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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 September 2018

UN Special Rapporteur urges Lebanon to act over freedom of expression crackdown

Dozens have been summoned for questioning over social media comments

People holding mobile phones are silhouetted against a backdrop projected with the Twitter logo in this illustration picture. Reuters
People holding mobile phones are silhouetted against a backdrop projected with the Twitter logo in this illustration picture. Reuters

The United Nations’ expert on freedom of speech has raised concerns with the Lebanese government over a recent crackdown on expression online.

More than 40 people have been summoned for questioning by authorities since 2016 for comments made on social media, in what activists have described as a marked deterioration of freedom of expression.

A spate of incidents over the past few months prompted several human rights groups to pen an open letter to the UN to express “great concern about the current human rights situation in Lebanon”.

David Kaye, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression and one of the recipients of the letter, told The National that he had written to the Lebanese government to urge action over the allegations.

“We have communicated to the government our concerns about several topics, in part in response to the letter,” Mr Kaye said.

“I believe that the letter raises some very serious concerns, some of which should be resolved through legislative change – such as the repeal of the criminal defamation law – and some through the forbearance of law enforcement and security services.”

The open letter, which was signed by a number of Lebanese and international human rights groups, said dozens of activists have been summoned for “criticising the Lebanese authorities or political figures”.

It added that these incidents “result in periods of deprivation of liberty and often end with activists signing pledges restricting their freedom of expression”.

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The letter was triggered in part by the summoning of Wadih Al Asmar, president of the Lebanese Center for Human Rights, for reposting a joke about Saint Charbel, a Maronite monk from Lebanon.

In Mr Asmar’s case, as in most others, he was called in by Lebanon’s Cyber Crimes Bureau for questioning. But activists have also reported people being questioned by other branches of the Lebanese security forces.

“It’s part of a trend,” said Mr Asmar. “Human rights activists in Lebanon have some privilege compared to the rest of the region. But we have felt over the past two years a shrinking of our space.”

“We are going back to the time of the Syrian occupation in Lebanon when there were so many taboo subjects. You didn’t have the right to criticise the sister state, or politicians, private companies or religious figures.”

Mr Kaye said he had raised concerns about Mr Asmar’s case with the Lebanese government, and about “the continued existence of criminal defamation in Lebanese law, and the restrictions of individuals based on their online expression”.

Ayman Mhanna, director of the Lebanese free speech group the Samir Kassir Eyes Centre and a signatory of the open letter, said the UN’s response “shows that that there is a level of importance attached to what makes Lebanon unique in the region, which is a much higher ceiling for freedom of expression.”

“What is happening is more than just the implementation of the law on defamation and slander. The Lebanese authorities cannot hide behind the justification that we’re still better than the others,” he added.

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