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Lebanon: Silencing Journalists and Lawyers

Nour Sleiman
Lebanese Journalist

From silencing opposition voices to subjugating the judiciary and imposing a patriarchal logic in dealing with abuse: instead of acknowledging its failures and working on a solution, the ruling elite aims to eliminate the voices exposing those failures and return to the era of tutelage.

Is it a coincidence to see the rapid pace at which legal charges are being filed against journalists and activists going hand in hand with media and human rights organizations disclosing files related to corruption and crime? We are entitled to ask this question seeing various institutions escalating efforts to silence those trying to unveil the truth.

Lawyer Nizar Saghieh recently revealed that the President of the Beirut Bar Association (BBA), Nader Gaspard, had intervened to prevent him from participating in a show on Radio Sawt El Shaeb under the pretext that Saghieh had failed to ask for permission to do so. 

The incident occurred only days after Saghieh was summoned to a hearing by the BBA without being given a reason. Referring to Gaspard as the “Bar Censor,” Saghieh called it “a scandalous and shameful example of the continuous suppression of freedom of expression in Lebanon.”

“What happened is clear evidence that the BBA President has changed into a censor for lawyers,” Saghieh told Daraj. “He uses his position to control the profession’s practice and suppress freedom of expression.”

Saghieh is Executive Director of The Legal Agenda, which studies legal and judiciary developments in the Arab world.  According to him, the radio had contacted him, offering him a space to talk about the repression lawyers face.

It all started with Jean Kassir, Executive Director of the Megaphone media platform, who was summoned to appear at the Palace of Justice on orders from Ghassan Oueidat, Public Prosecutor at the Court of Cassation, after posting the article “Lebanon is ruled by fugitives from justice.” 

Shortly after, Lara Bitar, editor-in-chief of the website Public Source, was summoned to appear in court due to publishing an article that shed light on a toxic waste scandal, which led to  a complaint by the Lebanese Forces [political party]. 

Both summonses violated the law in terms of notification or the party authorized to actually investigate journalists.

“We are the ones pursuing you, not the other way around” and “Fugitives from justice are pursuing journalists” were some of the slogans raised in front of the Cybercrime Bureau in solidarity with Bitar.

In a similar vein, Daraj journalist Hala Nasreddine had been “warned” by banker and former minister Marwan Kheiredine following her report on corruption allegations published as part of the Pandora Papers project.

All this seems the result of an increasingly authoritarian campaign to muzzle the voices that still dare challenge the ruling clique. This includes efforts to further subjugate the judiciary to ensure the obstruction of justice in a number of fundamental cases, most notably the Beirut Port blast that took place on August 4, 2020.

Silencing Lawyers

“The problem is not personal,” said Saghieh. “It is about principles and morals. The actions taken by the BBA do not only target me, but the legal profession as a whole.” 

The summoning of Saghieh follows the BBA’s decision on March 3 to amend parts of the professional ethics code, including members’ relations with the media. The aim was to control the “prevailing anarchy,” as BBA head Nader Gaspard called it.

Gaspard was elected BBA President on November 21, 2021. Replacing the independent Melhem Khalaf, his election was widely perceived as a victory for the ruling class. Gaspard is said to enjoy the support of several political parties. 

The BBA amendments forbid lawyers from appearing in the media, taking part in symposiums, giving interviews, and replying to inquiries from the public on websites or social media. They are also not allowed to launch a website, social media page or magazine without prior approval of the BBA President. They furthermore need approval before debating significant legal cases.

“They want to domesticate generations of lawyers with the aim of keeping society hostage to an unjust system that is not subject to accountability and punishment,” Saghieh said.

Prior to Saghieh, lawyer Michel Nehme was summoned to appear in the Palace of Justice.  He was questioned about why he had rejected the BBA amendments and demanded that the nine BBA Council members either change them back or resign.

Privilege

The Independence of the Judiciary Coalition (IJC), which aims to secure the independence and impartiality of Lebanon’s judicial institutions, strongly opposed the BBA amendments. 

“The practice of this oversight is implemented indiscriminately, as evidenced by the fact that the Council did not set any mechanisms, standards, or deadlines, but rather left the President of the Beirut Bar Association with absolute power to determine its conditions,” the ICJ said in a statement.  

Adding: “This would turn freedom into a privilege for pro-regime lawyers and give the BBA President an effective tool to silence lawyers who express views and opinions that he would like to suppress or does not like to be published, including any opinion criticizing the BBA or its president.”

