Lebanon's cybercrime arrests threaten state's credibility
On 6 December 2016, the Lebanese authorities arrested Bassel Al-Amin, a journalism student, over a tweet in which he was deemed to have insulted the Lebanese, the Lebanese state and its national symbols.
His arrest provoked freedom of speech activists to rally in front of the Palace of Justice two days later, following an online campaign to release him under the rallying call: “a Facebook status is not a crime”.
But others within civil society considered his arrest to have been justifiable and demanded he be punished accordingly, saying he broke the law.
Less than a month later, Ramzi Al-Kadi was arrested for tweeting insults against the victims of Istanbul’s New Year’s Eve terrorist attacks that killed three Lebanese nationals.
While this time Al-Kadi’s arrest was met with wide popular acceptance, it also raised questions about the legality of his arrest.
The divided stance regarding both arrests within the civil movement, and even on the broader national level, underlines that Lebanon generally suffers from a perceived lack of credibility in the country’s application of the rule of law.
This is more acutely the case when it comes to laws governing freedom of expression.
Cyber wild west
Lebanon does not yet have a law regulating cyberspace. Despite that, the Internal Security Forces established a Cyber Crime Office in 2006, also known as the Cybercrime and Intellectual Property Rights Bureau, under the jurisdiction of the judicial police.
In the absence of an internet law, or a cyber law, the bureau relies on the Audio-Visual Media Law (the law that regulates television, radios and newspapers) to tackle the cyber world.
Activists came to regard the bureau as a threat to freedom of expression after politicians began to file slander complaints with the bureau that led to the arrest of activists or political opponents who criticised those politicians.
The first internet-related arrest, which sent shockwaves around the country, was tof Ahmad Shuman and three of his friends in July 2010 for having a page on Facebook that criticised then Lebanese President Michel Sleiman.
This was followed by the detention of a Lebanese indie musician, Zeid Hamdan, for his song and music video “General Suleiman” in July 2011.
In 2013, journalist Rabih Farran was detained after criticising MP Samir Geagea, although the complaint was filed by an anonymous individual.
In 2014, 21-year-old Karim Hawwa was detained for four days for sharing an article on Facebook that accused the interior minister of working with a company that had ties with Israel, and the same year a citizen named Jean Assy was arrested and sentenced to two years in prison for slandering Michel Sleiman a year before.
Critics of these arrests say that Lebanon has a weak security infrastructure, yet the police and security forces seem to find the time to quickly mobilise for issues like alleged slander of the president or other political figures, or for sharing an article on Facebook.
A few days before General Michel Aoun took office following his election as president after more than two years of the position being vacant, several tweets and Facebook posts sarcastically pointed out that days were numbered for the Lebanese to get away with mocking the “president” before there was actually one in office.
This speaks volumes about the anticipation of the Lebanese people of a new wave of slander-based arrests.
One main reason for the distrust in the bureau and the security forces comes from the inconsistency of the arrests. People question why a certain individual is arrested when others have posted the same or even more insulting comments.
In the case of Ramzi Al-Kadi, who has since claimed that his Twitter account was hacked, activists have noted that others, notably some Hezbollah supporters, had also tweeted and posted Facebook statuses that disrespected the victims of the Istanbul attack and that incited hatred, but were not investigated.
This has fuelled a public outcry that the law in Lebanon only applies to those who have no political backbone.
Lebanese politicians themselves seem to apply double standards when it comes to such cases. Supporting his party member Jean Assy at the time of his arrest, Minister of Foreign Affairs Gebran Bassil tweeted that “arresting people for their tweets is outrageous”, but Bassil agreed with the arrest of Bassel Al-Amin for his tweet.
Distrust also stems from the working mechanism of the bureau. The bureau is only meant to act upon someone filing a complaint against an individual. But there is no evidence to suggest that any complaints were filed against Bassel Al-Amin or Ramzi Al-Kadi.
The Legal Agenda, a legal watchdog, has thrown doubt over the legality of the bureau itself, stating that it was not established through legal protocols and has been given extensive powers that exceed its remit as it is not meant to be handling libel and slander cases.
While there is a great need for combating cybercrime such as child pornography, fraud and electronic money theft, bureau practices have clearly shifted towards oppressing freedom of speech.
As Lebanon continues to face multiple security and governance crises that the state is struggling to handle, some have come to view the latest wave of arrests as being simply a way for “the state… to remind us of its existence”.
And while certain arrests are based on actual law infringements, the selectivity of the arrests, their inconsistency and highly politicised motivations have undermined the rule of law and the trust of the Lebanese citizens in the ability and credibility of Lebanese state institutions.
- Lina Khatib is the Head of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House.You can follow her on Twitter @LinaKhatibUK. Bassem Deaibess is an environmental activist, for women and civil rights in Lebanon.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.
Photo: Lebanese Internal Security Forces demonstrate their skills at the forces simulation training village during their inauguration ceremony in south Beirut on 8 October 2015 (AFP)