Journalists in Lebanon fined and beaten amid crackdown

Journalists in Lebanon fined and beaten amid crackdown
In-depth: The intimidation and interrogation of journalists in Lebanon has raised concerns over the declining freedom of speech in the country, writes Kareem Chehayeb.
7 min read
29 November, 2018
Lebanese and international newspapers are displayed at a kiosk in Beirut [Getty]
Timur Azhari, a reporter at Lebanon's English-language newspaper The Daily Star did not expect that he would be interrogated and face legal action for publishing a story about a high-profile case of violence against a migrant domestic worker last March.

"The Daily Star received a call from the Cybercrimes Bureau saying they wanted to interrogate me over this case," Azhari told The New Arab. "The specifics were not given… I didn't expect it to be a full interrogation."

The interrogator took Azhari's phone, and rummaged through old WhatsApp conversations, including with migrant workers' rights activists and sources that the journalist kept anonymous in the story. The Cybercrimes Bureau demanded that he signed a pledge to not speak about the case again, but he refused to do so.

Fast forward to early November. Azhari receives a call from the Baabda Appeals Court. He was told that his court date is later that month on November 27. 

The Daily Star reporter did not make this public until the day itself. Lawyers from Legal Agenda, a local advocacy and human rights NGO, represented him in court, not the local daily's. While he is not at risk to face a prison sentence, he could face a fine exceeding thousands of dollars.

El-Hage was summoned to the Cybercrimes Bureau for an interrogation over her coverage of the case; she was one of several journalists

Lelisa Lensa is a 20-year-old Ethiopian worker made national headlines last March when a video of her in a hospital bed went viral.

Wrapped up in bandages and casts around her jaw and legs, she said that she attempted suicide by jumping off the balcony from her sponsor's building after facing years of abuse and torture. Many journalists, as well as human rights organisations such as Human Rights Watch and Legal Agenda, reported on the case.

Lebanon, home to some 250,000 migrant workers, has been decried for its mistreatment of migrant domestic workers through its kafala or sponsorship system, where they are devoid of their labour rights.

Lensa's sponsor, Eleanore Ajami, who runs the high-end Eleanore Couture, responded through media appearances denying the allegations. However, she also responded through filing legal complaints against the journalists who covered the case, citing slander and defamation.

Anne-Marie el-Hage from Lebanon's French-language newspaper, L’Orient Le Jour, was among those who covered the case. In late June, el-Hage was summoned to the Cybercrimes Bureau for an interrogation over her coverage of the case; she was one of several journalists.

While her article, as well as those from Human Rights Watch and Legal Agenda, on the case is still online, and considering that The Daily Star journalist still faced trial despite the newspaper taking the story down, will they be next?   

Stifling investigative journalism and human rights activism

Human rights activist Wadih al-Asmar received a phone call on WhatsApp from Lebanon's Cybercrimes Bureau while abroad last August.

"They said that they wanted to interrogate me," the human rights activist told The New Arab, adding that he was summoned by Mount Lebanon Attorney General Judge Ghada Aoun. According to al-Asmar, who heads the Lebanese Center for Human Rights, he was summoned because of his posts on social media.

Five hours after the interrogation took place, he was released, having only responded with stating his right to remain silent. That being said, he admitted that it was an overwhelming experience, describing it as "psychologically harsh".

"It seemed clear that if they were interrogating someone else, that person would have taken a beating."

While cases of interrogations, trials, and even brief detentions of activists and other individuals over social media posts have been covered sporadically following legal complaints by government officials, there have also been cases of journalists impacted for their investigative work. Azhari and el-Hage are certainly not alone.

Read also: Disappearing dissidents will not make dissent disappear

Another recent ongoing case is with Mohammad Zbib, a journalist for local daily Al-Akhbar. During his ongoing investigation over the laundering and squandering of public funds, he posted a picture of a cheque valued at 1.436 billion liras (US$950,364), allegedly sent to caretaker Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk back in 2002. Zbib stood trial as recently as April 2018, after Machnouk filed a legal complaint, claiming that his work is defamatory.