The ICJ likened the BBA decision to Oueidat’s coup against the efforts of judicial investigator Tarek Bitar to reopen the investigation into the Beirut Port blast after the case had been frozen for over a year.

Appeals and Objections

Rejecting the BBA amendments, 15 lawyers filed an appeal before the Court of Civil Appeal, which specializes in trade union cases. One of them was Jean Kassir attorney’s Diala Shehadeh.

“The amendments made by the BBA Council are unconstitutional, as they violate the right to express an opinion, which is also a right guaranteed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” Shehadeh told Daraj; 

According to her, the BBA treats lawyers paternalistically by exerting such control over them. It is as if the BBA doubts the lawyers’ legal credentials and qualifications. Hence, they should request prior approval from the BBA President before speaking to the media.

“Instead of imposing prior censorship on all lawyers, it would have been better for the BBA Council to activate the system for holding those who transgress the professional ethics code responsible” Shehadeh said. 

“The lack of accountability is the cause behind the ‘anarchy’ the BBA President spoke about. For instance, we saw lawyer Mohamed Zuaiter, son of former minister Ghazi Zuaiter, insulting the former BBA President Melhem Khalaf, without accountability.”

Since the BBA Council consists of elected members,  representing the country’s political parties, they can profit from partisan protection to avoid being held accountable and easily secure prior approval for media appearances, contrary to independent lawyers. 

Shehadeh emphasized that the amendments touched a nerve even more, as they were made at a time when independent media and human rights activists were working to uncover serious crime and corruption cases. As a result, the amendments can only be understood as an effort to stop such efforts. 

“It’s a matter of duty to defend the rights of lawyers and the interests of society in the dark circumstances it is going through,” said Saghieh who also filed an appeal against the BBA.

According to him, the BBA amendments have forgotten or abandoned the role of the lawyer. Instead of punishing those who broke the law, it reduced the fundamental right to freedom to a potential one – one the BBA President is free to grant or deny as he sees fit. 

Blaming the Victim

The amendments were not the only controversy involving the BBA. Recently, BBA president Gaspard found it necessary to take a position on domestic abuse. He questioned survivors’ testimonies at a seminar hosted by the BBA’s Personal Status Modernization Committee, adopting a patriarchal discourse that blames the victim.

“We’ve been informed that the father assaulted his daughter,” claimed Gaspard. “All of this is done with the aim to hurt, and profit from false accusations. The woman can acquire sums she would not have received if she had satisfied herself with presenting the realities of a normal relationship with her husband.”

“What prevents one person from blackmailing the other by claiming she was beaten or subjected to violence in any way?” he asked. 

Worse, Gaspard took this position, as Lebanon witnessed a horrific murder. Zainab Zuaiter was shot dead with ten bullets by her husband in front of her children. 

“We are surprised to see how the head of Beirut Bar Association resorted to generalizing an exceptional case, in which laws are at times abused in dealing with sensitive and dangerous issues, such as domestic abuse,” said lawyer Layal Sakr, Executive director of SEEDS for Legal Initiatives, in an interview with Daraj. “Laws protecting women and other individuals from domestic abuse are essential and shouldn’t be jeopardized in a state where crime and violence rates are continually increasing.”

The Final Battle

Despite the dismal reality sketched above, the journalists who were summoned to appear in court met with widespread support from fellow journalists, legal and human rights activists. 

At the request of the Alternative Press Syndicate several  protest events took place to cease the covert repression of journalists’ opinions. In a statement, the Coalition to Defend Freedom of Expression (CDFE) expressed its concern over the recent developments at the BBA and the summoning of journalists, which it claimed is intended to further restrict media freedom and freedom of speech.

 In addition there is the growing use of anti-defamation laws included in the Penal Code in a manner inconsistent with international practices. 

Caretaker Minister of Information Ziad Makary successfully requested public prosecutor Oueidat to withdraw the summon against Kassir. It shows the importance of public pressure and solidarity campaigns to deter the system. 

From silencing opposition voices to subjugating the judiciary and even imposing a patriarchal logic in dealing with domestic violence: the ruling elite confirms in every possible way that its insanity has reached the pinnacle. 

Instead of acknowledging its failures and working to save the country from the unprecedented collapse, the ruling elite has opted to eliminate the voices exposing those failures and return to an era of tutelage.

