On June 16, 2020, Lebanon Debate reported that the public prosecutor Mr. Ghassan Ouaidate threatened to “criminally” prosecute any individual involved in posting social media comments “offensive” to the Presidency of the Republic.
If verified, this decision would be a serious setback for the freedoms in Lebanon. Upon the election of President Michel Aoun, ALEF praised the announcement to prevent the prosecution of individuals criticizing the President. However, ALEF deplores that the practice was systematically inconsistent with the 2016 decision and Mr. Ouaidate’s alleged decision is just another threat to public freedoms.
This decision raises even more red flags as it is announced at a time when the civic space is shrinking further with a sustained harassment, intimidation and arrests of journalists, activists, and human rights defenders.
As per Mr. Ouaidate’s -so far unconfirmed- new decision, summoned critics would be sued criminally on charges of defamation, libel, slander or insult and for making the online posts material public. While defamation laws exist to protect the reputation of individuals, the use of defamation as a tool in stifling criticism of public figures is becoming a new norm Lebanon.
Harming the reputation or smearing a public figure must be serious enough and cause actual prejudice to or “loss of reputation” of the person to be qualified for prosecution. In this case, a fair and impartial legal procedure must strike a balance between protecting freedom of expression and protecting public figures from “defamation of character”.
Most international legal systems recognize that persons participating in public life voluntarily waive their opportunity to enforce their personality rights. On another hand, the successive UN Special Rapporteurs on Freedom of Opinion and Expression confirmed unconditionally that imprisonment is not a legitimate sanction for defamation and that Criminal defamation is not a justifiable restriction on freedom of expression; all criminal defamation laws should be abolished and replaced, with appropriate civil defamation laws.
Furthermore, the same body of laws asserts that “Sanctions for defamation should not be so large as to exert a chilling effect on freedom of opinion and expression and the right to seek, receive and impart
information; penal sanctions, in particular imprisonment, should never be applied”.
ALEF act for human rights calls on the Public Prosecutor to clarify this information and to publicly announce the prosecutorial strategy on cases of libel and defamation. ALEF would like to remind the Lebanese Parliament of its obligations to set clear indications on the derogatory clauses to prevent arbitrary applications and to resolve unjust laws.