On Wednesday, February 27, SMEX officially launched its online freedom of expression (FoE) case database, Muhal (muhal.org), at its Masaha space in Beirut.
Muhal is SMEX’s ongoing, evidence-based campaign to document detentions and arrests related to online freedom of speech in Lebanon. SMEX Executive Director Mohamad Najem presented attendees with the platform, explaining its aim, research methodology, and user interface.
Muhal aims to raise awareness about these issues among civil society organizations, journalists, young people, and other stakeholders and pressure policymakers to change the laws, particularly regarding defamation and libel, that have led to the majority of these arrests.
Muhal will serve as a pressure point for policymakers to end pretrial detentions, turn FoE-related cases to the civil courts, and decrease the use of articles referencing slander and libel to censor online speech.
In the coming month, we will be launching a campaign to raise public awareness and target policymakers and other stakeholders.
The data amassed by the SMEX research team was verified through different sources, including news articles, lawyers, and defendants themselves. Since 2016, the number of freedom of expression-related detentions has spiked dramatically, with 2018 witnessing the highest number at 41 cases. In the first two months of 2019 SMEX identified 9 FoE-related cases.
Overwhelmingly, online speech has been criminalized under articles 384, 386, and 388 of the Penal Code, which detail punishments for defamation, slander, and libel, as well as similar articles in the military code. These articles have often been used to justify the pre-trial detention of citizens, which can span several days. Cases, on the other hand, can remain open for two to three years, and defendants are often forced or coaxed into removing online content or signing a pledge to exercise self-censorship.
Cases on Muhal can be filtered by year, medium or platform (e.g. Whatsapp, Twitter), case status (open or closed), and complainants. A description of the case is provided alongside additional information regarding the investigation and timeline of events.
Website visitors can also report a case, which will be verified by the SMEX research team and added to the overall roster.
In the next months, SMEX will conduct a legal analysis of a select number of cases, publish dynamic and interactive visualizations and graphs of the data while also making it available for download (through a .csv file). Additionally, a set of instructions will be made available on the website for individuals who are contacted by the Anti-Cybercrime Bureau about their online content.
Please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any feedback or would like to get involved.