Protesters in Beirut in 2019 (photo by Shahen Books, Wikimedia Commons)

Controlling the Narrative: Lebanon Compromises Free Speech In Crisis

03/17/2020 . By Kareem Chehayeb

Lebanon has witnessed a resurgence in libel and slander cases targeted at activists and journalists, including four high profile cases in late February.

Prominent journalist Dima Sadek and blogger Gino Raidy were both summoned to the Central Criminal Investigation Bureau after a complaint filed by Free Patriotic Movement Party accused them of “inciting sectarian strife” and “publishing fake news” on Twitter.

That same week, activist and writer Charbel Khoury was interrogated and briefly held at the Cybercrime Bureau over tweets targeting an advisor to ex-foreign minister Gebran Bassil. A warrant was issued for Khoury’s arrest for refusing to sign a pledge to end public criticism of the advisor and to delete the tweets, but he was later released following protests.

These developments are not exactly novel. However since the summer of 2015, when protests erupted over a waste management crisis, the number of these cases has skyrocketed. In fact, the number of defamation cases for online speech indicate a 325 percent increase between 2015 and 2018, according to Human Rights Watch.

An ambiguous legal framework

Lebanon is often seen as an exception to its regional counterparts when it comes to freedom of expression and space for civil society to operate. However, activists and international human rights organizations have said that these spaces are “rapidly shrinking.”

The constitution guarantees the right to freedom of speech “within the limits established by law.” There are several ambiguous articles in Lebanon’s penal code that are frequently invoked in free speech cases. Among the most notable is Article 317, which criminalizes “provoking sectarian or racial tensions or inciting conflict between sects…,” and is punishable for up to three years in prison. In addition, Article 385 defines libel and slander as anything said or written that could harm someone’s “dignity” and “honor,” and Article 582 punishes libel and slander with up to three months in prison and a fine of 200,000LL. Article 384 criminalizes insulting the president, the flag and other national symbols, and religious rituals. Human rights organizations say these laws are incompatible with Lebanon’s obligations under international law.

Inevitably, these legal measures are coupled with other human rights abuses and violations, including cases of pretrial detention and allegations of ill-treatment during interrogation, even with minors.

But beyond shrinking spaces for civic action and freedom of expression, there are other severe consequences that come with this ongoing practice, now further normalized with its increased prevalence.

“No need to panic”: Controlling narratives in crisis

At a time when Lebanon faces one of the most significant economic and political crises in its history, there is an interest to maintain a dominant narrative at the hands of the Lebanese state, ruling political parties, and large private sector and banking institutions.

As said in a report Human Rights Watch published in November, the majority of the cases they deeply investigated were based on legal complaints lodged by “powerful local individuals to silence individuals who had made allegations of corruption, fraud, or misconduct.”

Today, the country is facing its worst economic crisis since its 15-year civil war, and recently defaulted on its debts for the first time. Its local currency, though pegged to the U.S. dollar at about 1,500 liras, has skyrocketed to over 2,500 on the black market. People have lined up at the banks, often scuffling with staff and management to withdraw what funds they have left, as banks try to impose limits due to dollar shortages.

Years of heightened talk and interest paired with a spiraling economy eventually sparked a popular uprising last October, when tens of thousands gathered in streets and squares across the country. During the uprising, cases of violence against protestors, detention conditions, and allegations of torture also came into focus.

These developments have put Lebanon’s leadership in a tight spot: not only has it needed to clean up the image of its economic mismanagement and financial decline (in order to assure creditors, potential investors, and other stakeholders), but has also needed to project a positive image of how it has responded to the large-scale protests that took place in the face of growing discontent with the ruling class.

“Delete your tweet or else”

In September 2019, following cuts to the country’s credit ratings and worsening economic indicators, people rushed to the banks to withdraw U.S. dollars. The banks responded with ad hoc withdrawal limits and restrictions, causing more panic.

The state tried to reassure concerned citizens. Central Bank Governor Riad Saleme said that there were no U.S. dollar shortages, while President Michel Aoun, then in New York at the United Nations General Assembly, said that people were reacting to rumors and that he saw no significant danger for Lebanon. This was to no avail.

