Lebanon: New Amendment to Restrict Lawyers’ Freedoms

In early March, the Beirut Bar Association (BBA) implemented new amendments that require lawyers to obtain official authorization from the BBA’s president, Nader Kaspar, before engaging with the media or participating in any legal seminars. On April 13, a hearing was held to challenge this restrictive measure.

The hearing was conducted in response to a complaint filed by 12 lawyers at the Civil Court of Appeal, which oversees union-related issues, in an attempt to revoke the Union’s decision. Nizar Saghieh, one of the lawyers summoned by the Bar Association’s Council for defying its new regulations, announced on Twitter that the final decision in the case had been postponed to May 4, 2023.

Today, Saghieh entered the interrogation session at the Palace of Justice, amid solidarity from the trade union body, journalists, and activists.

By restricting how lawyers engage with the media, this new amendment by the Beirut Bar Association will heavily impact lawyers’ freedom of expression. This comes at a time when attempts to limit freedoms in all aspects are escalating in Lebanon, from the persecution of activists in the regions to legal action against journalists, and attempts to silence some judges, and now lawyers.

On March 3rd, the Beirut Bar Association introduced amendments to the sixth chapter of the Code of Conduct and Ethics of the legal profession, specifically articles 39, 40, 41, and 42, which cover lawyers’ interactions with the media. 

These amendments prohibit lawyers from discussing pending cases before the judiciary on any form of media without prior permission from the Bar Association’s president, Nader Kaspar. This includes television, radio, and the press, as well as social media. In response, some lawyers affiliated with the Union have objected to and rejected these amendments.

Kaspar emphasized in multiple media statements that the regulations regarding lawyers’ relationship with the media have not been partially amended. The phrase “it is advisable for the lawyer to inform the head of the Bar Association” has merely been replaced with “the lawyer must obtain prior permission from the head of the Bar Association by any available means.” 

As for media appearances to discuss pending and major cases, the text remains untouched. Kaspar claims that the decision “aims to regulate professional ethics without infringing on freedoms.” Violating the amendments “could result in referral to the disciplinary council and penalties ranging from fraternal admonition to suspension of membership or even expulsion from the Bar Association.”

Article 41 of the Code of Conduct and Ethics was also amended “to prohibit the use of offensive statements directed towards the head of the Bar Association, its members, and colleagues, particularly during Bar Association elections.” 

The amendments have been met with resistance from some lawyers who view them as a restriction on their freedom and professional practice. Thus, lawyers have to refrain from criticizing any colleague, not only in professional matters, but in any public affair that could involve corruption or interference in the judiciary. SMEX contacted Kaspar for comment, but to no avail.

Regulation of the Legal Profession or Suppression of Dissenting Voices?
On March 27, lawyer Nizar Saghieh, the Executive Director of the Legal Agenda, a research and legal organization that focuses on legal issues and corruption in Lebanon and Tunisia, was summoned by the Bar Association Council after he announced his rejection of the amendments. Saghieh said he couldn’t attend on March 31, citing travel reasons, and requested a new date be set.

In a statement to SMEX, he mentioned that he was summoned again on April 12, after his recent appearance on “Sawt Al-Shaab” radio station on April 7. Despite the Beirut Bar Association’s request not to record the interview, both the station director and Saghieh refused to comply and proceeded with the recording and broadcast.

Saghieh is expected to attend the second summon on April 24, but he told SMEX that he is still considering if he will attend the session. Both Saghieh and lawyer Jad Tohmeh maintain that the amendments violate the Constitution’s provisions and laws that protect freedom of opinion and expression, and undermine the fight against corruption. 

Moreover, the Beirut Bar Association’s decision does not include the Bar Association in the North (there are two bar associations in Lebanon due to historical reasons: one is in Beirut, and the other in the North), and there was no general assembly meeting of lawyers to discuss the amendments. Additionally, the Bar Association Council did not publish the agenda for the session, and the decision was made abruptly and unanimously by the Council’s 12 members.

This is not the first time the Beirut Bar Association has attempted to limit freedoms, according to Saghieh. “In 2011, the Bar Association prohibited lawyers from handling judicial cases, a decision that was criticized by advocates for transparency and justice who cited the people’s right to be informed of the judiciary’s work,” Saghieh said. 

The lawyer sees the Bar Association’s decision, which excludes major cases, as a “vague term lacking precise delineation.” Saghieh asks: “What precisely constitutes a major case? Are these limited to assassinations and the Port of Beirut explosion? I see that numerous cases relate to torture, abuse, human rights’ violations, corruption, and public affairs that qualify as major cases that cannot be constrained or confined.”

