On the Watchlist: Protest continue in Lebanon; activists, journalists targeted by government

Background

The new government appointed in January 2020 has been highly criticised by protestors for failing to appoint experts who are independent from the political ruling class. As a result, it is being closely observed during this critical period the country is facing. The government has failed to share a clear vision of the situation in Lebanon, particularly on the social, economic and financial levels. It has also failed to implement a consolidated plan to address the multilevel challenges people are facing since the government embraced and adopted the 2020 budget law, which was previously prepared by a deposed government which no longer reflects factual numbers or the reality on the ground.

On 6th February 2020, almost two weeks after the formation of the government, the ministerial statement was presented to the public with similarities to the one adopted by previous governments. The statement lacked essential planning or commitments to address the current crises and failed to respond to the revolution’s demands. More specifically, the ministerial statement neglects the political and institutional crisis, which is very closely linked to the socio-economic and financial crises.

Peaceful Assembly

Throughout February 2020, protestors continued to demonstrate on a daily and weekly basis to denounce the social and economic repercussions of the crises. They are demanding to be involved in key decision making and are calling for a stronger government which is capable of genuinely overcoming all these obstacles. A highlight of the revolution took place on 11th February 2020, when thousands gathered across Beirut in an attempt to block roads and hinder deputies from attending the parliamentary session to discuss the ministerial statement and a vote of confidence on the new cabinet. More than 350 protestors were injured during clashes with security forces around the parliament in Beirut. The Lebanese Red Cross transported 45 people to hospitals and treated 328 at the scene. More than ten were arrested (then released) for taking part in the protests. It is reported that security forces used batons, tear gas and rubber-coated steel bullets to disperse protestors.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported several violations which took place during this protest including security forces launching tear gas to disperse protesters at the entrances to parliament and firing canisters directly at protesters in violation of international standards. Furthermore, they reported that security forces also used water cannon to disperse protesters around the Annahar building. Some specific examples of excessive force documented by HRW include:

  • Two protesters from Tripoli told Human Rights Watch that security forces launched teargas and aimed water cannon at them around the Annahar building at 8 am without any provocation.
  • A local media watchdog reported that security forces fired a rubber bullet that hit a photographer in the mouth near the Annahar building.
  • A woman protester reported that a tear gas cannister went through her cardboard sign and burnt the flag around her neck.
  • A journalist reported that she was hit by a tear gas cannister on her leg while filming during protests.
"While Prime Minister Hassan Diab was talking to a half empty parliament hall about the importance of the right to protest, security forces were throwing tear gas and beating people up outside. For the right to have any real meaning, Lebanon’s authorities should ensure that protesters are able to freely express their opinions, including those deemed critical of the government.” Aya Majzoub, Lebanon and Bahrain Researcher, Human Rights Watch.

Moreover, political activists continue to be targeted by the government and according to the Lawyers Committee to Defend Protestors in Lebanon, more than ten activists were summoned for interrogation for their participation in the revolution, some by the military court; and more recently, three key activists and journalists were called for interrogation for tweets and other social media posts they shared in critique of politicians. For instance, the Free Patriotic Movement filed two complaints against journalist Dima Sadek and activist Gino Raidy for crimes under Articles 317, 385 and 582 against the background of their publication of false news, ‘inciting sectarianism and racism’ and a video whose subject is falsely attributed to the Free Patriotic Movement. 

Mohammad Zbeeb, a business reporter who specialises in covering corruption for the daily newspaper Al-Akhbar, was assaulted by three individuals on the night of 12th February 2020 in a Beirut car park close to where he had just participated in a discussion on the economy. He had to be taken to the American University Hospital for treatment of his injuries.

Following the attacks on journalists, Reporters without Borders (RSF) has called on authorities to ensure the protection of journalists during protests.

“The demonstrations in Lebanon must not be used as a pretext by the various political and religious movements to target journalists. Journalists have a vital role to play at this pivotal time and their reporting must be able to reflect the protest movements and the demands of the protesters. The Lebanese authorities have a duty to prosecute those responsible for the violence and to take whatever measures are necessary to ensure that journalists can fulfil their reporting duties,”-Sabrina Bennoui, the head of RSF’s Middle East desk. 

On 17th February 2020, Ahmad Toufic, who was shot by a rubber bullet fired by security forces in Tripoli on the tenth day of the protests, succumbed to his injuries after almost three months of suffering. Protestors across the country gathered at his memorial to pay tribute to the lives lost in the revolution. In total there have been four deaths since the protests began, but five martyrs are recognised for their role in the revolution. This count includes a young father who died while tackling fires in Btater a few days before the protests.

Anti-government demonstrations and roadblocks continued in the first week of March. Demonstrators blocked the Saifi and Sport City roads in Beirut, the Taalabaya and Jdita roads in the Bekaa and the el-Mina, Minieh, al-Mhammara and al-Beddawi roads in the North on 4th March 2020, as reported by Naharnet. In Tripoli, two protesters were injured as army troops reopened the road by force at the Pistachio roundabout.

In addition to the anti-government demonstrations that took place during this period, a women’s protest organised by Protecting Lebanese Women and the National Campaign to Raise the Age of Custody within the Shiite Community took place in front of the Supreme Islamic Shiite Council on 27th February 2020. This demonstration can be described as unprecedented compared to previous demonstrations held against the Council. This particular protest was organised after a video circulated on social media of a mother crying over the grave of her daughter, from behind a fence. The mother was deprived by the father of seeing her daughter for two years, and after the mysterious death of her daughter by gunfire she was once again prevented from saying goodbye to her daughter and from visiting her grave site as she was buried on the property of the father, barring her from entry. This incident has placed the spotlight on the dozens of cases that have emerged in the media on unfair rulings issued by the Ja`fari Court against mothers, which prevent them from seeing their children. This issue has once again sparked debates about religious clerics’ power over the state and the law in the context of the absence of a civil law for personal status, the absence of any kind of accountability of religious courts and the freedom of religious judges to issue unjust and patriarchal rulings.

Expression

In recent years, Lebanese authorities have increased their use of defamation laws in order to punish journalists, activists and others who tackle issues of corruption or criticise powerful individuals. A policy brief, entitled To Speak or not to Speak: tackling recent violations of Freedom of Expression in Lebanon, by AUB Issam Fares Institute shows that from 2017 onwards, there has been an increasing trend to summon and interrogate individuals in relation to freedom of expression matters, with the majority of the complaints originating from political and religious figures, symbolising a show of force against outspoken critics and activists. A list of cases can be found here.

Furthermore, a report titled Monitoring Freedom of Expression and Media by the Maharat Foundation shows that freedom of expression has reached its ‘peak’ during the revolution, which is an ‘unprecedented phenomenon’ in Lebanon. It adds that journalists and the media have become both ‘allies and opponents’ in the revolution. The report further documents attacks on journalists, protestors and activists.