A breath of fresh air, in the midst of what could be likened to months of air pollution on the Lebanese horizon, came manifested in the form of a press conference by a new coalition to defend freedom of expression in Lebanon; 14 undersigned Lebanese and International groups have formed an alliance, including Human Rights Watch, Helem, The Alternative Journalist Syndicate, Amnesty International, ALEF, The Legal Agenda, LADE, SMEX, Seeds, MAP, SK eyes, Maharat, CLDH Lebanon, and Daraj Media.
The alliance came to the backdrop of a dangerous upsurge in summons and arrests on part of security agencies, of scores of citizens, activists, and journalists who have expressed dissenting views, and criticized the government or exposed corruption on social media.
The first press conference announcing this coalition took place in the Antwork offices on Monday, in the presence of four army tanks parked outside the event, justifying their attendance under the excuse of “protecting” the journalists present. Five guest speakers lead the conference, beginning with Doja Daoud from the Alternative Journalist Syndicate, and concluding with Adam Chamseddine from Al-Jadeed TV.
“Although Lebanon is perceived to be one of the freest countries in the Arab World, we are noticing a very severe crackdown on freedom of expression recently,” Aya Majzoub, Human Rights Watch representative tells Daraj. “After the October 17 protests, we’ve seen many prosecutions targeting activists and journalists who are very outspoken during the revolution and who are exposing corruption. We’ve also seen attacks by armed groups and men not affiliated with the state against journalists and activists with zero response from the state, and zero protection given to these activists and journalists.”
A prime example of this was the account involving journalist Bachir Abou Zeid, Editor in Chief of the October 17 newspaper, who narrated his story to those present at the conference, after a Facebook post criticizing speaker of the house Nabih Berri landed him a painful beating by thugs loyal to the infamous politician, in Nabatieh on May 23rd.
“With all the violations that I faced, there was not a single instance when any state entities were a safe refuge for me, and I had to find a replacement support system, which I found in the lawyers who defend activist rights, which were making up for an entity in the state whose job it was to guarantee my safety.”
“There was a group of people, sectarian individuals, that waited for me under my house, I was followed and they attempted to kidnap me,” Abou Zeid explains. “When the kidnapping attempt failed and I got somewhere safe, they came down and beat me.”
“We are in a place where we aren’t just living in a system that has denied us our complete rights for decades,” He continues. “We also have to bear with the injustice in that once we raise our voices to demand our rights, the security forces either summon us or follow us home based on tweets in which we expressed ourselves, or if they don’t want to bother too much to come themselves and drag people into interrogations, they have a large popular support that would attack people for them.”
A large portion of the press conference was also dedicated to the exaggerated and abusive use of the defamation laws on part of public officials in harassing journalists, after Majzoub revealed the staggering figure from a human rights watch report of 4000 people who have been interrogated since 2015 under defamation law claims. Alongside these facts a recent leaked version of a media law proposal, which include articles that limit freedom of expression and place additional restrictions on the regulation of the media sector, caused a buzz around the event.
“The launch of the coalition today is very important because we are on a cliff… It feels like everything relating to freedom of expression and freedom of press is now put under the administration of military and security offices and agencies,” Sahar Mandour, Amnesty International’s researcher on Lebanon tells Daraj. “There is heavy reliance on the defamation laws that are not in line with international standards, and that are really vague to an extent that anything can be described as defamation, while its mostly used by people in office to sue, silence and harass activists and journalists.”
“The recent measure that they dug up, about the 1998 law in which you would have to get a permit before you cover things, I think that’s very important,” Jonathan Dagher, journalist with independent news media outlet, Megaphone, tells Daraj. “I think this should be our priority right now to make sure this doesn’t see the light of day, because it sets a very dangerous precedent and takes us to a place where press freedoms are not just in danger, they’re getting obliterated if you need to get a permit a week before you cover things, especially if it’s from the army intelligence.”
Majzoub revealed the staggering figure from a Human Rights Watch report of 4000 people who have been interrogated since 2015 under defamation law claims.
Adam Chamseddine from Al-Jadeed focused his portion of the discussion on his experience with getting illegally summoned to the military courts for his criticizing of security agencies, describing the general oppressive mentality the authorities’ have adopted in relation to the expression of opinions they don’t appreciate.
“The authorities themselves, when it comes to dealing with citizens, acts as if they are in an empire, and they transform a clash with a security agency or any protests into charges of abuse of public properties, or exposing the state’s ‘prestige’ to danger,” Chamseddine remarks.
“This mentality that the authorities have, while they control every public entity in this country, forces us to transform all these cases, whether it is summoning a journalist or a citizen to a military court, or a side that is not authorized and does have the right to try citizens or journalists, to turn them into a case of public opinion,” He continues. “So that we could turn this summoning into a headache for these agencies, before we get to the bigger thing we are striving for which is the amendment of these laws.”
Throughout the conference, a noticeable lack in the presence of Lebanese media coverage of the event, as opposed to a higher interest on part of international agencies, colored many of the discussions of those who attended. The tip of the iceberg came with the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation’s (LBC) disconnecting of their broadcast only a few minutes into the press conference during Doja Daoud’s segment, cutting to their Aoun-affiliated newscaster Nada Andraoz who mockingly comments, “Is the situation really that bad?”
Her comment summarized a general mood amongst a majority of the Lebanese journalists, employed within the various state-affiliated media stations, that reflect the crumbling sectarian system the country has operated within for decades. Her blatant dismissal of the event however, all the more emphasized the need for the coalition’s existence as a support system, in the absence of the support the state is supposed to be providing for those dedicated to a life of objective reporting, as well as the general decline over the recent years, in the media freedoms that Lebanon was known for in comparison to surrounding countries in the region.
“Lebanon was the starting point in terms of defending our friends, colleagues, and comrades that were subjected to abuse in [neighboring] authoritarian countries, but today we fear the same fate …” Doja Daoud expresses. “The fate of enforced disappearances and detention because of the expression of opinions, as well as the militarization of the issues of freedoms and civil rights.”
“There is a foundational need to launch these committees and alliances because we are at a stage where an individual on his own is incapable of defending himself,” Abu Zeid concludes. “With all the violations that I faced, there was not a single instance when any state entities were a safe refuge for me, and I had to find a replacement support system, which I found in the lawyers who defend activist rights, which was making up for an entity in the state whose job it was to guarantee my safety.”
“We have to strive for bigger cooperation and organization efforts between groups, not only because we are protecting ourselves from the political attacks we are facing, but also because we would be creating a safe space for people that are afraid to speak, to once again trust and raise their voice.”
Daraj Media would like to reiterate its support and its firm belief in the need for the formation of this coalition, at this critical juncture for the country, when Lebanon needs laws to protect the millions of people that have taken to the streets to demand accountability for decades of corruption and an end to human rights violations.