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Ghanem case shows limits of law, free speech in Lebanon
January 10, 2018
Author: Federica Marsi
Source: The Daily Star
The charges recently leveled against political talk show host Marcel Ghanem have reignited the discussion on the guarantees to press freedom in Lebanon. Ghanem was charged with contempt and obstruction of justice after failing to appear to an initial summons regarding comments made by two guests on his weekly LBCI talk show “Kalam Ennas.”
 “By calling me to appear before the judicial court, they are treating me like a criminal,” Ghanem told The Daily Star. He added that by opposing the charges against him, he aims to promote the battle for the freedom of speech.
Some observers voiced their hope that the case will help bring the issue at the forefront of the political debate ahead of the upcoming elections.
“Freedom of expression must come back to the very center of the political platform,” Ayman Mhanna, executive director of the Samir Kassir Foundation for Media and Cultural Freedom, told The Daily Star.
The Lebanese Constitution guarantees freedom of expression and freedom of the press “within the limits established by the law,” which critics say leaves the door open to interpretation. However, gaps in the legislation may be only the tip of the iceberg.
According to Mhanna, looking at Ghanem’s case from a legal perspective only sheds light on part of the story. “Politicians have succeeded in driving us to a sterile discussion on the technicalities of the law, while the issue really is political,” he said.
The fact that Ghanem’s case was not brought before the Publications Court – as is required by law in the case of alleged defamation acts perpetrated by a journalist or aired by a news outlet registered with the press syndicate – is an indication, according to Mhanna, that improvements in the legislation will not alone lead to greater guarantees of freedom of speech.
“Even this piece of law that already exists has not been respected,” he said. “[This] means that those who have been instigating the actions against Marcel Ghanem actually don’t care about the text of the law.”
The U.S.-based watchdog Freedom House found press freedom in Lebanon has deteriorated over recent years, with lawsuits against journalists and news outlets highlighting the ties between political parties and the media. In 2017, Lebanon ranked as “partly free.” While Lebanon scored higher than most countries in the region, the institution noted that the excess in the number of media outlets and low revenues from sales and advertising opened the door to political influence. According to Mhanna, this business model prevented Lebanon from properly developing a culture of freedom of speech.
Jad Melki, the chair of the Department of Communication Arts at the Lebanese American University, noted that reforming the law constituted a milestone in many countries toward the development of such a mindset.
A 1964 U.S. Supreme Court case, for instance, established the malice standard for defamation. The court required any public figure suing for defamation to prove the publisher knew the statement was false, or acted with reckless disregard for its truth or falsity. Due to the difficulty of proving this, defamation suits became more difficult to win.
In Lebanon, however, comments deemed contrary to “national ethics” or “religious feelings” are legally recognized as criminal acts.
Similarly, it is a crime to insult the head of the state and foreign leaders, with journalists exposed to potential prosecution leading to jail sentences as well as fines, Melki noted.
Global monitoring group Human Rights Watch noted in a recent report that while defamation cases in Lebanon typically resulted in journalists being fined, the “threat of prison has a chilling effect on freedom of expression.”
“Politicians have abused [the] law to protect themselves from any kind of criticism whether it’s against a person, a policy or anything [else] to an absurd level,” Melki said.
With regard to the case of Marcel Ghanem, Melki noted that, from a legal perspective, the law does not guarantee him the additional protection reserved to journalists – as opposed to ordinary citizens – because the comments were not made by him directly. However, “there is nothing that says you are supposed to control your [TV show] guests,” Melki said. The professor also pointed out that whether someone is treated as a journalist – and faces trial at the Publications Court – is also a decision subject to disparities that are not legally justified but that are open to interpretation.
“I hope that the Ghanem case will trigger a change in laws that will offer more protection for journalists when they criticize public figures ... raise the bar for politicians and make it more difficult for them to abuse the law and silence journalists and the public in the name of libel and slander laws,” Melki said.
A few attempts have been made in the past by a number of parties, including a draft law presented by Metn MP Ghassan Moukheiber in collaboration with the free speech NGO Maharat Foundation.
The draft law, which abolishes articles pertaining to the incarceration of Lebanese journalists, among other reforms, was sent for parliamentary discussion in 2010. A committee finalized discussions in December 2016, striking some of the reforms proposed in the original text. Nevertheless, the draft still hasn’t been approved.
According to Tony Mikhael, Maharat’s legal expert, Ghanem’s case confirms that the criticism of public figures – on the part of journalists and citizens alike – does not cease to be considered a “criminal act” addressed through criminal procedures. “The first step [toward reform] would be to change the law [and abolish] criminal prosecution for journalists and activists online and offline,” Mikhael said.
“However, reforming media laws is not enough. ... Efficient self-regulatory bodies need to be reinforced such as efficient and representative unions in addition to an independent Audio-Visual Council that has executive powers.”