The decision by the Beirut Bar Association coincides with a surge of investigations aimed at prominent state figures, including the Governor of the Central Bank of Lebanon, Riyad Salameh, and his associates involved in the banking scandal. According to a source that preferred to remain anonymous, there are concerns that lawyers or judges would divulge sensitive information about “what goes on in the corridors of the Palace of Justice.”

Saghieh believes these developments “constitute an attempt to preserve a corrupt system and eradicate any semblance of justice. As the reckoning of influential figures in Lebanon and Europe commences, there is a growing fear of accountability, prompting an attempt to quash it through this decision.”

Subsequent to the recent amendment, the attorney Michel Nehmeh was the first to be summoned, as he rejected the amendments and demanded the Council members of the Bar Association to revise it. He subsequently resigned from the Bar Association’s Council in objection to the amendment decision. Nehmeh was also summoned because of his previous social media statements. The hearing lasted approximately three hours, and no punitive measures were taken against him. 

On April 5, the Freedom of Opinion and Expression Coalition in Lebanon issued a statement condemning the summoning of journalists and lawyers by various authorities over the last two weeks.

Repression at the Palace of Justice and on Social Media
The decision by the Bar Association’s Council has sparked widespread objections among lawyers, particularly those who deal with “sensitive and critical cases.” The decision, which entails unprecedented suppression within the corridors of the Palace of Justice, is premised on three primary rationales that lawyer Jad Tohmeh, head of the legal committee at the “Marsad Shaabi” (Popular Observatory to Combat Corruption), lists in a statement to SMEX. 

Firstly, the decision aims to muzzle attorneys who raise awareness and expose the actions and errors of banks. Secondly, the Bar Association’s Council, and its president, “fear the clout of certain lawyers who have gained popularity and enjoy media attention.” Tohmeh believes this bothers the targeted parties who sense the peril of uncovering corruption cases or impeding investigations, such as the Beirut Port explosion case.

Tohmeh identifies the third reason behind the Bar Association’s decision as the “comprehensiveness of the approved amendments, which equated between the excessive liberties some trainees in law and professional lawyers take in media, as they make on-air statements, give legal counsel and discuss cases being handled by other colleagues.” 

Tohmeh perceives this as “an infringement on the work of lawyers against each other, and among lawyers who contend with the media to expose public cases and the prevailing shortcomings by authorities.” 

Notably, Tohmeh’s statement to SMEX itself runs afoul of the new Bar Association’s decision, representing a public defiance and rejection of the amendments. However, the head of the legal committee at the “Marsad Shaabi” remains resolute in his conviction that his rights, guaranteed by the Constitution and the provisions of laws that uphold freedom of opinion and expression, must be respected. He further emphasizes that “this issue has turned into a battle for public and personal liberties and a war to undermine the work of lawyers.”

In parallel, Tohmeh acknowledges the positive aspect of the amendments regarding how certain lawyers employ social media “to promote themselves or offer deceptive legal advice to the public, alongside the burgeoning trend of lawyers creating accounts on TikTok, which goes against the internal regulations governing the profession.” 

However, Saghieh argues that pursuing lawyers’ TikTok accounts is “unwarranted,” stating that “no one can restrict the dissemination of public discourse and information.” Saghieh asks:  “How can a verdict be rendered in a legal case and then its publication prohibited, and on what grounds? This violates the law, the work of the court, and the freedom of the press enshrined in the Press Law.”

Lawyers played a prominent and essential role in the protests and movements of the October 17 uprising in 2019, where they were at the forefront of defending activists who were arrested and detained. They also actively participated in various movements led by activists and lawyers against major cases in Lebanon, such as the Beirut port explosion, the depositors’ crisis, and international investigations targeting the Governor of the Central Bank of Lebanon, Riyad Salameh, and prominent political figures.

Silencing the Judges
It seems that the battle of lawyers in Lebanon is not isolated, as some judges also face suppression and punishment for speaking up about controversial cases in the country. Judge Shadi Kardouhi’s case is an example of this. He was suspended from work and declared rebellion against the judiciary in late 2022.

Since two weeks, Kardouhi has been actively using his Twitter account to refute the charges against him through several personalities such as former minister Marwan Kheireddine. He also announced on Twitter that he is being pursued in criminal and civil courts and faces fines amounting to 280 million Lebanese pounds, which may increase if the judgments against him are not implemented. 

SMEX also tried to reach out to him repeatedly, but he did not respond. Today there are active campaigns to gather signatures in support of Kardouhi’s case and to put pressure on it. 

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SMEX is a registered Lebanese NGO that works to advance self-regulating information societies in the Middle East and North Africa.