Since October last year, Lebanon's police and security forces have investigated or detained more than 100 civil rights activists in what Human Rights Watch (HRW) has termed a "spate of free speech prosecutions". The spike in cases has coincided with the rise of a nationwide protest movement that has expressed popular anger at decades of political and economic mismanagement.
In eight months of protests, the people of Lebanon have spoken out increasingly and openly on social media and at street demonstrations against members of the establishment who are considered widely to be the cause of the country's multiple crises. Activists and rights groups, however, have raised concerns that the rising number of investigations into comments made and actions taken by protesters is a sign that Lebanon's vague defamation laws are being used to intimidate and silence critics. Freedom of expression, they say, is definitely under threat.
"The problem is the interpretation of the law," explains Ayman Mhanna, the Executive Director of media freedom watchdog the Samir Kassir Foundation. "The same articles can be interpreted in a very liberal and open way and also in a very restrictive and oppressive way. This, unfortunately, is the current situation."
Words such as defamation, libel and slander, he notes, or charges of inciting sectarian strife or endangering civil peace, have elastic interpretations that can change depending on the judge.
According to Gino Raidy a prominent activist with over 100,000 followers on Twitter and Instagram, politicians are exploiting the vagueness of Lebanon's defamation laws to target high-profile activists in order to deter would-be critics from speaking out. "Politicians choose the people with the most reach to target repeatedly. People like me, Dima Sadek, Charbel Khoury; people with a large following on social media. They keep calling in the people who are really visible."
The high-profile activist has been investigated three times since the start of protests on 17 October. Each lawsuit, Raidy points out, has been instigated by a prominent politician, including one by Prime Minister Hassan Diab at the height of the coronavirus lockdown. However, none of the cases has led to Raidy's arrest, nor has the activist ended up in court.
Instead, he says, the investigations are often intended to intimidate, waste time and attract media attention. In the most recent investigation, he waited six hours for the claimant's lawyer to turn up and provide a statement before he was released. "It's just bureaucratic shenanigans. In the last one the claimant's lawyer was six hours late, on purpose. He made us wait for him so that it looked like I had been arrested, when I hadn't. When he eventually arrived, he gave a statement and I was, of course, released."
However, says Raidy, being investigated can be a scary and traumatic experience for young protesters, especially because activists are often not told why they are being summoned, nor are they always allowed to have a lawyer present during questioning. Other cases documented by HRW show that some activists were pressured to sign a commitment to refrain from criticising a particular political party or individual. These are tactics, he claims, which investigators use to exert pressure on and intimidate critics.
Another activist, Taymour Jreissati, agrees and describes the spike in investigations as "scare tactics". Simply summoning critics for questioning on "nonsense allegations" is a form of intimidation in itself and a threat to freedom of expression. The 33-year-old was summoned for investigation after he and a group of activists confronted former Minister of the Environment Fadi Jreissati publicly outside a restaurant in Beirut.
Jreissati the activist told me that the entire encounter was caught on camera and that the pair spoke cordially because he is related to the former minister through his father. Nevertheless, he was still summoned for questioning over the incident.
"[Politicians] basically bank on the idea that if they get us in for questioning and waste our time, we will back down. They think that the next time we see them in public we will not confront them because we are afraid of being called in for questioning again."
Taymour Jreissati claims that the allegations against him were baseless and taking him in for questioning was a tactic designed to pressure him into silence. Asked why lawsuits against protesters and activists, such as the case against Jreissati, get filed and investigated but rarely go to court, a spokesperson for the Embassy of Lebanon in London said that, "The Government is determined to uphold freedom of expression and right to protest, while at the same time maintaining law and order."
The spokesperson provided no further details on the increasing prevalence of similar cases but cited the preamble and Article 13 of Lebanon's Constitution, which guarantees, "within the scope of the law", freedom of speech and expression.
Nevertheless, Mhanna believes that the law needs to be updated. He told me that a draft law submitted to parliament 10 years ago has been "completely transformed into a repressive text" by parliamentary committees without ever being presented for a general vote.
Politicians have increasingly relied on freedom of expression investigations as one of the "last tools" available to silence critics, he adds. However, with mounting public pressure over the rapidly worsening economic crisis and the apparent deadlock in talks with the International Monetary Fund, he has little hope of any meaningful reform on the horizon.