The Lebanese economic crisis ranks among “the worst economic crises globally since the mid-nineteenth century”, according to the World Bank. Multiple factors are driving the country’s crisis, particularly the government’s severe restrictions on freedom and expression.
Lebanon recorded an inflation rate of 253.55% on 23 June 2023, which is equal to a monthly increase of 7.21%, and the Lebanese pound has lost more than 95% of its value compared to before the crisis, while food prices have increased 279.54%. Electricity, water, and gas prices all increased following the removal of import subsidies for essential commodities. Furthermore, the Bank of Lebanon’s foreign exchange reserves have been depleted, resulting in a sharp deterioration in the economy.
Popular dissatisfaction exploded; during the October 2019 protests, corruption in public administration was portrayed as one of the main reasons for the economic and financial collapse. The situation deteriorated further with the Beirut port explosion on 4 August 2020 and the ensuing obstruction of the internal investigation by some political parties, as well as the COVID-19 pandemic, which killed any hope of escaping the economic and financial crisis. To top it all off, Lebanon remains without a president, as former president Michel Aoun’s term ended on 30 October 2022, and the country’s Parliament has failed to elect a new president.
Facing numerous crises in various sectors, the Lebanese people have attempted to exercise their right to free expression in the face of political authority, but have been met with repression and prevented from doing so. The series of attacks on the right to freedom of expression, detailed below, began with summonses and allegations by the Public Prosecutor which put activists and journalists under substantial pressure.
Entities that violate and/or undermine the right to freedom of opinion and expression
Lebanese authorities have increased their use of punitive libel and slander laws to punish journalists and activists who criticise corruption and influential parties. These measures are frequently implemented in response to complaints from government officials, political party leaders, and managers of banks or religious institutions. Therefore, those responsible for infringing on people’s right to freedom of opinion and expression are official authorities who arbitrarily apply Penal Code provisions that criminalise libel and slander.
As the Lebanese Penal Code was issued in 1943, it is far from a developed concept of rights and freedoms, especially considering it was issued before the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and prior to today’s technologically developed world of digital devices and social media platforms. Article 384 of the Penal Code punishes anyone who insults the head of state, the national flag, or national emblems with up to two years in prison, while Article 385 punishes libel and slander against public officials. Both provisions run counter to Article 13 of the Lebanese Constitution, which guarantees the right to free expression.
The Publications Court, established in 1962 by the Publications Law, deals with crimes involving materials (printed, audio, and visual media) published by journalists and media professionals. The law makes no mention of social media platforms, leaving a legal gap in dealing with digital spaces and allowing official authorities to exploit legal provisions to suppress activists on social media.
The country’s security forces are one of the official bodies that engage in practices that violate the right to freedom of opinion and expression, and this usually occurs through the Internal Security Forces’ Cybercrime and Intellectual Property Bureau. It should be noted that the Bureau was created without any legal changes being made to the structure of the Internal Security Forces system, and is authorised to infiltrate digital spaces such as social media profiles and pages in collaboration with digital informants to track and punish activists who express their views on state activities and apparatuses, as well as on people in power. In doing so, it violates the right to free expression and puts pressure on activists and journalists who express their views through the use of summonses and detentions, based on the Public Prosecutor’s orders.
The Office of the Public Prosecutor (OPP) in Lebanon represents a judicial body led by prosecutors who are subject to the same rules as judges. OPP employees attend criminal court sessions and the organisation is considered a part of the courts because it can pursue criminal prosecution through the filing of a public lawsuit. The country’s executive authority appoints public prosecutors and trial judges, which means that the political authority has control over the OPP and can pressure its employees to bring charges against opponents, activists, and journalists.
Partisan entities play a major role in infringing on the right to freedom of opinion and expression through the arbitrary application of legal texts or the use of social pressure. Traditional parties typically rely on old legal provisions, such as those criminalising libel and slander against public officials, to pursue individuals legally. These provisions were issued before the concept of freedom was developed, and even before Lebanon ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the establishment of the UDHR, which Lebanese representative Charles Malik helped draft.
Personal threats including blackmail are also frequently used by Lebanese parties. Due to the demographic nature of Lebanon, parties control the areas in which they have political influence, imposing their views on the general population and stakeholders by threatening to boycott their businesses or deprive them of services provided by the municipality (which is usually made up of members of these parties). As a result, some people prefer not to express their opinions or exercise their right to free expression.
Types of violations
All investigations into criminal cases involving libel and slander in Lebanon cite procedural irregularities at every stage. Some defendants, for instance, have claimed that investigators violated their right to privacy by searching their phones and social media accounts without a court order.
Security services have forced individuals to sign undertakings promising not to write defamatory content about the complainant prior to appearing before a judge and presenting their defence, despite the absence of any legal provision allowing this. Pre-trial detentions also occurred, in some cases, for crimes for which individuals are not supposed to be imprisoned for more than one year—a violation of the law.
Journalists and activists face libel and slander lawsuits for carrying out their journalistic work; they are tried in ordinary courts and sometimes in military courts, which contradicts the Publications Law that requires cases involving media and media professionals to be transferred exclusively to the Publications Court.
For example, on 10 January 2018, the Military Court in Lebanon sentenced Lebanese researcher and journalist Hanin Ghaddar to six months in prison in absentia for criticising the Lebanese Army at a conference in Washington, D.C. in the United States. However, the Court overturned the ruling and transferred the case to the Publications Court on 10 April 2018, because it did not fall under the Military Court’s jurisdiction. More recently in July 2023, a criminal court sentenced journalist Dima Sadek to one year in prison and a fine on charges of libel, slander and inciting sectarian strife, contrary to the law which provides that the Publications Court is supposed to handle these cases.
The Cybercrime and Intellectual Property Bureau investigated 3,599 cases of defamation, libel, and slander between January 2015 and May 2019. The Bureau investigated 341 cases in 2015 that were similar to those of Emad Bazzi, Rita Kamel, and others who were forced to sign an “undertaking of silence”, and it investigated 1,451 and 252 cases in 2018 and 2019, respectively. No figures were released after 2019, but the number of cases prosecuted is likely to have increased significantly from previous years.
The Beirut Bar Association has required lawyers to obtain prior permission before any media appearance or discussion of legal issues since 3 March 2023, limiting lawyers’ freedom of opinion and expression, and undermining individuals’ right to be informed of legal and judicial affairs. As a result, the exception was made the rule; instead of punishing lawyers who violate professionalism standards, the Bar Association decided to prevent all lawyers from expressing opinions, and to withhold legal knowledge from outside community members who are reliant on lawyers to understand their rights and responsibilities.
Violence committed by officials and partisans affects activists, journalists, and even citizens who are not affiliated with any political party, as the existence of an arbitrary authority that applies outdated legal provisions contributes significantly to increased violations of freedom of opinion and expression.
Furthermore, the terminology relating to libel, slander, and defamation must be revised, as it is broadly worded and does not largely apply to workers in the public sector whose personal space will surely be limited when they assume a public office, whether by election or appointment, as necessitated by societal accountability, which may sometimes take the form of harsh criticism.