Global Freedom of Expression

The Case of the Free Patriotic Movement v. Dima Sadek

On Appeal Contracts Expression

Key Details

  • Mode of Expression
    Electronic / Internet-based Communication
  • Date of Decision
    July 11, 2023
  • Outcome
    Imprisonment, Reparations made by individual or entity who exercised FoE
  • Case Number
  • Region & Country
    Lebanon, Middle East and North Africa
  • Judicial Body
    First Instance Court
  • Type of Law
    Criminal Law, International/Regional Human Rights Law
  • Themes
    Defamation / Reputation
  • Tags
    Criminal Defamation, Defamatory Comments, Fake News, Libel, Online Defamation, Press freedom, Slander, Twitter/X

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Case Analysis

Case Summary and Outcome

A Single Criminal Judge in Lebanon found a journalist guilty of slander, defamation and inciting sectarian strife after posting a tweet which she later deleted. The journalist had uploaded a post and a video allegedly showing an assault and sectarian attack, describing the ruling party as Nazis, but deleted the tweet when it appeared that the video did not portray the attack. The head of the ruling party filed a lawsuit, accusing the journalists of falsely attributing the conduct in the video to the party. The single judge held that the journalist was in breach of the Lebanese Penal Code and the international provisions related to Freedom of Expression, and fined the journalist and sentenced her to one year in prison.


On February 7, 2020, prominent Lebanese journalist, Dima Sadek, posted a statement on Twitter, after a group of men in Jounieh, Lebanon, assaulted a man from the city of Tripoli, threw him into the sewage drains and forced him to repeat out loud “Michel Aoun is my master and Tripoli’s master”. Michel Aoun is a Lebanese politician, founder of the Free Patriotic Movement, and President of Lebanon at the time.

From October 2019, and throughout February 2020, Lebanon experienced a series of civil protests and major revolutions in various regions of the country. The protests were triggered – among other reasons – by country-wide condemnation of sectarian rule and endemic corruption in the public sector (the latter was mostly led by the Free Patriotic Movement during that period, considering that Michel Aoun was President and that the party had the largest number of seats in the parliament).

Sadek’s tweet stated: “Morning of the Lebanese Nazi party. Today all our attempts to understand you have reached an end. You have fallen once and for all, and we have a duty to fight your Nazi ideology and liberate Lebanon from your racism. A new assault by the Free Patriotic Nazi movement against a young man from Tripoli, Zakaria Al-Masry, that took place in Jounieh, as he was hit on the head and thrown in the sewers. They told him, Aoun is the ‘crown of your head and that of Tripoli’.” (“صباح حزب لبنان النازي – أليوم انتهت كل محاولاتنا لتفهمكم. لقد سقطم نهائياً وعلينا واجب محاربة فكركم النازي وتحرير لبنان من عنصريتكم. إعتداء جديد من قبل التيار النازي على الشاب زكريا المصري من طرابلس في جونية بضربه على رأسه ورميه في المجارير. قالوا له “عون تاج رأسك ورأس طرابلس”.)

Sadek also attached a video to support her statement, but the footage apparently showed Al-Masry being injured as a result of a traffic accident.

Half an hour after they were posted, Sadek deleted both the tweet and the video.

On February 11, 2020, the head of the Free Patriotic Movement, Gebran Bassil, filed a complaint against Sadek seeking an conviction for the offences of libel and defamation by comparing the FPM to the Nazi party, and for inciting others to sectarian strife.

Decision Overview

A Single Judge for criminal cases in Beirut, Rosine Hojeily, heard the case. The main issue was to determine whether Sadek has transgressed her right to freedom of expression by posting her statement on Twitter, and whether that post was consistent with the Lebanese criminal law and international human rights standards.

