A coalition of 14 rights groups has accused the Lebanese government of using “repression” and “intimidation” to crack down on dissent.
The Coalition to Defend Freedom of Expression in Lebanon is comprised of international and domestic watchdogs, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (HRW).
The Lebanese government has lashed out especially against “people who expose corruption and rightfully criticize the government’s significant failings,” it said in a statement on Monday.
“Lebanon’s politicians have failed to provide for citizens’ most basic needs, and their corrupt practices have squandered away billions of dollars of public funds,” it added.
While the coalition has traced the uptick in authoritarian behavior to 2015, the crackdown has ramped up since mass protests began in October last year.
Free Speech in Lebanon
Those protests ousted Prime Minister Saad Hariri‘s corrupt and aristocratic government, which had been in power since 1990. However, repression of free speech has continued under the new government of Hassan Diab.
HRW researcher Aya Majzoub said that at least 60 people have been interrogated for writing critical social media posts since the October protests began. In the past few years, however, the Lebanese government has investigated thousands more for peaceful speech.
On Monday, 14 Lebanese & international groups will launch the new "Coalition to Defend Freedom of Expression in #Lebanon" to oppose the Lebanese authorities’ alarming crackdown on free speech & opinion in the country.
Join us for this timely and urgent discussion. pic.twitter.com/tl2X8JSMyC
— Aya Majzoub (@Aya_Majzoub) July 10, 2020
In a 2019 report, HRW found that the Lebanese government routinely uses anti-defamation laws and other restrictive speech laws to silence and convict journalists. Some of these laws are remnants from the Ottoman and French Mandate periods.
Insulting the president, for instance, is punishable by up to two years in prison.
Combined with its use of physical and psychological intimidation tactics, these paint a darker image of what is normally perceived as among the freest countries in the Arab world.
Walking a Fine Line
The government’s intolerance of free speech appears to be a safeguard against Lebanon’s internal economic instability.
Almost half of Lebanon’s population now lives below the poverty line. Meanwhile, the Lebanese pound continues to fall in value on the black market, raising prices for already suffering consumers. After Japan and Greece, Lebanon is the world’s most indebted nation.
The coronavirus pandemic has only exacerbated the crisis. The lockdowns instituted in March starved much of the population of desperately-needed wages, spurring largely unanswered calls for financial relief.
Lebanon’s crumbling economic situation has struck another blow to the press sector. Privately-funded newspapers across the country struggle to scrape together advertising revenue and pay their employees.
Lebanon’s only English newspaper, The Daily Star, suspended print publication in February of this year. In January of last year, Al-Mustaqbal shut down physical production. Both, however, have maintained an online presence.
As Lebanon’s economy continues to flounder, calls for accountability continue to grow louder. Yet, instead of heeding to such calls, Lebanese authorities are waging a campaign of repression to those who expose its wrongdoing.