Lebanese Facebook Users Arrested for Defaming President

On June 28th, The Guardian, Menassat, L'Orient Le Jour, and the AFP reported that Lebanon arrested 3 individuals (Naim George Hanna, Antoine Youssef Ramia, Shebel Rajeh Qasab), and Prosecutor General Saeed Mirza issued an arrest warrant for a fourth (Ahmed Ali Shuman). They were all students in their early 20's, and were placed under arrest for slander and defamation of President Michel Suleiman on Facebook. Currently, the first three have been released on bail of 100,000 L.L. each ($66.65 USD) and are expected to be tried later in Beirut with no news of the fourth suspect, according to NOW Lebanon.

Their posts are no longer available on Facebook (the AFP indicates that they were removed). No notice about who removed them is available - whether it was Facebook, an individual/the authors, or another institution is unknown. However, the Guardian reports that the comments, which were re-posted on President Suleiman's official Facebook fan page included harmless gems like "You're worth my foot," "you're like a snake; all you do is from under the table," and "the king of racism and sectarianism."

In an open letter to the President, blogger pinkfloyed rightfully expressed outrage that the government chose to waste resources on this, considering all the other domestic issues worth of governmental attention and action, such as widespread poverty and Israeli military presence in Lebanon. In protest, a petition has been circulating online, to Protect Free Speech in Lebanon, with up to 139 signatures as of July 6th.

However, this is not the first time that Lebanon has harassed a netizen for defaming the President. Threatened Voices reported that on March 15, Lebanese blogger and journalist Khodor Salameh was interrogated by Lebanese security forces and threatened with arrest "unless he changed his tone" regarding criticizing the president.

It is telling that these events occur in the wake of upcoming parliamentary voting on a Lebanese e-Transaction law. The law, which activists fought and succeeded in postponing voting on, would legitimize the surveillance of Internet users through regulation of ISPs, as well as limit their ability to communicate by preventing the use of VOIP services. Government monitoring of bloggers and other Internet users becomes especially concerning in light of these arrests.

While Lebanon is frequently considered liberal in terms of freedom of speech (see the Global Freedom of Speech Index) and contains no evidence of Internet filtering (ONI Country Report), these incidents are significant because they indicate the lack of transparency about the limits of Lebanese liberalism. There is apparently a ceiling that these individuals hit which is not explicitly legally defined, as The Guardian notes: "Since these insults were made online – where Lebanese law doesn't yet reach – that ceiling is only as high as the president deems appropriate." This sentiment was further reinforced by Justice Minister Najjar who defended the decision of the Prosecutor when he stated that "media freedom in Lebanon and any civilized country reaches its limits when the content is pure slander and aims at undermining the head of state."

If the results of this case prove Najjar’s statement right, it might have dire consequences for Lebanese bloggers and other Internet users’ freedom of speech online. This is particularly true if the Lebanese e-Transaction bill gets voted and signed into law, legitimizing government surveillance of Lebanese internet users.