Lebanon’s commitment to its human rights obligations will be assessed on January 18 during the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) at the United Nations Human Rights Council. Every five years, the UPR is carried out for member states to review and advise others on their human rights records.
TIMEP and the Committee to Protect Journalists presented a joint-submission ahead of the UPR on deteriorating press freedom in Lebanon. Lebanon’s press freedom is often ranked better than its regional counterparts, but that only sugarcoats the rapidly deteriorating press freedom taking place there. There is a broad range of media outlets and organizations, but this does not apply to media ownership; about half of Lebanon’s media outlets are owned by just a handful of families.
The provisions of multiple laws in Lebanon restrict and have a chilling effect on press freedom. For example, vague defamation and slander laws in the Penal Code can result in prison time, while Lebanon’s Press Law criminalizes reporting on material that is “contradictory to public morals,” “harms religious feeling,” and “[harms] national unity,” which all come with potential prison sentences.
Journalists investigating corruption and illicit financial practices have been subject to prosecution, along with those publishing critical commentary of political leaders, religious institutions, and corporate leaders. For example, Al-Jadeed television channel’s Riad Kobaissi and three other journalists were fined in 2017 for defamation and spreading false news after broadcasting an exposé on a Lebanese lawyer collecting money for a shelter for elderly people that did not exist. Though the lawyer was given the right to reply and there was no evidence of false reporting, they were still fined for defamation. Media workers and journalists accused of defamation and slander often say they were verbally abused during questioning, and that they were told to sign pledges to refrain from covering certain matters. Some have their phones confiscated and searched during questioning.
Physical attacks on journalists and newsrooms have also increased over the past five years. During Lebanon’s uprising, journalists and media workers were systematically attacked and targeted by security forces with batons, teargas, and rubber bullets. On January 14 and 15 last year, police officers assaulted at least seven journalists and detained at least two while covering protests and riots at the Helou Police Barracks. Footage shows officers attacking media workers, including Reuters photographer Issam Abdallah, who was beaten over the head with nightsticks. At least 14 journalists were attacked during a protest on August 8, less than a week after the Beirut Port explosion. Among them was photojournalist Rita Kabalan, who was chased by a soldier and was hit with the butt of a rifle, fracturing her collarbone, and videographer Makram Halabi who was shot in the leg with a rubber bullet.
The good news for Lebanon is that the solutions for many of these issues are straightforward. Lebanon could amend laws that restrict press freedom, including its defamation and slander laws, along with broad provisions in its press law that promote self-censorship. A new draft media law, currently being discussed, should not be passed without eliminating all provisions that stifle press freedom and stipulate prison sentences. The systematic use of excessive force against journalists needs to come to an end, while all cases of attacks on media workers should be investigated with subsequent accountability, be it from security agencies or civilians.
The past half-decade has not only seen Lebanon’s deteriorating press freedom, but a clear unwillingness to improve on it. Whether it is neglecting to amend archaic laws that violate its commitments to press freedom and freedom of expression, or genuine accountability measures in light of physical attacks on journalists and media workers, there is a worrying trend that Lebanon must urgently rectify. As the country faces a crippling economic crisis and the aftermath of a devastating port explosion, stifling press freedom signifies a clear obstruction to effective and genuine accountability and transparency at a time where it needs it the most.