Muzzling electronic voices by Lebanese authorities is indicative of low tolerance and narrow perspectives

Sun, 03/30/2014

The past two years witnessed the issuance of several court orders against activists who tried to unveil corruption scandals and irregularities or were just trying to express an opinion or defend citizens’ rights through social media.
These frequent court orders targeted bloggers, media people, individuals and even former Minister Charbel Na7hhas, so as to intimidate them, and in order to protect various political and economic figures and powers including the President of the Republic and a number of political leaders.
In this short editorial, we will try to shed some light on a number of legal pursuit cases against social media activists, while echoing our concerns towards the repeated attack on freedom of opinions, the rights of citizens, and the absence of legal regulations and laws that protect people who are trying to make institutions accountable and strengthen transparency. Paradoxically, this legislative vacuum is taking place at a time, when cyber space have become the privileged medium for individual expressions and social activism.
To be noted that these violations are being carried out through the Bureau for Combating internet crimes and protecting copyrights, a body which was created in 2006 via an internal memorandum issued by the Internal Security Forces, and was mandated with the power to investigate such crimes. This Bureau which is directly affiliated to the Criminal Investigation Bureau at the Judicial police unit, has over the past two years, called on a number of social media users and investigated them regarding articles they wrote and which were considered as denigratory and libelous crimes. Of these activists we point out to the following cases:
- Journalist Rasha al Amine for posting on her personal Facebook an article entitled: A letter from former FL members to Samir Geagea – Plaintiff: Lebanese Forces head Samir Geagea
- Journalist Mohammed Nazzal who published hard evidence about the implication of several men and women judges in cases involving drug trafficking.
- Luna Safwan and Rania Radwan and Now website for publishing a blog on “the most entertaining personalities of 2013”. Plaintiff: Joe Maaluf
- Journalist Rasha Abou Zeki for publishing a report on The Financial Puzzle and various judicial decisions which prove Siniora’s multiple violations. Plaintiff: Former PM Fouad Siniora
- Hazem Saghieh of Al Hayat for publishing an article on General Michel Aoun. Plaintiff General Michel Aoun
- Journalist Jaafar al Attar for publishing an article against Ogero and disclosing links with Israeli companies. Plaintiff: OGERO
- Former Minister Charbel Na7hhas for writing on his SM pages a description of the CEO of Spinneys a “terrorist”
- Editor Ibrahim al Amine for publishing two articles in the Al Akhbar newspaper on the President of the Republic.
- Citizen Jean Assi for the crime of libel and denigration against the President of the Republic.
Human rights defenders challenge the right of the Bureau to investigate bloggers even when based on a special interpretation by the publication court which concluded that the World Wide Web is a normal communication tool and that the web outputs are subjects to the stipulation of the current law. According to lawyer Nizar Saghieh, this Bureau should only be called upon for technical issues and that is if a complaint for libel is lodged against an unknown who is accused of promoting acts that are deemed immoral. In this case the Bureau should investigate the identity of the perpetrator, so that he/she is referred to justice. However, the Bureau does not have the powers of the judicial police to undertake any interrogation on its own.
We conclude by saying that the present trend of muzzling freedoms of expression and the rights of citizens to investigate and criticize is indicative of the inability of the authorities to deal with this matter in an open and transparent way, and to initiate a vital and wide social dialogue on social and citizens rights, while safeguarding individual rights for all rather than exercise censorship. The present situation and the continuous Infringement on freedoms of opinion bring back to light the need for the enactment of a new contemporary media law. It is also to be recalled that a draft project law was proposed by MP Mokhayber and developed in collaboration with “Maharat” association, a proposal which was placed on the shelf of the Parliamentary Commission for Media and Communication.