In his complaint to the court, Gebran Bassil accused Sadek of slander, defamation and vilification, and declared that Sadek’s post provoked sectarian and racial prejudices, and incited conflict between sects. Bassil maintained that the statement was untrue as no supporter of the FPM was involved in the beating of Al-Masry and that comparing the FMP to the fascist Nazi party constitutes an offense and it impaired his reputation and that of the party. Bassil argued that, not only did the tweet contains racist expressions and sectarian allegations, but the video disseminated false news and incited hatred. He submitted that the video showed the opposite of Sadek’s allegations; it actually recorded a traffic accident where a driver fell from a height of three meters, and the Lebanese Red Cross and Civil Defense teams had to extract him since he suffered heavy injuries as a result of his fall.

Bassil submitted that issuing a statement on Twitter meets the requirements of Article 209 of the Lebanese Penal Code which lists means of publication that may facilitate the perpetration of crimes. The third paragraph in Article 209 of the Criminal Code provides that any writing, drawing, photographs, films and badges are considered to be means of publication if they are displayed in a public place or for public viewing, or if they are sold or offered for sale, or if they are distributed to one or more persons.

Bassil argued that the publication undermined his reputation, his political, social and national standing and his broad representation in the country, and it constituted offences of defamation and slander. Bassil added that Sadek’s post could easily engender sectarian strife as, by falsely and fraudulently declaring that a violent confrontation occurred and was built on a racial and sectarian basis, the journalist was inciting a conflict between Muslims and Christians, between residents of Tripoli and residents of Jounieh, and between his own supporters and those who oppose his party. For context, specifying which region in Lebanon someone comes from is significant, because there are eighteen sects in the country which are respectively affiliated to a particular political party, and each of those sects are distributed and settled in specific regions in Lebanon.

Sadek moved to dismiss the suit against her, arguing that her statement had to be considered to be protected speech and that the complaint constituted an abuse of her right to freedom of expression. She requested that it be dismissed completely for two major reasons. The first was that Bassil had not established his legal capacity required to represent the FPM, as he did not submit any document proving his legal authority to legally represent the party before the Court. Sadek added that Bassil did not have any right to lodge a personal claim relating to the offence of inciting sectarian strife. Sadek submitted that, according to a decision of the Lebanese Criminal Court of Cassation, in Criminal Chamber, decision n° 87/2010, 24 March 2010, the latter offence can only be raised by a Public Prosecutor and not by individuals, which reveals the legislators’ exact intention to encourage people to speak up: based on that jurisprudence and on Article 387 of the Lebanese Penal Code, anyone accused of defamation against public authorities is exonerated if their statement is directly relative to the role of the authority, and its validity is proven without necessarily introducing conclusive evidence. The second reason was that Sadek argued that her actions do not constitute a crime punishable under Lebanese law, based on paragraph 4 of Article 73 of the Lebanese Code of Criminal Procedure which stipulates that the defendant may raise one or more of the defenses listed that may result in not hearing a case and dismissing it.

Sadek argued that describing the FPM as “Nazi” was not defamatory as the leader of the FPM, Gebran Bassil, had previously proclaimed himself that his party was racist and appeared proud of it. She referred to a tweet Bassil posted on October 8, 2017 which states: ‘We are racist in our Lebaneseness, oriental in our foundation, global in our propagation’. (“عنصريين بلبنانيّتنا، مشرقيّين بتكويننا، عالميّين بانتشارنا”) Sadek added that Bassil had often encouraged the Lebanese population to embrace the ideology of racism and regularly quoted Nazi personalities. She also submitted that the term “Nazi” is frequently used in political debates to describe a political tendency and inclination and that its definition applies substantially to the FPM party.

Sadek admitted, during an investigation by the Criminal Investigation Department, to having posted the statement and the video. However, what impelled her was the assault by the supporters of the FPM against Al-Masry. Sadek declared that, despite Bassil’s denial of the assault, Al-Masry’s complaint before Jounieh’s police precinct and the medical report he obtained both proved that the attack did happen. She added that the video she posted clearly shows an injured person being transported by the Red Cross at the time of the assault. Sadek acknowledged that she did delete the tweet and the video half an hour after they were posted but that, even though she had reason to doubt its veracity and accuracy, she was nevertheless certain that her statement was verifiable and true. She stated that the motive behind posting the tweet and video was humanitarian, and for the common good and national interest.

