The Lebanese authorities must immediately halt all prosecutions of journalists, human rights defenders, activists, and others who are critical of state officials, Amnesty International today, as the organization launches #MyOpinionIsNotaCrime, a new campaign that calls on the Lebanese Parliament to abolish all laws that criminalize insult and defamation.
The new campaign comes amid a spate of prosecutions of those critical of political, security, judicial and religious figures in the country, with thousands targeted by criminal investigations since 2015. In a recent shocking development, a court in July sentenced journalist Dima Sadek to one year in prison and fined her LBP 110 million (equivalent to around USD 1,200 at market rate) on criminal defamation and incitement charges after she criticized members of a political party on Twitter.
“Dima Sadek’s case is a travesty, and an illustration of how archaic criminal laws are being weaponized to punish or silence dissent. Her prison sentence sends a chilling message to less high-profile journalists in the country and will deter people from speaking out against the powerful – whether state officials, or political party leaders or religious figures – especially at a time when impunity is rampant,” said Aya Majzoub, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa.
“Lebanon’s insult and defamation laws are designed to protect those in power from all forms of criticism. At a time when Lebanese citizens should be freely discussing what they expect from their leaders given the acute suffering due to the economic crisis, high-ranking officials are targeting journalists, human rights defenders, activists and others who are peacefully expressing their opinions and working to expose allegations of corruption.”
In the aftermath of the October 2019 protest movement, Amnesty International, along with many other organizations, had documented an increase in freedom of expression-related investigations and prosecutions. Between 17 October 2019 and 24 June 2020, Amnesty International documented the cases of 75 individuals who were summoned in relation to defamation and insult charges, including 20 journalists.
“Dima Sadek’s case is a travesty, and an illustration of how archaic criminal laws are being weaponized to punish or silence dissent. Her prison sentence sends a chilling message to less high-profile journalists.Aya Majzoub, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa
Today, as public discontent with the authorities’ handling of the multiple crises in the country is growing, Amnesty International has found that high-level officials are again increasingly weaponizing repressive criminal provisions that are not in line with international law, in order to silence critics. The organization interviewed 10 individuals who have been summoned for interrogation this year or are currently on trial over criminal defamation and insult complaints because of their peaceful criticism. Nine of the complaints were lodged by high-ranking officials.
Summons and intimidation
Out of the 10 cases that Amnesty International documented, three of those summoned for interrogation were subject to criminal insult and/or defamation complaints based on their work revealing alleged misconduct by prominent officials and political parties.
In March, State Security, a Lebanese intelligence agency, intercepted the car of Jean Kassir, a journalist and co-founder of Megaphone, an independent media outlet, and summoned him for interrogation without informing him of the reason for the summons. Kassir later learned that the summons was based on a criminal defamation complaint filed by Lebanon’s top public prosecutor, who was named as one of the “fugitives from justice” in the Beirut port explosion case in a post on Megaphone. The prosecutor was charged in the Beirut explosion case. Popular mobilization and solidarity with Jean prompted the prosecutor to drop the charges. Kassir told Amnesty International:
“I do not think this is over. I believe that they [state officials] could issue a new complaint or summons against us at any moment because our publications upset them…We are in a country where there are no guarantees for freedom of expression and freedom of the press…We read [the summons] as an intimidation attempt and a political message against us.”
Similarly, in March, the Cybercrimes Bureau of the Internal Security Forces (ISF) summoned for interrogation Lara Bitar, editor-in-chief of the Public Source website, an investigative journalism outlet, based on a criminal defamation complaint submitted by a prominent Lebanese political party, in relation to an article published eight months earlier accusing the party of alleged environmental crimes during and after the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990). In July, the Cybercrimes Bureau summoned Gina al-Chammas, the president of a non-profit called Lebanon Certified Anti-Corruption Managers, for interrogation following a criminal defamation complaint filed against her by a former minister over statements she made about his alleged corrupt activities.
I do not think this is over… We are in a country where there are no guarantees for freedom of expression and freedom of the press…We read [the summons] as an intimidation attempt and a political message against us.Jean Kassir, journalist & co-founder of independent media outlet Megaphone
Amnesty International found that the officials who filed insult and defamation charges used those laws as a means of retaliation, harassment or intimidation against their critics. In all cases, the speech the individuals were targeted for is not only protected under international human rights law but considered necessary for transparency and accountability in a society based on the rule of law.
In addition, the security agencies that summoned and interrogated those accused of “insult” or defamation failed to follow standard procedures that safeguard the defendants’ due process rights and engaged in intimidating behavior, such as threatening the individuals with detention or pressuring them to sign pledges stating that they would stop criticizing the complainant or committing to remove the allegedly defamatory content.
Repressive provisions incompatible with international law
Lebanon’s criminal insult and defamation provisions, which appear in the Penal Code, the Publications Law, and the Military Code of Justice, can carry prison sentences of up to 3 years.
These include provisions that criminalize “insulting” public officials or institutions, a vague and subjective provision which is not recognized as a crime under international law. Amnesty International is calling for these provisions to be repealed.
Further, Lebanon’s defamation provisions fail to meet international human rights standards and unduly restrict the right to freedom of expression. Under international human rights law, criminal penalties are always disproportionate punishments for reputational harm and should be abolished.
Civil defamation and criminal incitement laws are sufficient to protect people’s reputations and maintain public order, and they can be framed and implemented in ways that provide appropriate protection for freedom of expression.
“Our new campaign #MyOpinionIsNotaCrime calls on the Lebanese authorities to abolish articles in the Penal Code, the Publications Law and the Military Code of Justice that criminalize insults and to replace defamation articles with new civil provisions. Such reforms would balance the protection of people’s reputations from undue harm while ensuring the protection of the right to freedom of expression,” Majzoub said.