Bassel al-Amin, a Lebanese journalism student in his early 20s, is still detained two days after his interrogation over a Facebook status.
On December 6, 2016, Bassel al-Amin was summoned to the Public Prosecution’s office, under the orders of Judge Randa Yaqthan, over comments he made online. The drill is now familiar to anyone monitoring the repeated attacks on freedom of expression in Lebanon, be it that of journalists, bloggers, or private individuals. Accusations of defamation, slander, or libel are followed by an invitation to have a chat, under the not-so-implicit threat of arrest. The case is then transferred to the Bureau of Cybercrime and Intellectual Property Rights (hereinafter: the Bureau) where questioning takes place, without the presence of a lawyer, and usually concludes with forcing the detained to sign an incriminating statement.
The student, according to a family member, was riled up by a television show on OTV that degraded and humiliated a Syrian worker (the latter possibly being an actor is an irrelevant detail to this story). So he posted a comment on his social media account denigrating the Lebanese state, its symbols, and its representatives. Since we can account for dozens of verbal and written expressions of animosity toward the state and its officials on a daily basis, the question is, what are the real motivations behind al-Amin’s arrest?
It seems the state has to make these periodic appearances to remind us of its existence, in the midst of growing crises, deteriorating public services, and overflowing garbage bins.
While the debate around this case has been partly shaped by strong nationalist feelings and a repudiation of the student’s comments, a group of activists have rallied behind al-Amin. Last night, they launched a campaign under the banner, “a [Facebook] status is not a crime,” (الستاتوس_مش_جريمة#) as an outright rejection of the criminalization of speech.
At SMEX, we all stand by Bassel al-Amin’s right to free expression and call for his immediate and unconditional release from detention and the dropping of any and all charges.
The legality of such an arrest comes into question when Article 13 of the Lebanese constitution guarantees the right to free expression, stating that, “Freedom of expression by word or pen, freedom of the press, freedom of holding meetings and freedom of association are equally guaranteed within the framework of the law.”
Several journalists, constitutional scholars, and citizens have already passed judgment on al-Amin, citing relevant articles in the penal code that, they say, confirm his guilt. This might be a good time to remind the public that the Bureau itself is an illegal entity, according to The Legal Agenda, a Beirut-based legal watchdog. The Bureau’s expanding powers and technological capabilities are a threat to our freedom of expression and our right to privacy. This case, and the many that precede it, have demonstrated the concern-turned-fact.
It is necessary to question the Bureau’s actions when Article 8 of the constitution protects individuals from arbitrary arrest, unequivocally asserting that, “No one can be arrested or detained except in accordance with the provisions of the law. No infringements and no sanctions can be established except by law.”
In an interview with The New Arab on January 21, 2015, the head of the Bureau, Major Suzanne al-Hajj Hobeiche, admitted that her office should not be receiving libel and defamation complaints as there is no law to operate within. The Bureau, established by means of Memorandum 204/609 in 2006, is tasked with investigating cyber crimes, so why is it willfully detaining and interrogating individuals for vocalizing their thoughts?
The Bureau’s actions create an atmosphere of intimidation and fear, causing people living under its jurisdiction to self-censor, limiting their ability to freely express themselves and exercise their political rights.
This case is also a pressing reminder that the 1962 Press and Publication Law violates the Lebanese Constitution and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Lebanon is a party. In addition, it is outdated, vague, and facilitates the suppression of speech, allowing frivolous cases such as this one to dominate the public sphere. For years, advocates for expanded press freedoms have pushed for new legislation that curtails the state’s ability to silence dissent and suppress public-interest journalism under the guise of defamation. Maharat Foundation, a media monitoring center, submitted a draft law with MP Ghassan Moukheiber to the parliament’s Media and Communications Committee in 2009. After five years of deliberations, the Committee yesterday announced its own bill that disregarded many of the reforms suggested by rights advocates.
Unsurprisingly, Maharat rejected the draft and warned that it adds unjustifiable burdens and restrictions on the press, maintains the authority of the Bureau, and restricts the freedoms of activists. While a rally is taking place tonight near the Palace of Justice to demand the release of Bassel al-Amin, it is also worthwhile to denounce the draft press law that only perpetuates the criminalization of expression.
Update: On December 12, 2016, Investigative Judge Pierre Francis ordered the release of Bassel al-Amin on a bail of LL 500,000 (US $333) and referred his file to the general prosecutor. Al-Amin’s case remains open and charges could be brought against him unless the general prosecutor recommends the case be dropped.