To determine whether the tweet in question constituted the offences of defamation, slander and incitement of sectarian strife, Judge Hojeily analyzed Lebanese law and the International Human Rights Conventions ratified by Lebanon. Judge Hojeily found that as Twitter (now X) is an online platform that allows people to share and exchange content and is thus open to the public, the Lebanese defamation law applies to all content expressed on this platform.

Judge Hojeily denied Sadek’s motion to dismiss the case. She relied on the ruling of the Lebanese Criminal Court of Cassation, 6th Chamber (criminal), 18 November 2003, which held that the defenses in a motion covered by Article 73 of the Lebanese Code of Criminal Procedure do not include those addressed in a personal claim or lawsuit which applies in the present case.

Judge Hojeily also dismissed Sadek’s argument regarding Bassil’s representation. She considered that, in order to be represented in courts, legal entities – in the present case the FPM – need a legal representative who is a natural person (an individual). She added that, in Lebanon, a defamation case can only be brought to court by individuals and so, since Bassil is the leader of the FPM, he has the authority to bring a claim on behalf of the party.

The Judge also rejected Sadek’s argument that her actions do not constitute a crime punishable under Lebanese law. She held that paragraph 4 of Article 73 of the Lebanese Code of Criminal Procedure refers to the principle of Criminal Legality. This means that, in principle, there is no crime or punishment without legal provision, but that in Sadek’s case, the offences attributed to her were indeed punishable under Articles 582, 584 and 317 of the Lebanese Penal Code, and which apply regardless of whether the journalist’s actions constituted in actual fact an offense or not.

Regarding the charges of defamation, the Judge found that Sadek’s statement violated the national and international laws that safeguard freedom of expression, notably Article 13 of the Lebanese Constitution, Article 19 of the UDHR and Article 19 of the ICCPR. Article 13 of the Lebanese Constitution states that “The freedom of opinion, expression through speech and writing, the freedom of the press, the freedom of assembly, and the freedom of association, are all guaranteed within the scope of the law.”

Judge Hojeily held that freedom of expression, although a fundamental right, is not an absolute one and that it should aim not to harm the dignity, reputation and basic rights of others. She also held that freedom of expression may be mixed up with freedom of criticism, and that, even if criticism may be permissible, it must nonetheless be constructive and seek to improve and benefit all Lebanese citizens to be considered protected speech. The Judge added that it is not the statement as a whole that is taken into account, but every “word” in a journalist’s post published on social media counts, in order to preserve democracy and the rights and freedoms which are found in the Constitution.

Judge Hojeily acknowledged that public officials should tolerate a greater degree of criticism because of their positions and roles. However, she declared that, under Lebanese law, criticism of public figures is permissible only if the allegations are proven to be true. She found this was not the case here as the video was taken down by Sadek herself for showing a different scenario compared to her allegations. The Judge found that the subject of the video was falsely attributed to the FPM.

Judge Hojeily held that the term “Nazi” was highly defamatory as it alludes to a genocidal behavior and a harshly domineering conduct. She found that Sadek published her statement without factual basis and, by comparing the FPM to the Nazi party, the journalist had showed bad faith and intent to harm the reputation of the party and its leader. The Judge noted that since Sadek deleted the statement and the video half an hour after publication proved that she knew it was not true. However, the Judge added that, according to Article 583 of the Lebanese Penal Code, even if the video was true and its subject could be attributed to the FPM, Sadek could not be exonerated as Article 583 of the Lebanese Penal Code provides that the offender of slander is not allowed to justify their actions by proving the truth of the events subject of the offence (“لا يسمح لمرتكب الذم تبريراً لنفسه بإثبات حقيقة الفعل موضوع الذم أو إثبات اشتهاره.”)

Accordingly, Judge Hojeily concluded that Sadek was criminally liable under Article 582, 584 and 385 of the Lebanese Penal Code relating to the offences of libel and defamation.

Regarding the charges of incitement of sectarian strife, Judge Hojeily referred to the material and moral elements of an offence. To be considered an offense, an act should include a material aspect and a moral one: the material aspect, or element, of a crime is the unlawful act or omission committed by the offender (their behavior) and the mental aspect refers to the state of mind of the offender (their criminal intent).

