Arrests, office raids and internet restrictions as Lebanon continue crackdown on media freedom

The Lebanese authorities continue to crackdown on media freedom and freedom of expression on social media by conducting investigations and filing lawsuits against activists who are critical of the state officials. This is a pattern that has been closely documented by the CIVICUS Monitor

This update covers the period between January 2019  and May 2019 and highlights incidents of attempts by a military tribunal to imprison a journalist for criticising the security forces on social media; raids by security forces, defamation lawsuit and attacks on media outlets; and continuous restrictions by the authorities of the space for LGBTQ community by blocking online dating app Grindr; while anti-austerity measures peaceful protesters were being dispersed through the use of water cannons. 

Expression

Attacks on social media activism continue 

On 7th March 2019, Al-Jadeed TV reporter Adam Shamseddine was sentenced in absentia by a military tribunal to three months in prison for “insulting” a security agency. The sentence relates to a Facebook post where Shamseddine criticised the Lebanese State Security Agency for arresting a Syrian man living with AIDS. On 11th April 2019, the case was sent back to the Military Prosecutor, after a separate judge ruled the case did not fall under the jurisdiction of military courts. On 25th April 2019, the Military Prosecutor announced that he would not prosecute Shamseddine.

Despite the positive news that Shamseddine’s imprisonment sentence has been dropped, the case sends a chilling message to all those that dare to criticise the security agencies. In fact, Shamseddine’s case is the latest in a "growing list" of legal actions taken against journalists for exercising free speech. As previously reported on the CIVICUS Monitor the authorities have used regularly the Penal Code to summon, question and prosecute journalists.

Human Rights Watch said:

"There has been an alarming increase in the use of Lebanon’s criminal defamation laws, which authorise imprisonment for up to three years for insulting state officials and institutions."

The CSO, Lebanon Support documented at least 13 cases in 2018 of social media activists being summoned, questioned and detained by the security authorities over posts on social media critical of political or religious leaders.

To address the ongoing concern of arrests related to freedom of expression online in Lebanon, Social Media Exchange (SMEX), a media advocacy and development regional civil society organisation, launched in February 2019 an online database to document violations of freedom of expression. The portal, called Muhal muhal.org, documented nine freedom of expression related cases in Lebanon for the first two months of 2019 and 41 cases of freedom of expression-related detentions in 2018. The organisation noted:

"Overwhelmingly, online speech has been criminalised under articles 384, 386, and 388 of the Penal Code, which detail punishments for defamation, slander, and libel, as well as similar articles in the military code." 

Raids by security forces, defamation lawsuits and attacks on media outlets 

Additionally, media outlets have been subjected to raids by security forces and attacks.

On 2nd February 2019 Al-Jadeed TV's headquarter in Beirut was targeted by a hand grenade by unidentified perpetrators. The attack damaged the headquarters' entrance and a nearby car but no casualties were reported. Prior to the attack, a protest was held outside the TV''s office as the Al-Jadeed TV was criticised over an episode of the comedy show "Qadh and Jam" broadcasted on 31st January 2019 which was seen as caricaturing the Druze religious clergy. According to local news, Al-Jadeed TV’s employees belonging to the Druze religious sect also received threats following the episode.

Additionally, on 7th February 2019, Walid Jumblat, the chief of the Lebanon Progressive Socialist Party and the political leader of Lebanon's Druze minority, filed a lawsuit against Al-Jadeed TV in relation to the "Qadh and Jam" satirical show on accusations of “libel, defamation and stirring sectarian sentiments.” According to local media, the lawsuit argued that segments of the satirical show had “insulted the dignity of Druze clergymen and the dignity of the community in general.”

On 8th May 2019, the state security forcesraided the offices of Al-Akhbar newspaper and confiscated footage from the building's security cameras and asked for the address of Al-Akhbar's editor-in-chief, Ibrahim al-Amine. Al-Akhbar's deputy editor-in-chief, Pierre Abi Saab told local media that prior the raid they have felt a "strange movement around our offices, which may be security checks and surveillance of the movements of editors, employees and visitors." According to Abi Saab the raid was a response to the newspaper's publication on 24th April 2019 titled "Washington Lakes 2" exposing leaked diplomatic cables between the Lebanese Embassy in Washington and the Lebanese Foreign Ministry. 

