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Lebanon: Between freedom of the press and the challenges of social media

Human Rights Day
Michel TOUMA | OLJ

For decades, Lebanon has been the only country in the Middle East where most parties from across the political spectrum supported the protection of human rights. The United Nations marked Human Rights Day this week, emphasizing the importance of these global norms. Lebanon’s respect for freedom of expression, and especially freedom of the press, has often made it stand out compared to other countries in the region where autocratic regimes have created a kind of permanent political paralysis.

But at various times, freedom of expression and freedom of the press have not always been fully respected in Lebanon by the ruling authorities or by different political factions. Journalists have always been the ones to stand up for and defend these fundamental freedoms, and they made significant progress in this struggle during the last century. But the emergence of social media and the transition from print to online publication has introduced new challenges.

Direct censorship of the press only existed in Lebanon for a brief period of time in 1977, at the beginning of the Lebanese Civil War, when it was imposed by the Syrian occupation. Instead, for most of Lebanon’s history, a practice known as preventative arrest of journalists posed the biggest threat to freedom of expression in the country. Dating back to the French Mandate, journalists who wrote articles deemed to to be “politically incorrect” would be arrested, and sometimes the papers they worked for would have their right to publish suspended for a period of time. French mandatory powers, and then the Lebanese government after independence in 1943, ordered L’Orient’s suspension 22 times.

For much of the last century, the fight to preserve freedom of expression in Lebanon mainly focused on ending preventative arrests of journalists. In one significant case from 1949, the founder of L’Orient, Georges Naccache, was sentenced to six months in prison (later reduced to three) for his article “Two negations do not make a nation.”

The arrests of Tueni and Ramadan

In another important case from 1973, the owner and CEO of An-Nahar newspaper, Ghassan Tueni, and journalist Wafic Ramadan were subjected to preventative arrest under article 288 of the penal code. The arrests happened after An-Nahar published a supposedly secret document from the Arab Summit in Algiers that year and Ramadan, working at An-Nahar, refused to reveal how he obtained the document. The two men remained in prison for about ten days. In response, the Lebanese media fiercely campaigned against the arrests and the attempt to curtail freedom of the press and expression in the country.

Preventative arrests were finally made illegal at the end of June 1977 when the government amended the law regulating the print media. The decree clearly stated: “Preventative arrest is not permitted.” The only exception was reserved for cases where there is a threat to state security. The amended law also said that the decision to directly censor the press, or any other media, can only come from the council of ministers during a war or serious disturbance threatening public order and the country’s security.

No legislation

Politicians and people working in the media considered the abolition of preventative arrests a significant step forward in the ongoing struggle to protect freedom of speech. It removed the main tool used by authorities to suppress press freedom. Since the law was amended in 1977, no journalist has been arrested “preventatively” for their writings or statements.

A major new threat to freedom of speech has, however, emerged in Lebanon in recent years connected to the development of social networks and news websites. These new media are often free and open to everyone, and in Lebanon they are not regulated by any legislation.

The lack of clarity surrounding these developments has created a new set of difficulties. Citizens turned to social networks to freely express their opinions, sometimes breaking the most basic ethical rules while doing so. Facing this new onslaught of unfiltered pinions, leaders and politicians started systematically prosecuting anyone who criticized them. In some countries, the free and open world of social media quickly turned into a tool used by authorities for repression and the limitation of freedom of speech.

In Lebanon, this situation has led the emergence of the anti-cybercrime office as a new body that is limiting freedom of expression. Using the pretext that opinions and information inevitably end up online, the anti-cybercrime office has set about summoning and interrogating any journalist or citizen who expresses an opinion that is deemed to be politically incorrect. Without clear legislation regulating the situation, over time, this office may become a de facto substitute for the traditional justice system that is supposed to interrogate and collect citizen depositions.

Unless legislation is drafted to bring an end to these attempts to repress freedom of speech, the situation will likely only get worse and could eventually reach alarming proportions.

At the beginning of the 21st century, with the emergence of online media and social networks, human rights have encounter a new area that cannot be overlooked.

(This article was originately published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 10th of December)

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