November 28, 2023
The Lebanese Parliament’s Administration and Justice Committee is on the verge of concluding discussions behind closed doors on a new media law that, if approved by the Parliament’s General Assembly in its current state, would severely curtail freedom of expression and press freedom in Lebanon and undermine crucial human rights safeguards, the Coalition to Defend Freedom of Expression in Lebanon said today.
The latest draft of the law, reviewed by members of the Coalition, includes many alarming provisions that will stifle freedom of expression and press freedoms. It upholds criminal penalties, and in some cases increases prison sentences and fines, for insults and defamation. In recent years, defamation and insult laws have been increasingly weaponised by the Lebanese authorities to silence human rights defenders, journalists and other peaceful critics. The draft law also retains prison terms of up to three years for insulting “recognised religions”.
The head of the Committee rejected requests from members of the Coalition to attend the closed sessions and participate in discussions about the draft law.
“In its current form, the proposed law would be a dangerous setback for freedom of expression in Lebanon in a climate where defamation laws are already being used to harass and intimidate journalists and other individuals who criticise the authorities. The failure to engage Lebanese civil society in discussions around the law means there is a real danger that the legislation could grant the authorities free rein to harass, intimidate and silence peaceful critics, and perpetuate an environment of censorship,” said the Coalition to Defend Freedom of Expression in Lebanon.
“No one should face imprisonment for criticising a head of state or government or religious official. The Lebanese authorities must urgently refrain from approving this draft law and amend all provisions in line with international human rights standards.”
The impending legislation is set to replace the current Publications Law of 1962 and the Audiovisual Law of 1994. The Administration and Justice Committee responsible for deliberating on the draft law said it was reviewing it in light of amendments proposed by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) in partnership with the Ministry of Information in 2023. According to credible information shared with the Coalition, none of the amendments proposed by UNESCO proposed amendments that would remove prison sentences for insult and defamation have been adopted by the Committee. The Committee is set to discuss and vote on the remaining articles of the draft law in the coming weeks.
Defamation remains a crime
The Coalition for Freedom of Expression has recorded a surge in prosecutions targeting journalists, activists and other government critics in recent years. Defamation and insult laws have been repeatedly used as a tactic to intimidate individuals who are critical of the authorities and curtail their ability to operate independently and report freely on social, economic and rights issues. A court in July sentenced journalist Dima Sadek to one year in prison and fined her LBP 110 million (equivalent to around USD 1,200 at market rate) on criminal defamation and incitement charges after she criticised members of a political party on X (formerly Twitter).
The proposed law maintains the special protection accorded to heads of states against defamation and introduces new penalties for defamation against ambassadors and diplomatic missions in Lebanon. Defamation and insults targeting the Lebanese president or a foreign president could result in imprisonment between six months and two years and/or a fine ranging from 10 to 20 times the minimum wage, up from a minimum imprisonment of two months in the current Publications Law. The public prosecutor retains the authority to initiate defamation charges against individuals accused of defaming the president, even without a formal complaint.
The draft legislation also maintains prison sentences of up to three years and/or fines ranging from 10 to 20 times the minimum wage for those found guilty of "insulting the recognised religions in Lebanon, inciting confessional or racial bigotry, disrupting the peace, or jeopardising the integrity, sovereignty, unity, or borders of the state or its external relations." The draft also states that repeat offenders face a doubled penalty, whereas no such provision currently exists in the Publications Law.
International standards for the protection of the right to free expression, which are binding on Lebanon, underscore the need to abolish laws that allow for imprisonment over peaceful criticism of individuals, including those exercising the highest political authority such as heads of state and government officials.
The Coalition calls on the Parliament to make legislative discussions in the parliamentary committees public, with meaningful input from civil society, including regarding discussions on the draft media law, and to ensure that the new media law meets international standards including by:
· Removing all articles that criminalise insults, including those directed at heads of state;
· Removing any provisions that impose criminal sanctions on defamation and replace them with civil provisions and ensuring that damages awarded are strictly proportionate to the actual harm caused;
· Providing that truth is a complete defense to defamation, regardless of whom the defamation is directed at. In matters of public interest, the defendant should only be required to have acted with due diligence to ascertain the truth;
· Prohibiting government institutions, including the army and security agencies, from bringing defamation suits;
· Not granting public figures, including the president, special protection from defamation or insult. The mere fact that forms of expression are considered insulting to a public figure is not sufficient to justify the imposition of penalties. All public figures are legitimately subject to criticism and political opposition, and the law should explicitly recognise the public interest in criticism of public figures and public authorities.
· Criminalising only statements that amount to advocacy of national, racial, or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility, or violence. The law should clearly define what is meant by each of these terms, using the Rabat Plan of Action as a guide;
· Removing all requirements for licensing of journalists and advance authorisation of publications.
The Lebanese parliament initiated discussions on a proposal to amend the antiquated Publications Law, initially submitted by former parliamentarian Ghassan Moukheiber and the Beirut-based NGO, Maharat Foundation, specialising in media and free speech issues, in 2010. Over the course of subsequent reviews and revisions by multiple parliamentary committees, the Coalition contends that numerous amendments proposed by different organisations to align the law with international standards were disregarded.
In August, Amnesty International and the Coalition to Defend Freedom of Expression launched a campaign titled #MyOpinionisNotaCrime that calls on the Lebanese Parliament to abolish all laws that criminalise insult and defamation, amid a spate of prosecutions of those critical of political, security, judicial and religious figures in the country since 2015.
Human Rights Watch
Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections
Lebanese Centre for Human Rights – CLDH
MENA Rights Group
Media Association for Peace (MAP)
Samir Kassir Foundation
SEEDs for Legal Initiatives
The Alternative Press Syndicate
The Legal Agenda