Many were quick to express their discontent online, including Amer Shibani, a journalist with the Future Movement’s online news platform, Mustaqbal Web. He tweeted a picture while waiting at the bank that read, “No dollars at SGBL bank,” it read. “[Not] even at the register.”

He was contacted by one of the bank’s lawyers to delete the tweet and later interrogated by the Cybercrime Bureau. He deleted the tweet, only to find out as he was leaving the interrogation that there was no formal legal complaint sent in the first place.

Shibani was among many who shared similar posts online about topic that was being discussed across the country and tabloid media. A lawyer affiliated with the Free Patriotic Movement party filed a legal notice to the public prosecution, calling for the arrest and prosecution of citizens violating the penal code’s articles related to libel and slander, as well as “fabricating claims” and “influencing people to withdraw their funds [from the bank].”

As protests continued, excessive force was used in response to mostly peaceful demonstrations, as police used significant amounts of teargas, fired rubber bullets, hurled rocks at protestors, and even burned down their tents. There were also incidents in which security forces stood idly by as political partisans attacked protestors, while detaining people for chanting against President Aoun.

Khaldoun Jaber was leading chants at a protest in November before he was arrested and detained overnight a military facility. He said he was held in solitary confinement and tortured. Since his release, he and volunteer lawyers have filed a legal complaint for torture and ill-treatment during his arrest. He was then summoned for interrogation at the Cybercrime Bureau for an old legal complaint filed by a mayor as well as an additional one filed by military intelligence for his social media posts about his treatment. A case has yet to open for his allegations.

Lebanese officials were quick to dispel allegations and criticism coming from Jaber, other detainees and protestors, journalists, and human rights organizations. Then-interior minister Raya el Hassan, in an interview with CNN, claimed that the police did not protect protestors and from political partisans because they are two different streams of protestors. “Sometimes, bad things happen,” she said.

In addition, following a wave of physical violence against journalists and media workers covering riots, she defended riot police and told protesting journalists to put themselves “in their shoes” and that they are “tired.”

Lebanese authorities, political leaders, and heads of different security agencies, have also successfully created a divide among protestors during the height of the uprising. They praised protestors who gathered in squares, but vilified those who blocked roads to implement a general strike, saying they violate the right to freedom of movement – despite Amnesty International and other human rights organizations saying otherwise.

No justice without real reform

In addition to promising economic and legislative reforms to make its economy sustainable, Lebanon says it is committed to make its institutions more transparent. At this point, these promises cannot be entirely fulfilled—nor is it in the interest of the ruling parties.

One of the protestors’ main demands is the independence of the judiciary, which recently-appointed Prime Minister Hasan Diab pledged to guarantee within the first 100 days of his term. Despite these public assertions to crack down on corruption and financial mismanagement, this is unlikely to be achieved due to Lebanon’s ruling parties’ strong influence in public institutions.

Another obstruction is Lebanon’s media and its ownership. While considered freer than other countries in the region, the vast majority of its media is affiliated to prominent political parties or business magnates, with almost half owned by a handful of families. While these outlets may critically report and show some form of nuanced coverage from time to time, they ultimately serve their private owners before the public interest. As a result, narratives across these outlets are restricted to not deviate from those touted by Lebanese authorities.

Implementing crucial legal reforms are pivotal, but will take time, especially without any significant public pressure. For now, it appears that the Lebanese are limited to campaigning online and protesting outside the Cybercrime Bureau and other state institutions.

The ongoing use of social media and other alternative spaces—despite growing pressure—to maintain critical narratives that contradict that of Lebanon’s rulers represents an important glimmer of hope. Independent media and citizen journalism have also tried to take these efforts to more institutionalized levels though funding, public backing, and other resources are minimal and remain prone Lebanon’s heightened measures to silence its critics.

While these imposed narratives obfuscate the truth and can border on humorous conspiracy theories, the fact that significant resources support such efforts so systematically is a frightening sign of how Lebanon is choosing to govern itself in the long haul.