2017 - "a bad year for journalists" in Lebanon and 2018 already cause for concern
On 22nd December 2017, over a hundred protesters gathered outside the Ministry of Justice in Beirut to decry the growing level of suppression of freedom of expression in the country. The protest was sparked by the case of Marcel Ghanem who is currently facing charges over comments made by two Saudi Arabian journalists on his TV show "Kalam Ennas". The two Saudi journalists, Ibrahim al-Merhi and Adhwan Alahmari, made claims on the show that Lebanese President Michel Aoun, Speaker Nabih Berri, Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil and Army Commander General Joseph Aoun had allegedly provided security to the “terrorist Hezbollah group". In response to the controversial claims by the Saudi journalists, Lebanese authorities attempted to launch a libel investigation of the two journalists which was blocked by the TV show host, Marcel Ghanem. On principle, Ghanem refused to cooperate with authorities, viewing their investigation as an attempt to co-opt independent Lebanese media outlets. On 18th December 2017, Ghanem was served a subpoena for a court date in early January 2018. He was released in late February but awaits indictment.
Ghanem hearing begins with solidarity stand - Senior politicians, journalists and media professionals gathered outside the Justice Palace in Baabda as major Lebanese political talk show host Marcel Ghanem appeared in court Friday. https://t.co/1mzrGTw7j4— Lebanon observer (@LebanonObserve) February 16, 2018
Restrictions on press freedom in Lebanon was also highlighted by the Syndicate of Journalists, referring to 2017 as “a bad year for journalists”. Syndicate Secretary Joseph al-Qasifi noted challenges journalists face, asserting that:
“These developments were severe ... especially as many [journalists] did not receive their salaries, or continued working without receiving them on a regular basis, and at best [were paid] in the second half of the month…The syndicate also heard from many colleagues who were arbitrarily dismissed from several newspapers and magazines”.
Another worrisome case occurred on 24th January 2018, when the public prosecutor brought defamation charges against Hisham Haddad, a comedy show host. The charges were made after Haddad made jokes related to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman and Prime Minister Saad Hariri on his weekly show, “Lahon W Bass”.
On 31st January 2018, Human Rights Watch also documented several recent incidents related to freedom of expression. These include the case of Hanin Ghaddar, a journalist sentenced in absentia to six months in prison for defaming the Lebanese Army, and the case of activist Obada Yousef who was summoned by military intelligence for his Facebook posts. Human Rights Watch called upon the Lebanese authorities to drop criminal charges against those exercising their right to free speech, including the right to express criticism of election officials. Similarly, Reporters Without Borders raised its concerns over the increase in judicial proceedings in Lebanon against media outlets critical of authorities.