This report was originally published by SMEX and is re-posted here with permission and thanks.
Over the past four years, Lebanon has witnessed a crackdown against freedom of expression online. The state has penalized citizens, journalists, and civil society representatives who criticize government officials or mock religious figures, worsening the overall environment for free speech online. In our newest report, “Analyzing Freedom of Expression Online in Lebanon in 2018,” we demonstrate how the court, authorities, and powerful public figures continue to restrict the right to free expression in Lebanon.
To track the wide repression of free speech, SMEX launched Muhal, an observatory for freedom of expression online, to document violations perpetrated by state authorities. In 2018, SMEX recorded 36 cases limiting online freedom of expression, compared to just 15 in 2017 and seven in 2016. As of November, SMEX has already tracked 56 cases related to online freedom of expression in 2019.
The state uses articles in the Penal Code, Military Justice Code, and Publications Law to silence criticism of politicians, challenges to private sector projects detrimental to public good, and satirical posts about religious figures. In 2018, the General Prosecutor has filed most complaints about speech on Facebook as well as news sites, Twitter, WhatsApp. This year, authorities have also prosecuted speech on Instagram.
The courts have failed to establish a stable jurisprudence concerning freedom of expression online. As per the Publications Law, journalists should be tried in the Publications Court. However, Single Criminal Judges have tried a number of journalists and non-journalist. In select cases, other courts, including the military courts, have handled cases involving freedom of expression online. The Publications Court provides more protections to defendants, while the Single Criminal Judges and other courts expose them to harsher penalties, fostering an environment of self-censorship.
More concerning than the courts’ activities are the detention of defendants by non-judicial bodies – including the Cybercrime and Intellectual Property Bureau, the Army Intelligence Directorate, the State Security Directorate, the Criminal Investigations Department, and the General Directorate of General Security – both at the request of the public prosecutor and on their own accord. In 2018, SMEX documented 25 detentions in which security agencies played a role, out of a total of 36 cases related to freedom of expression online. The detentions often occur without the presence of the lawyer, last long periods of time, and occasionally turn violent.
Unfortunately, the crackdown on freedom of expression online has persisted in 2019. Censorship not only suppresses freedom of expression, but also stifles the creation of ideas and opinions. The administrative and judicial decisions over the past four years contribute to a deteriorating environment for freedom of expression, but self-censorship poses an equally large threat.