Beirut, Lebanon – Lebanese authorities are engaged in an “alarming” crackdown on critical free speech aimed at suppressing widespread demands for accountability over corruption and mismanagement, 14 rights organisations said on Monday.
Human Rights Watch, member of the Coalition to Defend Freedom of Expression in Lebanon launched on Monday, said 3,599 people were interrogated on charges of defamation between 2015 – when large anti-government protests took place – and May 2019.
That is an average of about two people questioned per day by just one of the country’s main four security agencies – the Cybercrimes Bureau. The Lebanese Army, General Security and State Security also regularly interrogate and detain activists.
New arrests have spiked since October 2019 when the country witnessed its biggest-ever mass protests. At least 60 people were investigated for social media posts alone since demonstrations ushered in a new wave of outspoken criticism of the country’s ruling class.
“Lebanon’s politicians have failed to provide for citizens’ most basic needs, and their corrupt practices have squandered away billions of dollars of public funds,” said the coalition in a statement.
“Yet, instead of heeding protesters’ calls for accountability, the authorities are waging a campaign of repression against people who expose corruption and rightfully criticise the government’s significant failings.”
Lebanon is still seen as a rare beacon of critical free speech in a region where dictators and autocrats ruthlessly enforce the official state narrative.
But signatories to the statement – including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, local watchdogs ALEF and Legal Agenda, independent media platforms Megaphone and DARAJ Media as well as an alternative media syndicate – warn this status is in jeopardy.
‘Police state’ fears
“We’re very concerned that Lebanon is becoming a police state,” Doja Daoud, a Lebanese journalist and founding member of the Alternative Media Syndicate, told Al Jazeera. “Those in power are trying to lower the ceiling of freedoms so much that it may crash onto our heads as they try to hide the truth of their corruption.”
Lebanon regularly ranks among the world’s most corrupt countries. Its ruling class of former military leaders and business tycoons have long been accused of plundering state coffers and mismanaging the economy, pushing the country into a disastrous financial crisis.
In addition to the crackdown via courts and security services, several activists have been beaten by supporters of establishment parties in recent weeks.
These include Bashir Abo Zeid, the editor of an independent newspaper named after the October 17 protests, and Wassef Harake, an outspoken anti-establishment activist and former independent candidate for parliament.
“They definitely don’t want strong independent media and free expression to hold them accountable,” Daoud said. “We’re raising our voices now because soon, we fear we may not be able to speak.”
Coalition members described as “jarring” a large army presence outside the venue where their launch event was held on Monday, including armoured vehicles and gun-wielding soldiers.
Among the violations documented by the coalition are “a range of physical and psychological interrogation tactics” by authorities that people affected “believed were intended to humiliate, punish, and deter them from publishing content deemed to be insulting to or critical of powerful people”.
“The prosecution and security agencies acted improperly – and sometimes illegally – to intimidate and silence people charged in these cases,” the coalition said.
Lebanon’s constitution guarantees freedom of expression but sets limits within the law, including defamation of public officials, punishable by up to one year in prison, in addition to insulting the president or religious rituals which carry a maximum of two year and three-year sentences, respectively.
Insulting the Lebanese flag or army is also punishable by up to three years in prison.
These laws, many of them older than the country’s independence from France in 1943, are enforced by prosecutors today.
On June 15 the country’s top prosecutor ordered a security agency to investigate social media posts deemed offensive to the president.
Soon after, Michel Chamoun, a government critic, was arrested for criticising the crackdown.
Parliament and government are together working to amend the country’s aged media laws, saying they want to bring them into the digital age.
The coalition warned it was not privy to discussions and said the most recent draft they obtained included increased penalties on some charges. They urged authorities to abolish criminal defamation and recognise the public interest of criticising officials involved in wrongdoing.
“At this critical juncture for the country, Lebanon needs laws that protect people exposing corruption and misconduct rather than punishing them,” the coalition said.