Coalition to Defend Freedom of Expression: Authorities must respect freedoms of the press and legal profession and fundamentally amend defamation laws
The Coalition to Defend Freedom of Expression in Lebanon condemned in a statement issued today the increasing number of summons for investigation issued by different authorities over the last two weeks, which aim to restrict freedom of expression.
On 3 March 2023, the Council of the Beirut Bar Association issued a decision amending Articles 39 to 42 of Chapter Six of the Lawyers’ Code of Ethics which regulate lawyers’ relationship with media outlets. The amendments stipulate that lawyers need to obtain prior permission from the head of the Bar Association to participate in any legal seminars, conferences, interviews or discussions with media outlets, social media platforms, websites or groups. Based on this decision, the Bar Association summoned lawyer Nizar Saghieh, executive director of the Legal Agenda, to a hearing without specifying the reasons.
In addition, the Head of the Beirut Bar Association, Nader Gaspard, said in a seminar dubbed “Media Law: A Future Vision,” held at the Beirut Bar Association on 31 March, that the space for expression created by the abundance of websites and social media outlets has created “chaos and confusion” about “which court has jurisdiction to look into cases of defamation, libel, slander, insults and fake news, the Court of Publications or the Criminal Court.” He also called for the introduction of new legislation regarding social media that identifies what constitutes a social media platform, the different types of platforms, how they operate, and the conditions and penalties related to their use, among other provisions. He announced the formation of a Media Committee in the Bar Association tasked with examining draft laws that are appropriate for today’s developments and technologies. This new and troubling trend pursued by the Bar Association to restrict the freedoms of registered lawyers coincides with another trend that the groups of the coalition have been documenting for years, and which the authorities recently escalated, to restrict the freedom of the press.
During the past week, powerful political and judicial figures in Lebanon resorted- once again- to the use of criminal defamation laws to silence criticism. Public prosecutors also summoned journalists for interrogation at security agencies, in violation of the Publications Law.
On 30 March 2023, Jean Kassir, co-founder of Megaphone, an independent media outlet, was intercepted by two State Security officers who informed him that he was summoned to appear at the Central Investigation Directorate of the General Directorate of State Security without disclosing the reason behind the summons. Summoning Kassir in this way does not comply with the procedures set out by law, and is instead an intimidation tactic. According to Megaphone, the reason behind the summons was a post entitled “Lebanon ruled by fugitives from justice,” which mentioned that Cassation Public Prosecutor n Ghassan Oueidat, as well as other officials, had been charged by the judicial investigator Tarek Bitar in the Beirut port explosion case.
Megaphone later learned that Kassir was summoned following an order issued by Oueidat, even though the Public Prosecution cannot initiate defamation cases without a personal claim from the harmed party. On 3 April 2023, Kassir was summoned again to appear before State Security at the request of Oueidat. On 4 April 2023, Kassir was informed that investigation procedures against him were dropped.
On 31 March 2023, less than 48 hours after Kassir was summoned, the Cybercrimes Bureau summoned journalist Lara Bitar, editor-in-chief of the Public Source website, to appear for interrogation based on a complaint from the “Lebanese Forces” political party regarding an article she published eight months ago on toxic waste.
These alarming developments, particularly in the context of Lebanon’s crisis and the stalled accountability mechanisms, warrant concern about the restricting environment for freedom of expression and defense of the public interest.
“We are alarmed and worried about the direction that the Bar Association has recently taken and about the summons targeting journalists, as such actions increase the restrictions on freedom of expression and freedom of the press in the midst of an escalation in the use of criminal defamation provisions, violating international standards,” the Coalition to Defend Freedom of Expression said.
International standards for the protection of the right to free expression, which are binding on Lebanon, underscore the need to abolish laws that allow for imprisonment in cases of peaceful expression, especially defamation and replace those with civil remedies.
Accordingly, the Coalition to Defend Freedom of Expression calls on the Lebanese authorities and other actors such as the Bar Association to respect the protections guaranteed in the constitution and international covenants, including Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The coalition calls on the Council of the Beirut Bar Association to reverse its decision issued on 3 March 2023 on the grounds that it limits lawyers’ freedom of expression and subjects it to prior censorship, as this harms the community’s right to be informed of legal and judicial affairs. It also calls on the Council to stop penalising lawyers on the grounds that they are violating this decision. The coalition also calls on the Public Prosecution Office and the security agencies in Lebanon to stop summoning journalists for investigations in security agencies for exercising their right to free speech and exposing corruption.
The coalition also calls on the Parliament to amend Lebanese laws so that they are in line with Lebanon's obligations under international law, to ensure meaningful consultations with civil society on new draft laws, and to ensure that any proposed law meets international standards, including:
- Making legislative discussions in the parliamentary committees public, including discussions on the draft media law.
- Decriminalizing defamation and insults such that they become civil offenses that do not carry any prison sentences.
- Prohibiting government institutions, including the army and security agencies, from bringing defamation suits.
- Providing that truth will be a complete defense to defamation, regardless of whom the defamation is directed at. In matters of public interest, the defendant should only be required to have acted with due diligence to ascertain the truth.
- Criminalizing only statements that amount to advocacy of national, racial, or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility, or violence. The law should clearly define what is meant by each of these terms, using the Rabat Plan of Action as a Guide.
- Removing all requirements for licensing of journalists and advance authorization of publications.
“We call on Lebanon today to safeguard the right to freedom of expression and protect the ability of journalists to work freely, as their job entails monitoring and holding to account public authorities. It is shameful criminal defamation laws to be weaponized against them whenever they fulfill their role and criticize the public servants and those in power,” the Coalition said.
“The Bar Association should also guarantee lawyers’ freedom of expression, entrench their role in defending people, and use a human rights lens when discussing important issues such as corruption and the independence of the judiciary.”
“Reforms will not be achieved in Lebanon so long as no laws are enacted to protect journalists and others who act as a watchdog, monitoring the conduct of public officials, recording their violations, and exposing their unlawful practices. This monitoring role should be a right for those seeking to expose violations and uphold justice, not a repressive tool in the hands of influential people.”
Alef – Act for Human Rights
Alternative Press Syndicate
Human Rights Watch
Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections
Lebanese Center for Human Rights
Media Association for Peace (MAP)
MENA Rights Group
Samir Kassir Foundation
SEEDS for Legal Initiatives