I've been assaulted, jumped, hands twisted behind my back and [individuals at construction sites] tried to break my arm to take my phone

Suppressing journalists is certainly not limited to trial or interrogation at the Cybercrimes Bureau. Independent journalist Habib Battah, whose work focuses heavily on heritage sites and development, faced reprisal for his work for years.

"I've been assaulted, jumped, hands twisted behind my back and [individuals at construction sites] tried to break my arm to take my phone," he recounted to The New Arab. "I've also had a bunch of partisans of [Prime Minister Saad] Hariri run after me and jump on me and try to grab and rip my camera away from me. I've had my footage erased by Hizballah members."

Is freedom of speech protected in Lebanon?

Freedom of speech and expression in Lebanon is covered on several legal documents. Article 13 of the country's Constitution states that freedom of speech is guaranteed and protected "within the limits established by law".

Journalists and publications must also adhere to the penal code, press law (established in 1962), the audiovisual media law, among others. Many legal provisions on slander, defamation, and outputs that "contradicts public ethics or is inimical to national or religious feelings or national unity", remain unclear and ambiguous.

Human Rights Watch Middle East and North Africa Deputy Director Lama Fakih tells The New Arab that defamation laws have been routinely used to target journalists for their work, as well as activists and other individuals for social media posts

"This speech that is being targeted is sometimes critical of specific government officials, government policy, alliances with foreign governments that are seen to be repressive," Fakih explains, adding that targeting these individuals for their criticism of officials also violates Lebanon's obligations under international law, mentioning that Lebanon is party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

"These types of criminal defamation laws which do not allow the criticism of government officials are incompatible with those obligations," Fakih said. "We are calling for Parliament to remove any criminal sanctions for defamation, libel, criticism of public officials, so there needs to be legislative reform."

Though confirmed that he will not be part of Lebanon's next Cabinet, Caretaker Information Minister Melhem Riachi announced in February that he is hoping to revamp the ministry, turning it into the "ministry of information and dialogue".

Though the proposal is gathering dust while government scrambles to form a new Cabinet, it is not clear to what extent this will modify or improve existing legislation related to freedom of speech and expression.

However, it appears that Riachi's perspective on the matter is rather vague. In an interview he said that he supports full freedom of speech "in principle", but as long as it is "respect[s] for others opinion, and [excludes] all that threatens public stability and civil peace".

Intimidation leads to self-censorship

Ambiguous legal language and a clear disproportionate advantages to powerful political figures and businesses has led to the normalising of self-censorship when it comes to writing about certain issues in Lebanon.

Not just limited to social media posts, journalists feel more restricted on topics they can cover - and the extent of which they can investigate them - fearing legal reprisal or their own safety.

It's hard to do [investigative journalism] because there are many potential threats. They might take action to censor you, and [then] you act to censor yourself

"As a journalist, I'm concerned with the freedom to report accurately and diligently," Battah tells The New Arab. "You do get intimidated when government officials threaten you or private developers or companies threaten you... you start to wonder, you start to worry."

Battah adds that despite his ongoing passion for covering issues related to Lebanon's ruins and heritage sites, he admitted that he "definitely" won't go anymore to take pictures alone.

"Increasingly, I feel very uncomfortable taking pictures of ruins... it's actually started to get to me after a while. We need the freedom to do journalism, the freedom to ask questions, freedom to investigate," Battah concludes.

Azhari admits that there is "not enough investigative journalism" in Lebanon, adding that it isn't a sheer coincidence.

"It's hard to do because there are many potential threats," The Daily Star reporter told The New Arab. "They might take action to censor you, and [then] you act to censor yourself."

Activists like al-Asmar and Fakih share similar sentiments on the state of free expression in Lebanon, saying that its unlike the diminishing spaces for free expression elsewhere.

"Look, it's bleak," Fakih admitted to The New Arab, when discussing the state of free expression in the region.

"Lebanon used to have a relatively strong reputation... And unfortunately, we are seeing this significant backsliding."

Al-Asmar adds that he and other activists remain defiant, but questions how authorities will respond.

"Will they be convinced that Lebanon is not Lebanon without its freedom of expression or we're going to experience a further increase in oppression?"

Kareem Chehayeb is a Lebanese writer and musician based in Beirut.

Follow him on Twitter: @chehayebk