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SKeyes Center for Media and Cultural Freedom - Samir Kassir Foundation

The Case of Makram Rabah and Lebanon’s Endangered Freedom of Expression

Source Al-Monitor
Sunday , 31 March 2024
Photo credit: AFP/Anwar Amro
Lebanon's reputation as a beacon of freedom of expression in the Arab world has suffered greatly in recent years. The case of Makram Rabah, an assistant professor at the American University of Beirut (AUB) who was briefly detained by the General Security Directorate last week, has accelerated fears of an apparently ongoing decline in this fundamental freedom in the country.

Violations of the rights of journalists, activists, and public figures have been increasing for years, and the situation appears to only be getting worse.

In the online petition "Safeguard Freedom of Expression in Lebanon," Amnesty International stated that thousands of people in the country have been investigated or prosecuted since 2015 on such charges as defamation, insult and slander, which are all criminalized by Lebanese law, including the Penal Code and the Publications Law.

In March of last year, Lebanese State Security summoned Jean Kassir, director of the online, independent Megaphone News, over an Instagram post by the website accusing several officials of evading justice for the 2020 port blast in Beirut that killed more than 200 people, left hundreds of thousand homeless and caused billions of dollars in property damage.

Also that month, the Cybercrime Bureau summoned Lara Bitar, editor in chief of Public Source, an investigative journalism outlet, for publishing a story accusing the Lebanese Forces political party of environmental crimes related to the importation of toxic waste during the Lebanese civil war (1975–1990).

Another prominent journalist, Dima Sadek, was sentenced to one year in prison last July for her criticism of the Free Patriotic Movement in a series of tweets after an incident in the predominantly Christian city of Jounieh in which alleged supporters of the Christian movement attacked and insulted two men from the Sunni-majority city of Tripoli.

What happened to Makram Rabah?
On March 18, the Lebanese Military Court subpoenaed Rabah to appear for questioning about public comments he had made about the ongoing hostilities in southern Lebanon between Hezbollah's militia and the Israeli military.

Speaking on “Wojhat Nazar” (Point of View), a political program on the local YouTube news channel Spot Shot Online, Rabah accused the paramilitary force of fighting Iran’s war against Israel while disregarding the interests of the Lebanese people. He also talked about alleged Hezbollah arms manufacturing and storage sites in the country.

Judge Fadi Akiki, the Military Court's government commissioner, accused Rabah of false charges of treason and collaborating with Israel against the security of Lebanon. The court released him after detaining him for five hours of questioning.

Rabah has not been charged with a crime, but the judge decided that his case would remain under investigation. The academic and activist blames Hezbollah for his detention and has accused Akiki of being in league with the Shiite group.

When Al-Monitor asked Rabah via WhatsApp how he had come to those conclusions, he said, “I know he [Akiki] is acting on behalf of Hezbollah because the direction of the questions and the way he was asking them are almost identical to the media smear campaign that I was subjected to.” He added, “What reaffirmed my conviction that he is defending Hezbollah is the fact that he switched from asking regular political questions to accusing me of being an Israeli collaborator and demanding I surrender my phone.”

Rabah refused to hand over his mobile phone during questioning and reminded the authorities that freedom of speech is enshrined in Lebanon's Constitution, in specific in article 13.

Speaking to Al-Hadath TV shortly after being released, Rabah criticized the double standard of Lebanon’s supposedly independent judiciary for calling him in for questioning while Hezbollah associates accused of dealing drugs are permitted to go about freely.

“If I were a Captagon dealer like Hezbollah, investigative judge Fadi Akiki would not have dared to detain me,” he said.

Rabah wanted to make clear his motivation in speaking out against the people and organizations he says have hijacked and abuse the power of the Lebanese state. He cautioned those who wish to see an end to restrictions on free speech and expression: “For people who want to live in an independent, strong, prosperous Lebanon, [they] should take what happened to me as an example of what could happen to them,” he said.

“I am someone who studied law, I grew up in a household with a father who is a judge, and I know how the government works. Unfortunately, people don’t know that and don’t have the same experience,” he asserted. He believes people need to push
back against censorship and to listen to his advice.

Rabah graduated from AUB, obtaining a bachelor's degree (2003) and a master's degree (2007) in history and minoring in political studies. He also earned a PhD in history, from Georgetown University (2016), and has a law degree from the Lebanese University, Beirut.

A longtime critic of Hezbollah, Rabah holds the group responsible for the 2021 assassination of his friend and intellectual Lokman Slim, a Shiite publisher also critical of Hezbollah and found dead in his car.

When asked about the responsibility of Lebanon’s partners and the international community to support free speech in the country, the academic said, “I believe there should be an international demand as well as sanctions on anyone who dares to violate human rights. The Lebanese judiciary and the government more generally are recipients of international aid. Such programs are actually signed under the assumption that the Lebanese state will respect international conventions, and if the Lebanese judiciary is incapable of protecting us, I think the international community reserves this right [to withhold aid].”

Commenting on Rabah’s brief detention, Senator Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), ranking member of the US Senate's Armed Services Committee, accused the Lebanese Army of acting on behalf of Hezbollah and said that he will review US assistance provided to the military.

“Our partnership with the Lebanese Armed Forces aims to support an alternative to Hezbollah. Sadly, the LAF is doing Hezbollah's bidding by targeting Makram Rabah, rather than focusing on Lebanon's security,” said Wicker in a post on X last week. “Moving forward, I will scrutinize LAF assistance.”

Prosecuting speech
It is abundantly clear for those who have followed the matter closely that free speech in Lebanon has been gradually chipped away over the years.

In an August 2023 news release, Amnesty International condemned the increasing number of prosecutions related to freedom of expression and that have targeted critics of the political, religious, security and judicial establishment since the nationwide protests that erupted in October 2019. A decision to impose fees on WhatsApp sparked the protest, but it quickly evolved into a movement against government corruption and impunity and the entrenched political establishment that has ruled Lebanon since the civil war.

“Between 17 October 2019 and 24 June 2020, Amnesty International documented the cases of 75 individuals who were summoned in relation to defamation and insult charges, including 20 journalists,” the rights group said.

Ayman Mhanna, executive director of the Samir Kassir Foundation, a Beirut-based NGO promoting cultural freedom and freedom of expression in Lebanon, spoke with Al-Monitor about where Lebanon stands today on free speech.

“One can still say things in Lebanon that would be impossible to voice or publish elsewhere in the Arab world,” Mhanna said via WhatsApp. “However, the manipulation of justice by political actors always existed, [and] so has the risk of violence against freethinkers. What maintains this paradox is not only the state of complete impunity for perpetrators of crimes against journalists, but also that for any illegal and/or unlawful behavior criminals enjoy. We keep records of all types of violations against journalists and writers.”

Thus, the problem of free expression in Lebanon is far more complex than people daring to criticize political actors. It also means the country is a place where power triumphs over law and “might makes right” in all realms of life.

In regard to the dearth of accountability in Lebanon, Mhanna shared his views on an appropriate response from global partners and donors to Lebanon.

“An international reply is needed, but it must be carefully and precisely crafted,” he said. “Any international response that singles out one case may cause a backlash. However, an international [determination] on the pattern of a politicized judicial system is essential, especially when the international community has invested large amounts of money in supporting the independence of the Lebanese judiciary and the human rights behavior of the military and security agencies.”

Commenting on Rabah being summoned by the Military Court, Mhanna said, “We see the action against Makram Rabah as yet another sign of the politicization of justice and the ‘elastic’ interpretation of legal provisions to serve political agendas. It is also a response to all the positions that Makram has been voicing and a signal that he is seriously bothering Hezbollah.”

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