CIVICUS Monitor Speaks to Lebanese Center for Human Rights

Expression

As we've covered in previous updates to the CIVICUS Monitor, there have been serious concerns throughout 2018 that Lebanon's reputation for freedom of speech is slowly being eroded. Freedom House's recently released Freedom on the Net 2017 report confirmed this decline by rating Lebanon as partly free. In particular, the report highlighted that: 

“Government security officials periodically pressure individuals and ISPs to remove certain comments—mainly criticism of government officials or the army—from social media pages, blogs, or websites”. 

To learn more about the situation for freedom of expression in Lebanon, the CIVICUS Monitor recently spoke to Lebanese human rights defender, Wadih Al-Asmar. He is co-founder and secretary general of the movement SOLIDA (support of Lebanese detained arbitrarily), co-founder and President of the CLDH (Lebanese center for human rights) and co-founder and secretary general of the FEMED (euro-Mediterranean federation against enforced disappearance). Since the summer of 2015, Wadihi has also been one of the leaders of the #youStink  social movement (#tol3etRy7otkoun), which actively participated in organising and supporting most of the social protests during the last rubbish crisis in Lebanon

In addition, Wadih Al-Asmar has participated in the drafting of several laws related to Human Rights in Lebanon, including the draft Law on the criminalisation of torture. His work on human rights at the regional level is mainly within EuroMed Rights, of which he has been a member of the Executive Committee. Al Asmar was elected EuroMed Rights' president president in June 2018.

In our interview, Al-Asmar speaks openly about his growing concern from freedom of expression in Lebanon. Drawing attention to the detention of online activists, he expresses dismay at a growing climate of self-censorship among Lebanese civil society and calls on the international community to step up efforts in shaming Lebanese authorities for reneging on their commitments to freedom of expression. 

*The interview below has been edited for length*

A spate of recent cases in Lebanon highlight a worsening situation. In particular, there has been increasing restrictions on freedom of expression on social media with several investigations and lawsuits filed against activists, including:

  • An investigation by the Information Branch of the Internal Security Forces against activist Elie Khoury who had posted a message directed to President Michel Aoun on his Facebook page, criticising the current state of affairs in Lebanon while highlighting that “reforms must come from above first”.
  • A Lawsuit filed against activist Charbel Khoury by the Lebanese Forces and questioning on 19th July 2018, by members of the Internal Security Forces for a FB post of a joke about the revered Lebanese Saint Charbel.
  • Defamation lawsuit against Marcel Ghanem because of remarks made by a guest on his previous show Kalam Ennas.
  • Questioning call by the Anti-Cybercrimes Bureau for Imad Bazzi, the founder of the Empower Advocacy organisation because of his Facebook post on Eden Bay (a beach resort).

On 24th July 2018, activists came together in Samir Kassir Square, Beirut to protest against the perceived crackdown on freedom of speech. They also launched a campaign that was supported by journalists, human rights activists with the hashtag #ضد_القمع (against repression). The hashtag was used over 2,000 times on Twitter. 

International groups are also waking up to Lebanese authorities' backsliding on civic freedoms. On 11th July 2018, Amnesty International drew attention to the practice of detained activists being coerced into signing illegal pledges restricting their freedom of expression. Usually used on particularly outspoken activists, these pledges oblige the individual to refrain from expressing dissent online in exchange for their release by Lebanese authorities. There is no legal basis in Lebanese law for such arrangements which seriously imperil freedom of expression. In a statement, Amnesty said: 

"These so-called pledges are no more than an intimidation tactic that has no legal basis in Lebanese law. Authorities have been using them in an attempt to silence activists and other individuals who should never have been detained in the first place".