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 weaponized by the Lebanese authorities to silence human rights defenders, journalists and other critics. The draft law also retains prison terms of up to three years for insulting “recognized religions”.
The head of the Committee rejected requests from members of the Coalition to attend the closed sessions leaving no opportunity to participate in discussions about the proposed law.
“It is deeply concerning that the draft law is being privately discussed and hidden from public scrutiny, while the spotlight is fixed on the ongoing Israeli attacks in South Lebanon since October 7—that have led to the tragic killing of at least 14 civilians. If approved in its its current form, this law would be a dangerous setback for freedom of expression in Lebanon in an environment where defamation laws are already being used to harass and intimidate journalists and other individuals who criticize the authorities,” said the Coalition to Defend Freedom of Expression in Lebanon.
“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 critics, and perpetuate an environment of censorship. 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 said it was reviewing the draft in light of comments proposed by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in partnership with the Ministry of Information in 2023. According to credible information shared with the Coalition, UNESCO’s recommended amendments to the reviewed articles were dismissed. The Committee is set to discuss and vote on the remaining articles of the draft law in the coming weeks, including proposed amendments by UNESCO that would remove sentences for insult and defamation.
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 other human rights issues. In a recent example, 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 criticized members of a political party on X (formerly Twitter).
The proposed law maintains the criminalization of defamation against heads of states 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 person accused of making an allegedly defamatory statement against a head of state echoing facts that they can show to be true is not a defence to the accusation of defamation.
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 recognized religions in Lebanon, inciting sectarian or racial bigotry, disrupting the peace, or jeopardizing the integrity, sovereignty, unity, or borders of the state or its external relations.” The draft also introduces a new provision that repeat offenders face double the penalty.
International standards for the protection of the right to freedom of expression, which are binding on Lebanon, underscore the need to abolish laws that allow for imprisonment as a response to peaceful criticism of individuals, including individuals exercising the highest political authority such as heads of state and government officials.
The draft law also restricts the rights of journalists and media workers to freely join and create associations, as it dictates that there can only be one media syndicate. Further, the draft law hinders the public’s access to critical information by banning the publication of the minutes of government sessions, the decisions of parliamentary committees, and investigations conducted by the Central Inspection and Administrative Inspection Department. It also imposes onerous fees and licensing requirements for media outlets, which would stifle free and open speech in the country.
The Coalition calls on the Parliament to make legislative discussions in the parliamentary committees public, allow meaningful input from civil society specifically, on the draft media law, and to ensure that the new media law meets international standards including by:
- Removing all articles that criminalize insults, including those directed at heads of state; public institutions, the army, and government and security officials;
- 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;
- 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 recognize the public interest in criticism of public figures and public authorities.
- Criminalizing only statements that amount to incitement to violence or 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 the exclusivity of the media syndicate and all requirements for prior authorization of publications. Fees and conditions for allocation of frequencies for broadcast media should not be onerous, and the criteria for the application of these conditions and fees should be reasonable and objective, clear, transparent, and nondiscriminatory;
- Appointing the members of the media independent regulatory body, which would oversee and regulate the operation of the media sector, on the basis of transparent criteria with participation from civil society.
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, specializing in media and free speech issues, in 2010. Numerous amendments proposed by different civil society organizations to align the law with international standards were disregarded.
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 Initiaves
The Alternative Press Syndicate
The Legal Agenda