Online Freedom of Expression: between the laws, the reality and the Lebanese experience

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© UNESCO

Under the patronage of the Beirut Bar Association President, Me. Georges Jreij, MARCH NGO, ICT Committee at the Beirut Bar Association and UNESCO Regional Office Beirut held a conference to discuss the Online Freedom of Expression in Lebanon.

Held at the Beirut Bar Association on April 28, 2015, the event brought together Security Officials, Generals Ziad Bourji and Ziad Jazzar representing chiefs of General Security and Internal Security Forces, as well as counted lawyers, activists, and representatives of Civil Society Organizations.

Opening the conference, Me. Diane Assaf stressed that Lebanese constitution guarantees freedom of opinion and expression. However, what is applied on the ground is far from what is stipulated the legal texts, said Assaf, stating that the ‘’absence of law governing the state of Internet in Lebanon is resulting in an increase of crack down on freedom of expression and digital activism and to confusion on the law to be enforced”.

For his part, Mr. George Awad, Information and Communication Sector Officer at UNESCO Beirut, spoke about the opportunities offered by the Internet in terms of knowledge exchange and freedom of expression. Hence, the principle of freedom of expression should be extrapolated not only on mainstream media but on the internet as well. The challenge however, according to Mr. Awad, lies in leveraging these possibilities offered by these new means of communications without restricting the rights to express oneself, access to education and to privacy. And Mr. Awad to conclude by showcasing a study realized by UNESCO in 2014 tackling digital freedom of expression worldwide.

As for Ms. Lea Baroudi, MARCH president, the issue resides, not only in the absence of fair laws protecting freedom of expression, but also in the current practices of the Lebanese authorities when being referred to cases of freedom of expression, regardless of the current law applied. Ms. Baroudi denounced that the Cybercrimes and Intellectual Property rights bureau when summoning activists, journalists , bloggers or ordinary internet users, for something they wrote, posted or shared online, is resorting to methods that are not always appropriate to bring them to its premises in addition to treating the people in the same way dangerous criminals are. To illustrate this, she exposed various cases of individuals summoned and questioned for hours and sometimes days, the Bureau officers forbidding them to have a lawyer present with them, using intimidation language to pressure them into signing a commitment against their will.

Ms. Baroudi finally presented MARCH latest initiative aiming to contribute to the protection of freedom of expression. The legal hotline . 70235463 is a number that internet users can reach out to, if they are summoned the Cyber Crime and Intellectual Property Rights Bureau (Cybercrime Bureau) for questioning. Upon calling the hotline, the person will be put in contact with a lawyer and will be provided with on-the-spot, trustworthy legal advice. This step will be followed by the publication of a booklet informing internet users of the digital rights and how to behave when summoned by the authorities, as well as advocating and lobbying for new laws to protect online freedom.

The final intervention was by the President of Beirut Bar Association. Me Georges Jreij indicated that sadly “2014 wasn’t a year of achievements for Lebanon in terms of digital freedoms. Our country having according to “Freedom House’’ latest report, downgraded by 2 points. President Jreij listed a series of recommendations and demands to improve digital freedoms in Lebanon, such as:

1) Promulgating a Digital Law tackling Media and Cybercrime. The lack in legislation having resulted in the discrimination between a journalist and an online activist, when it comes to treatment. But what if the journalist was a digital activist himself?

2) Protecting bloggers who by being independent are deprived from any political or confessional backup or support.

3) Guaranteeing the presence of an attorney in the primary investigation with internet users by the Cybercrimes and Intellectual Property Rights Bureau. In fact that bureau should be exempted from this task as it requires a legal approach not a criminal one.

4) Transferring internet cases or files from the penal courts to civil ones such as the Publications one.

5) Ratifying the relevant international conventions.

6) Stepping into e-economy and trade by allowing systems like PayPal for instance.

And Me. Jreij to conclude “Police have their role and so does the judiciary system”, stressing on the importance of roles distribution and truly exercising the principle of separation of powers.

Commenting on these discourses General Jazzar insisted that “the Lebanese authorities are the first to guarantee freedoms”, and that “individual practices by certain security officers should not be generalized”.

This event came within a series of activities that UNESCO is conducting in partnership with NGOs and civil society organizations in Lebanon to enhance coordination on the national level in order to create an environment where freedom of expression in general, and online freedom in particular, can prosper, but at the same time would be exercised ethically and responsibly.