19.04.2023
زمن القراءة: 8 minutes

From silencing opposition voices to subjugating the judiciary and imposing a patriarchal logic in dealing with abuse: instead of acknowledging its failures and working on a solution, the ruling elite aims to eliminate the voices exposing those failures and return to the era of tutelage.

Is it a coincidence to see the rapid pace at which legal charges are being filed against journalists and activists going hand in hand with media and human rights organizations disclosing files related to corruption and crime? We are entitled to ask this question seeing various institutions escalating efforts to silence those trying to unveil the truth.

Lawyer Nizar Saghieh recently revealed that the President of the Beirut Bar Association (BBA), Nader Gaspard, had intervened to prevent him from participating in a show on Radio Sawt El Shaeb under the pretext that Saghieh had failed to ask for permission to do so. 

The incident occurred only days after Saghieh was summoned to a hearing by the BBA without being given a reason. Referring to Gaspard as the “Bar Censor,” Saghieh called it “a scandalous and shameful example of the continuous suppression of freedom of expression in Lebanon.”

“What happened is clear evidence that the BBA President has changed into a censor for lawyers,” Saghieh told Daraj. “He uses his position to control the profession’s practice and suppress freedom of expression.”

Saghieh is Executive Director of The Legal Agenda, which studies legal and judiciary developments in the Arab world.  According to him, the radio had contacted him, offering him a space to talk about the repression lawyers face.

It all started with Jean Kassir, Executive Director of the Megaphone media platform, who was summoned to appear at the Palace of Justice on orders from Ghassan Oueidat, Public Prosecutor at the Court of Cassation, after posting the article “Lebanon is ruled by fugitives from justice.” 

Shortly after, Lara Bitar, editor-in-chief of the website Public Source, was summoned to appear in court due to publishing an article that shed light on a toxic waste scandal, which led to  a complaint by the Lebanese Forces [political party]. 

Both summonses violated the law in terms of notification or the party authorized to actually investigate journalists.

“We are the ones pursuing you, not the other way around” and “Fugitives from justice are pursuing journalists” were some of the slogans raised in front of the Cybercrime Bureau in solidarity with Bitar.

In a similar vein, Daraj journalist Hala Nasreddine had been “warned” by banker and former minister Marwan Kheiredine following her report on corruption allegations published as part of the Pandora Papers project.

All this seems the result of an increasingly authoritarian campaign to muzzle the voices that still dare challenge the ruling clique. This includes efforts to further subjugate the judiciary to ensure the obstruction of justice in a number of fundamental cases, most notably the Beirut Port blast that took place on August 4, 2020.

Silencing Lawyers

“The problem is not personal,” said Saghieh. “It is about principles and morals. The actions taken by the BBA do not only target me, but the legal profession as a whole.” 

The summoning of Saghieh follows the BBA’s decision on March 3 to amend parts of the professional ethics code, including members’ relations with the media. The aim was to control the “prevailing anarchy,” as BBA head Nader Gaspard called it.

Gaspard was elected BBA President on November 21, 2021. Replacing the independent Melhem Khalaf, his election was widely perceived as a victory for the ruling class. Gaspard is said to enjoy the support of several political parties. 

The BBA amendments forbid lawyers from appearing in the media, taking part in symposiums, giving interviews, and replying to inquiries from the public on websites or social media. They are also not allowed to launch a website, social media page or magazine without prior approval of the BBA President. They furthermore need approval before debating significant legal cases.

“They want to domesticate generations of lawyers with the aim of keeping society hostage to an unjust system that is not subject to accountability and punishment,” Saghieh said.

Prior to Saghieh, lawyer Michel Nehme was summoned to appear in the Palace of Justice.  He was questioned about why he had rejected the BBA amendments and demanded that the nine BBA Council members either change them back or resign.

Privilege

The Independence of the Judiciary Coalition (IJC), which aims to secure the independence and impartiality of Lebanon’s judicial institutions, strongly opposed the BBA amendments. 

“The practice of this oversight is implemented indiscriminately, as evidenced by the fact that the Council did not set any mechanisms, standards, or deadlines, but rather left the President of the Beirut Bar Association with absolute power to determine its conditions,” the ICJ said in a statement.  

Adding: “This would turn freedom into a privilege for pro-regime lawyers and give the BBA President an effective tool to silence lawyers who express views and opinions that he would like to suppress or does not like to be published, including any opinion criticizing the BBA or its president.”