Authorities extend restrictions of space for LGBTQ community blocking online dating app Grindr

In May 2019, the popular online gay dating app Grindr was blocked by Ogero, the ministry of telecommunications operated internet service provider (ISP). SMEX reported that the application has been blocked following a court order. This is the second attempt to block Grindr. In January 2019, the state-owned mobile phone operators Touch and Alfa blocked Grindr on 3G and 4G networks on the order of the Telecommunications Ministry, allegedly acting on a request of the state security agencies.

According to Tarek Zeidan, Executive director of LGBTQ rights group Helem:

“This is not an isolated incident, but yet another attack by Lebanese authorities on the personal rights and freedoms of its own people.”

SMEX also raised concerns that:

"The continued blocking of Grindr highlights one of the major issues with the government’s monopoly over communications in Lebanon."

The space for the LGBTQ community has been increasingly restricted in Lebanon. In February 2019, Human Rights Watch filed a complaint with the United Nations human rights special procedures mandate holders related to freedom of association, HRDs, and protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender, over reports that Lebanon’s security services “repeatedly interfered with human rights events related to gender and sexuality based on spurious “morality” claims”. The CIVICUS Monitor highlighted in its previous updates the closing down by the authorities of public events focused on LGBTQ and gender rights (see here and here). 

Peaceful Assembly

In May 2019, the Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri’s coalition government's planned budget cuts aiming at reducing the country’s deficit by cutting wages and benefits of public sector employees, sparked protests and a wave of public discontent.

On 20th May 2019, anti-austerity measures protests took place in Beirut, gathering over 100 protesters including groups who are expected to be hit hardest by the budget cuts such as public servants, teachers and military veterans. As the Cabinet met for its 16th session to reach agreement on controversial budget cuts, protesters gathered outside the Government House in Beirut shouting "Thieves, thieves!". There were reports of protesters pushing back against police lines, setting fire to tires and clashing with police. The security forces used water cannons to disperse the protesters. According to media reports, at least two policemen and one civilian were wounded in the clashes. Footage of the clashes can be seen in the video below.

Additionally, a number of peaceful assemblies were held earlier in the year calling for reforms to end discriminatory laws and practices. There are no reports of the protests below being restricted or dispersed.

  • On 23rd February 2019, protests were held outside the Ministry of Interior calling for the recognition of civil marriages in Lebanon as an additional option to the only permitted currently in Lebanon religious-based marriages. This demand has been rejected and opposed by the country’s religious groups for decades. The protests were encouraged by a recent statement made by the Minister of Interior Raya al-Hassan, who pledged during a media interview to initiate a “serious and profound dialogue on this issue with all religious authorities and others, with the support of Prime Minister Saad Hariri”. The Minister Al-Hassan’s comments prompted a backlash from religious bodies, including the highest Sunni authority in Lebanon, who claimed that civil marriage “contradicts with the rules of Islamic Sharia” and also contradicts the Lebanese constitution in terms of the need to respect the personal status law. Marriages in Lebanon are currently governed under the discriminatory towards women personal status laws. There are 15 separate personal status laws for the country’s different recognised religious communities, which are administered by separate religious courts. Supporters of civil marriages believe that it would contribute to more peaceful coexistence between sects and will improve gender equality and women’s rights, particularly with regards to divorce settlements and child custody.
  • On 17th March 2019, hundreds of people mobilising under the “My Nationality, My Dignity” campaign took to the streets in Beirut to call for reforms of Lebanon’s misogynistic citizenship laws. The demonstration marked Women’s History Month and Mother’s Day, which falls on 21st March 2019. The current citizenship laws are discriminatory for women as they deny women married to foreigners to pass Lebanese citizenship to their children. The current law violates children’s and spouses’ rights as it denies legal residency, access to work, education, social services, and health care and could leave children at risk of statelessness. Rights campaigners call for reforms of the outdated French mandate-era nationality law.