Press Release: Conference
Haqouna Participated in a Conference on Online Freedom of Expression: between the laws, the reality and the Lebanese experience
Beirut Bar Association – April 28, 2015
Beirut – April 30, 2015. Under the patronage of the Beirut Bar Association President, Me. Georges Jreij, MARCH NGO, ICT Committee at the Beirut Bar Association and UNESCO Regional Office Beirut held a conference on Online Freedom of Expression.
The event took place on April 28, 2015 at the Beirut Bar Association in the presence of Security Officials, Generals Ziad Bourji and Ziad Jazzar representing chiefs of General Security and Internal Security Forces. The audience also counted lawyers, activists, and representatives of Civil Society Organizations.
The conference was presented by Me. Diane Assaf who stressed that Lebanese constitution guarantees freedom of opinion and expression. But what is applied on the ground is far from what is stipulated the legal texts and that the ‘’absence of law governing the state of Internet in Lebanon is resulting in an increase of crack down on freedom of expression and digital activism and to confusion on the law to be enforced. In that respect, Me Assaf, pointed that whereas the General Prosecution issued a memo stating that websites are not subject to the Publication Law but to the Penal Code, the Publication Court, considers itself as the relevant and competent authority to look into the so called ‘’publication crimes’’ on websites.
For his part, Mr. George Awad, Information and Communication Sector Officer at UNESCO Beirut, spoke about the opportunities offered by the Internet in terms of knowledge exchange and freedom of expression. Hence, the principle of freedom of expression should be extrapolated not only on mainstream media but on the internet as well. The challenge however, according to Mr. Awad, lies in leveraging these possibilities offered by these new means of communications without restricting the rights to express oneself, access to education and to privacy. And Mr. Awad to conclude by showcasing a study realized by UNESCO in 2014 tackling digital freedom of expression worldwide.
As for Ms. Lea Baroudi, MARCH president, the issue resides, not only in the absence of fair laws protecting freedom of expression, but also in the current practices of the Lebanese authorities when being referred to cases of freedom of expression, regardless of the current law applied. Ms. Baroudi denounced that the Cybercrimes and Intellectual Property rights bureau when summoning activists, journalists , bloggers or ordinary internet users, for something they wrote, posted or shared online, is resorting to methods that are not always appropriate to bring them to its premises in addition to treating the people in the same way dangerous criminals are. To illustrate this, she exposed various cases of individuals summoned and questioned for hours and sometimes days, the Bureau officers forbidding them to have a lawyer present with them, using intimidation language to pressure them into signing a commitment against their will.
Ms. Baroudi, slammed these practices as a violation of basic human rights and implored the authorities to change them, till an agreement over a new law or an amendment in the present ones is reached.
Such demands also include:
- The right for individuals to bring a lawyer during the questioning
- The right to know the accusation before coming in for questioning
- The right not to stay over-night for questioning
- The right not to sign any commitment
Ms. Baroudi finally presented MARCH latest initiative aiming to contribute to the protection of freedom of expression. The legal hotline . 70235463 is a number that internet users can reach out to, if they are summoned the Cyber Crime and Intellectual Property Rights Bureau (Cybercrime Bureau) for questioning. Upon calling the hotline, the person will be put in contact with a lawyer and will be provided with on-the-spot, trustworthy legal advice. This step will be followed by the publication of a booklet informing internet users of the digital rights and how to behave when summoned by the authorities, as well as advocating and lobbying for new laws to protect online freedom.
The final intervention was by the President of Beirut Bar Association. Me Georges Jreij indicated that sadly “2014 wasn’t a year of achievements for Lebanon in terms of digital freedoms. Our country having according to “Freedom House’’ latest report, downgraded by 2 points. President Jreij listed a series of recommendations and demands to improve digital freedoms in Lebanon, such as:
1) Promulgating a Digital Law tackling Media and Cybercrime. The lack in legislation having resulted in the discrimination between a journalist and an online activist, when it comes to treatment. But what if the journalist was a digital activist himself?
2) Protecting bloggers who by being independent are deprived from any political or confessional backup or support.
3) Guaranteeing the presence of an attorney in the primary investigation with internet users by the Cybercrimes and Intellectual Property Rights Bureau. In fact that bureau should be exempted from this task as it requires a legal approach not a criminal one.
4) Transferring internet cases or files from the penal courts to civil ones such as the Publications one.
5) Ratifying the relevant international conventions.
6) Stepping into e-economy and trade by allowing systems like PayPal for instance.
And Me. Jreij to conclude “the invitation for a cup of coffee (by the Bureau), is an issue we will not take lightly, nor will we be lenient on. Security is something and law is another matter. Police have their role and so does the judiciary system, and as long as the Bar is here and will remain, no police office will ever become a justice pillar. The military officer will never become a judge and no individual will be interrogated without a lawyer. This is an oath taken at heart by the Bar of Freedoms.
These discourses prompted a reply by General Jazzar, who insisted that the Lebanese authorities are only applying the law and are the first to guarantee freedoms and that the above mentioned practices, are committed by individuals and should not be generalized on the entire security system. He also pointed that it’s not only those summoned over internet issues that are not allowed to bring a lawyer but any individual called for interrogation and that’s what the law stipulates. That triggered some legal objections from lawyers among the audience. Activists asked whether the officers in the Cybercrime bureau are specialized or competent in the field of ICT or no. The debate would have continued but the General refused to take on more questions, saying that he attended as a guest observer not a participant.