Lebanon’s freedom of expression in peril

September 10, 2017

Lebanon’s new generation of social media activists are posting criticism of the government and its ministers with one eye on their keyboards and another on the doors that stand between them and the country’s security forces.
It hasn’t always been like that. In the summer of 1976, in a secluded apartment adjacent to the Carlton Hotel in the west of Beirut, Kamal Jumblatt, the leader of the Leba¬nese National Movement, met with Elias Sarkis, soon to be Lebanon’s sixth president. This meeting came about through the good offices of their mutual friends Salim Kheired-dine and Kamal Salibi, with each hoping to convince Jumblatt to endorse Sarkis’s bid for the presi¬dency.
As Jumblatt had done with other presidential candidates, he asked Sarkis a simple question: “Will you protect the freedom of the press and the freedom of expression?” Rather than manoeuvre his way out of the potentially embarrass¬ing situation, Sarkis fell silent, convincing Jumblatt to offer his interlocutor nothing but luck and withholding his bloc’s support.
Jumblatt’s fears were soon proved well-founded. Almost directly following Sarkis’s inau¬guration, his government placed restrictions on the Lebanese media and rigorously enforced the coun¬try’s censorship laws.
While today, this style of heavy-handed censorship seems com¬mitted to the dustbin of history, the issue of freedom of expression remains a constant, with the coun¬try’s ruling elite loath to miss any opportunity to remind the public that speaking out can carry poten¬tially dire consequences.
As it stands, the traditional Leba¬nese media sphere of newspapers and TV exists as a form of virtual hodgepodge, with competing out¬lets pledging financial and political allegiance to the country’s various local and regional factions. It’s nei¬ther politically effective, nor does it stand any real chance of exposing the near structural failings of Leba¬non’s ruling establishment.
However, whatever legal restric¬tions might still apply to traditional media largely disappear on the country’s social media platforms, which many Lebanese writers and activists are looking towards to protest what they see as the state’s political and economic corruption, ultimately evidenced in the elec¬tion of Michel Aoun as president.
The bulk of Lebanon’s social media ire appears to be centred on Aoun’s political clique. Specifically, it targeted his son-in-law, Gebran Bassil, the often uncouth minister of foreign affairs. Bassil’s often am¬ateurish and provocative manner¬ism, in addition to his peddling of shady projects that rarely amount to anything, have cemented his po¬sition as a totem hate figure among anti-corruption crusaders.
These individuals more often than not employ sarcasm and hu¬mour, not to say insults, to criticise Bassil and other members of the ruling elite deemed complacent or complicit in the machinations of Lebanon’s corruption industry.
Pierre Hachach, who has estab¬lished a solid following via the short videos he produces expos¬ing, and even ridiculing, some of Bassil’s transgressions, has occasionally received the brutish attention of Lebanon’s security services, including getting a sav¬age beating allegedly from one of Bassil’s henchmen as payment for his efforts.
More serious critics, such as veteran journalist and writer Fidaa Itani, have been summoned by the Lebanese cybercrime division, after Bassil filed a lawsuit against Itani for slander and defamation. While such cases are not generally punished by detention, Itani was kept in a cell overnight on the pre¬text of an outstanding fine. He was released the following day but the message was clear; even a simple Facebook post can land you in jail.
Similarly, in August, Ahmad Ismail, a former member of the Lebanese Communist Party and a liberated prisoner from Israeli pris¬ons, was summoned by Lebanese General Security and unlawfully interrogated for hours before being set free. Ismail, whose posts and comments are highly critical of Hezbollah’s hegemony over the Shia and its constant attempts to religiously transform the public spaces in the south of Lebanon where he resides, were enough to incite his targets and draw their ire.
Superficially, these examples of the elites’ efforts to suppress Leba¬non’s freedom of expression can just as easily be seen as a means of curbing peaceful protest. How¬ever, more significantly, they serve as pointed reminders to a docile populace that their environment, their economy, their way of life and even their lives stand at risk. More importantly, they reaffirm the suspicion that Lebanon’s corrupt political class, who seem unable to book the simplest of criticisms, are fundamentally unfit to rule.