Protesters demonstrate in solidarity with Lebanese journalist in defamation case
Protesters gathered in front of the Lebanese Cybercrime Bureau on Thursday morning in solidarity with Lara Bitar, the editor-in-chief of "The Public Source," who is being sued for defamation.
Bitar was sued by the Lebanese Forces, the largest Maronite political party in the Lebanese parliament, in response to an article which detailed the party's alleged role in facilitating imports of toxic waste to Lebanon.
She refused to attend the court hearing, saying journalists should be investigated by a specialised court under the country's publications law rather than by security agencies.
"This was a long time coming because of the type of work the Public Source does, investigative journalism. This time it’s the Lebanese Forces, next time it will be someone else," Sintia Issa, the Public Source's editor-at-large, told The New Arab at the protest.
Sintia said that the defamation suit was "a badge of honour," and that the Public Source would "continue doing [their job] for as long as they can."
A spokesperson for the Lebanese Forces said that the "basic values of journalism and reporting were not met" by the article.
"Regretfully, we did file this complaint because we believe that freedom of speech does not entitle to launch harmful and untruthful stories out of certain political motivations," Marc Saad, the spokesperson for the Lebanese Forces, told TNA.
Earlier in the week, Jean Kassir, editor-in-chief of independent media outlet Megaphone also had defamation charges filed against him.
Lebanon's top public prosecutor, Ghassan Oueidat, filed the charges in response to an article by Megaphone which alleged Oueidat was wanted in connection with the Beirut Blast.
The charges were later withdrawn after Megaphone's lawyer argued that journalists cannot be investigated by security agencies in connection with their work.
Human rights monitors have alleged that defamation cases filed against journalists have negatively affected freedom of expression in Lebanon.
"The atmosphere of fear and self-censorship results from these legal strategies. As a result, the public discourse may become more restricted," Jad Shahrour, the spokesperson for the Samir Kassir Foundation, told TNA.
Shahrour further noted that Lebanon has seen more than 800 violations against journalists, "including severe beatings by security agents, illegal summons and telephone harassment," in the last six years.
The Coalition to Defend Freedom of Expression in Lebanon said that it was "worried and alarmed" about the summons targeting journalists.
"Such actions increase the restrictions on freedom of expression and freedom of the press in the midst of an escalation in the use of criminal defamation provisions, violating international standards," the statement said.
Defamation is prosecuted as a criminal charge in Lebanon and can result in jail time, as opposed to being a civil offence which results in a fine.
Convictions leading to jail time are rare in Lebanon, but human rights organisations have argued that the effect of these suits can still lead to self-censorship.