGBT community and other marginalized groups.

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