The ICJ likened the BBA decision to Oueidat’s coup against the efforts of judicial investigator Tarek Bitar to reopen the investigation into the Beirut Port blast after the case had been frozen for over a year.

Appeals and Objections

Rejecting the BBA amendments, 15 lawyers filed an appeal before the Court of Civil Appeal, which specializes in trade union cases. One of them was Jean Kassir attorney’s Diala Shehadeh.

“The amendments made by the BBA Council are unconstitutional, as they violate the right to express an opinion, which is also a right guaranteed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” Shehadeh told Daraj; 

According to her, the BBA treats lawyers paternalistically by exerting such control over them. It is as if the BBA doubts the lawyers’ legal credentials and qualifications. Hence, they should request prior approval from the BBA President before speaking to the media.

“Instead of imposing prior censorship on all lawyers, it would have been better for the BBA Council to activate the system for holding those who transgress the professional ethics code responsible” Shehadeh said. 

“The lack of accountability is the cause behind the ‘anarchy’ the BBA President spoke about. For instance, we saw lawyer Mohamed Zuaiter, son of former minister Ghazi Zuaiter, insulting the former BBA President Melhem Khalaf, without accountability.”

Since the BBA Council consists of elected members,  representing the country’s political parties, they can profit from partisan protection to avoid being held accountable and easily secure prior approval for media appearances, contrary to independent lawyers. 

Shehadeh emphasized that the amendments touched a nerve even more, as they were made at a time when independent media and human rights activists were working to uncover serious crime and corruption cases. As a result, the amendments can only be understood as an effort to stop such efforts. 

“It’s a matter of duty to defend the rights of lawyers and the interests of society in the dark circumstances it is going through,” said Saghieh who also filed an appeal against the BBA.

According to him, the BBA amendments have forgotten or abandoned the role of the lawyer. Instead of punishing those who broke the law, it reduced the fundamental right to freedom to a potential one – one the BBA President is free to grant or deny as he sees fit. 

Blaming the Victim

The amendments were not the only controversy involving the BBA. Recently, BBA president Gaspard found it necessary to take a position on domestic abuse. He questioned survivors’ testimonies at a seminar hosted by the BBA’s Personal Status Modernization Committee, adopting a patriarchal discourse that blames the victim.

“We’ve been informed that the father assaulted his daughter,” claimed Gaspard. “All of this is done with the aim to hurt, and profit from false accusations. The woman can acquire sums she would not have received if she had satisfied herself with presenting the realities of a normal relationship with her husband.”

“What prevents one person from blackmailing the other by claiming she was beaten or subjected to violence in any way?” he asked. 

Worse, Gaspard took this position, as Lebanon witnessed a horrific murder. Zainab Zuaiter was shot dead with ten bullets by her husband in front of her children. 

“We are surprised to see how the head of Beirut Bar Association resorted to generalizing an exceptional case, in which laws are at times abused in dealing with sensitive and dangerous issues, such as domestic abuse,” said lawyer Layal Sakr, Executive director of SEEDS for Legal Initiatives, in an interview with Daraj. “Laws protecting women and other individuals from domestic abuse are essential and shouldn’t be jeopardized in a state where crime and violence rates are continually increasing.”

The Final Battle

Despite the dismal reality sketched above, the journalists who were summoned to appear in court met with widespread support from fellow journalists, legal and human rights activists. 

At the request of the Alternative Press Syndicate several  protest events took place to cease the covert repression of journalists’ opinions. In a statement, the Coalition to Defend Freedom of Expression (CDFE) expressed its concern over the recent developments at the BBA and the summoning of journalists, which it claimed is intended to further restrict media freedom and freedom of speech.

 In addition there is the growing use of anti-defamation laws included in the Penal Code in a manner inconsistent with international practices. 

Caretaker Minister of Information Ziad Makary successfully requested public prosecutor Oueidat to withdraw the summon against Kassir. It shows the importance of public pressure and solidarity campaigns to deter the system. 

From silencing opposition voices to subjugating the judiciary and even imposing a patriarchal logic in dealing with domestic violence: the ruling elite confirms in every possible way that its insanity has reached the pinnacle. 

Instead of acknowledging its failures and working to save the country from the unprecedented collapse, the ruling elite has opted to eliminate the voices exposing those failures and return to an era of tutelage.

19.04.2023
زمن القراءة: 8 minutes
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