She held that the nature of Sadek’s content satisfied the material aspect because it did in fact incite sectarian strife, and Sadek exceeded the usual boundaries of expression by publishing the statement and the video to the public on social media.

As for the moral aspect, Judge Hojeily found that it was undoubtedly evident as Sadek’s criminal intent of Sadek was manifested given that she published her Tweet during a charged atmosphere prevailing in Lebanon at the time. The journalist knew that during that specific period Lebanon was in turmoil and so her acts being committed at that time, show that she had meant to stir up tensions, arouse religious fanaticism and incite hatred and sectarian strife between Muslims and Christians, between people of Tripoli and those of Jounieh, and between those who support the FPM and their opponents.

For the above reasons, Judge Hojeily concluded that Sadek was also criminally liable under Article 317 of the Lebanese Penal Code relating to inciting sectarian strife.

Accordingly, in balancing the protection of freedom of expression and the protection of other fundamental rights, the Judge denied Sadek’s motion, finding her guilty of slander, defamation, and inciting sectarian tensions. The Judge ordered the amount of LBP 110,000,000 claimed by Bassil in compensation for damages. For the libel and defamation charges, the Judge ordered a fine of LBP 200,000 and 2-months imprisonment for each, and for inciting sectarian strife, the Judge ordered a fine of LBP 800,000 and 1-year imprisonment. However, under Lebanese law, those penalties can be merged with the most severe penalty being imposed; therefore, Sadek was ordered to pay the fine of LBP 800,000 and sentenced to 1-year imprisonment.

The Judge also deprived Sadek of some of her civil rights, including being prohibited from exercising her rights of being in charge and managing confessional groups and professional unions to which she belongs, and voting and being elected in any confessional groups and professional unions to which she belongs.

Decision Direction

Quick Info

Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.

Contracts Expression

Although the judgment balanced the right to freedom of expression and the need to prevent incitement to sectarian violence, the imposition of a criminal offence is a serious infringement of the right to freedom of expression.

This ruling stands out for two reasons. First, it is normally the Publications Court that handles defamation cases involving journalists in Lebanon. The latter Court prohibits the imprisonment of journalists and only imposes fines in compensation for damages if needed. However, in Sadek’s case the suit was filed before a Criminal Court because the complainant considered that the content was published on social media and not in a printed medium; therefore it was considered to fall outside the scope of work of a journalist. The judgment is the first in Lebanon to sentence a journalist to prison for expressing their opinion on social media.

Second, this judgment was made in-person which means that, under Lebanese law, it is enforceable unless appealed. This is also a first in the country, because, even though Lebanese Courts had previously issued judgements in defamation cases, they did so in absentia – which means that the rulings are not enforceable and a retrial is allowed if requested by the defendant.

Global Perspective

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Global Perspective demonstrates how the court’s decision was influenced by standards from one or many regions.

Table of Authorities

Related International and/or regional laws

  • UDHR, art. 19
  • ICCPR, art. 19

National standards, law or jurisprudence

  • Leb., Criminal Code 1943

    Articles 209, 317, 385, 387, 582, 584

  • Leb., Constitution of Lebanon (1926), art. 13.
  • Leb, Code of Criminal Procedure, 2001, art. 70
  • Leb, Code of Criminal Procedure, 2001, art. 73
  • Leb, Code of Criminal Procedure, 2001, art. 150
  • Leb, Code of Criminal Procedure, 2001, art. 157
  • Leb, Code of Criminal Procedure, 2001, art. 175
  • Leb, Code of Criminal Procedure, 2001, art. 176
  • Leb., Lebanese Court of Cassation, Criminal Chamber, decision n°87/2010 (2010)
  • Leb., Lebanese Court of Cassation, 6th Chamber (criminal), (2003)

Case Significance

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Case significance refers to how influential the case is and how its significance changes over time.

The decision establishes a binding or persuasive precedent within its jurisdiction.

Official Case Documents

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