Coalition to Defend Freedom of Expression: Court decision is a blow to freedom of expression and independence of lawyers
The Beirut Court of Appeals’ decision to dismiss the petition by lawyers seeking the annulment of apparently unconstitutional amendments to lawyers’ code of ethics is a missed opportunity to uphold the rule of law and human rights of lawyers in Lebanon, 14 members of the Coalition for Freedom of Expression in Lebanon said today.
On 3 March 2023, the Beirut Bar Association (BBA) amended its code of ethics, requiring lawyers to obtain prior permission from the President of the BBA before engaging in any public or media appearances or discussing legal issues on social media, and banned lawyers from criticizing the President of the BBA and its council members. In the end of March, 13 lawyers submitted two appeals to the Court of Appeals, asking it to annul these amendments to the lawyers' code of ethics, arguing that the BBA was not a competent authority because regulations restricting freedom of expression can only be passed by the legislative authority, that the amendments violated the United Nations Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers, and that they failed to meet the principles of proportionality and necessity. The appeals also argued that the amendments effectively granted the BBA’s leadership legal immunity, protected it from criticism in the media, and were incompatible with efforts to encourage the exposure of allegations of corruption.
“The Court of Appeals’ rejection of the appeals challenging the new amendments to the lawyers’ code of ethics is a huge setback for the rule of law and freedom of expression in Lebanon, reinforcing the increasingly repressive environment and granting the Beirut Bar Association a tool to exert more control over lawyers' ability to contribute to constructive public debates, inform the public, and expose misconduct by officials,” the members of the Coalition for Freedom of Expression said.
“Lawyers, like other citizens, are entitled to certain human rights including the right to freedom of expression. In particular, lawyers have the right to take part in public discussion of matters concerning the law, the administration of justice and the promotion and protection of human rights without suffering professional restrictions by reason of their lawful action or their membership in a lawful organization.”
“The Bar Association should immediately reverse its arbitrary decision and commit to upholding the rule of law and the constitutionally and internationally guaranteed right to freedom of expression. The authorities should also ensure the right to freedom of expression and the free flow of information, especially in times of crises when public debate is essential.”
The recent amendments extended 2014 restrictions that prevented lawyers from discussing cases pending before the judiciary. The latest changes went further by requiring lawyers to obtain permission from the Head of the BBA before they could engage in conferences, legal seminars, interviews with media outlets, social media outlets, websites, or groups, without specifying any process or timeline for submitting such requests.
Additionally, the amendments provided immunity to the President of the Beirut Bar Association and its council members from any form of criticism. The amendments gave disproportionate power to the head of the BBA who makes unilateral decisions on permission requests, egregiously curtailed legal defence work, including strategic and rights litigation which require public engagement, campaigning, and advocacy; and threatened to have a negative impact on people’s access to justice.
These new restrictions have already been used against Nizar Saghieh, the executive director of the Legal Agenda, a Beirut-based non-profit research and advocacy organization. Nizar Saghieh was among the 13 lawyers who had filed the appeals in March. Nizar Saghieh was summoned by the BBA Council to a hearing on 20 April after he publicly criticized the amendments. The BBA has still not issued a decision in the case of Nizar, who remains at risk of disbarment as a punishment for his peaceful opposition.
“The Beirut Bar Association and the Appeals Court are forcing lawyers to choose between our profession and our freedom contrary to the Constitution and to international standards. We will continue to defend our rights by all means at our disposal,” said Nizar Saghieh.
Alef – Act for Human Rights
Alternative Press Syndicate
Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections- LADE
Lebanese Center for Human Rights- CLDH
Media Association for Peace (MAP)
MENA Rights Group
Samir Kassir Foundation
SEEDS for Legal Initiatives