Freedom of expression under threat in Lebanon, activists warn
Lebanon’s security forces are increasingly bringing activists in for questioning over their social media posts, sparking widespread anger in recent days that freedom of expression is being squeezed.
Since last week, the government’s cyber crimes bureau has called in at least six activists because of comments they made on social media.
One was interrogated over a post blaming President Michel Aoun for the country’s widespread corruption, sluggish economy, and poor wages. Others were questioned for mocking a “miracle” by a saint revered in Lebanon.
Dozens of people on Tuesday evening gathered in downtown Beirut to protest the “unprecedented degradation in freedom of expression.”
Many held up signs printed with the words “#Against oppression”, while one posed with a keyboard decorated with large paper-made handcuffs.
Diala Haidar, a Lebanon campaigner at Amnesty International, said the rights group has “noticed censorship increasingly interfering in spaces of expression in Lebanon.”
“More than one security or military authority have started monitoring and calling in opinion holders for questioning.”
Multi-confessional Lebanon is seen to be a relatively open-minded country compared to the rest of the Middle East region.
The tiny Mediterranean state’s constitution protects freedom of opinion, written and oral, and of the press.
Its penal code, however, punishes libel and defamation of officials. Security apparatuses are “arbitrarily” drawing from those articles when bringing in Lebanese over their social media posts, according to Haidar.
The questioned individuals end up accused, for example, of insulting the president, insulting religion or “inciting sectarian strife,” she said.
Bassam Khawaja, Lebanon researcher at Human Rights Watch, agreed there was a worrying trend.
“For the past two years we’ve seen a troubling pattern of escalating retaliation against criticism of authorities in Lebanon,” he said.
“People are being arrested and interrogated for peaceful Facebook posts in a country where the laws still technically provide up to three years in prison for defamation, with serious implications for freedom of expression,” he said.
In a Facebook post on Friday directed at the country’s president, 25-year-old Elie El-Khoury listed a series of complaints.
“The people, your excellency, pay: the highest telephone and internet bills in the world and get the worst service,” he wrote.
“Unfortunately, your excellency, you are not up to our expectations because you turned the country into a family home,” he said, referring to members of the Aoun family who are in government, like his son-in-law Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil.
Following Khoury’s post, the cyber crimes bureau called him in for questioning. When his lawyer intervened, they rescinded their request without giving any explanation.
“I wrote the post to express my pain and how fed up all young men and women are,” he told AFP.
“There aren’t any jobs or any decent salaries.”
“I’m 25 and if I want to buy a flat, I can’t,” said the graduate in business administration, who is preparing for a PhD.
“I didn’t insult anyone in my post,” he said.
In recent years, Lebanon has struggled to stave off an economic meltdown while tackling a series of political crises.
Aoun was elected president in 2016 after a two-year political vacuum.
In May, the country held its first parliamentary elections in nine years — but Prime Minister Saad Hariri has still been unable to form a new government.
In less than two years, Beirut’s Skeyes Center for Media and Cultural Freedom has recorded at least 35 violations against journalists, intellectuals and activists.
This “intimidation does not come out of nowhere. It has been an increasing pattern over the past two years,” Skeyes communication officer Jad Shahrour said.
On Friday, as he left his home near Beirut, journalist and activist Mohammad Awad was dragged in by the General Security Agency for questioning.
“They didn’t tell me if I was being called in over a comment or a specific article I had written,” he said.
Awad was released after he signed a “promise not to oppose the three presidents” — the president, premier and parliament speaker — “and the heads of religious sects” in Lebanon, he said.
Activists have been made to sign pledges they will abstain from social media for a given period or stop criticising certain people in exchange for being released.
Amnesty International’s Haidar said these steps were illegal and amounted to “blackmailing.”
Recent disciplinary measures were a “dangerous sign that could also lead to creating an atmosphere of fear and self-censorship,” she said.
“Local laws should protect people and their right to express themselves — not protect the authorities and their men from accountability, criticism or even mockery,” said Haidar.