An Alarming Escalation in Suppressing Dissent
Lebanon, a nation known for its diverse culture and vibrant society, is currently grappling with a troubling trend – a significant erosion of freedom of expression. This trend has become particularly evident in the recent arrest and investigation of renowned comedian Nour Hajjar, an incident that has raised serious concerns among human rights advocates, including the Coalition to Defend Freedom of Expression in Lebanon.
Retaliation for Satire
Nour Hajjar’s ordeal began when he became the target of legal proceedings initiated by Lebanese judicial authorities in response to two separate incidents. On August 25, Hajjar was summoned for interrogation by Lebanon’s Military Prosecution. The reason? A satirical joke he delivered on stage, humorously commenting on the economic crisis in Lebanon. The joke touched upon the challenging circumstances faced by Lebanese army soldiers who resorted to taking second jobs as delivery drivers due to the country’s economic turmoil and the devaluation of their salaries in Lebanese pounds. Following the interrogation, Hajjar was detained temporarily for a staggering 11 hours.
But the ordeal didn’t end there. On August 29, as Hajjar was leaving the Military Police headquarters, he faced another arrest. This time, officers from the Internal Security Forces’ Criminal Investigations Division detained him in response to a claim submitted against him by a leading member of Dar al-Fatwa, Lebanon’s highest Muslim Sunni religious authority. Dar al-Fatwa accused Hajjar of staging a comedy sketch in 2018 that they deemed “an insult to Islam, Muslims, and a threat to civil peace in the country.” Legal experts argue that the statute of limitations for prosecuting such acts had already expired at the time of Hajjar’s arrest, as indicated by Article 10 of the Lebanese Code of Criminal Procedures.
A Legal Ordeal
Hajjar’s second arrest was followed by intensive interrogations that took place at the division’s headquarters at the Justice Ministry in Beirut. Of particular concern was the fact that authorities failed to inform Hajjar’s lawyer during this grueling process. It was only later that evening, following protests by dozens of individuals calling for his release, that Hajjar was temporarily freed. Two reports were subsequently filed against him, both of which remain pending.
Amid a Crushing Economic Crisis
Lebanon’s intensified crackdown on critical public speech comes against the backdrop of a severe economic crisis. This crisis has plunged the majority of the population into poverty, further exacerbating tensions within the country. In 2023 alone, Lebanese authorities have summoned numerous individuals, including journalists, lawyers, teachers, and now a comedian, for merely voicing criticisms of government actions and public officials. Despite these measures, the authorities have made minimal progress in implementing essential economic, financial, and justice reforms.
Legal and Constitutional Discrepancies
While Lebanon’s constitution ostensibly guarantees freedom of expression “within the limits established by law,” the reality is far from ideal. The country’s Criminal Code imposes sentences of up to three years for insulting religious rituals, while the Military Code of Justice punishes insults to the flag or army with up to three years in prison. These insult and defamation provisions fall far short of international human rights standards and unduly restrict freedom of expression.
A Call for Urgent Action
The Coalition to Defend Freedom of Expression in Lebanon, in concert with various human rights organizations, issues an urgent call to action. The Lebanese judicial authorities must refrain from bringing criminal charges against individuals who peacefully express their opinions. Parliament should expedite the repeal of laws that criminalize blasphemy, defamation, insults to religion, or criticism of political, religious, or military authorities. Additionally, civilians should not be subjected to military courts, and authorities should cease detaining individuals for peacefully voiced criticisms.
The United Nations Human Rights Committee, interpreting the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, has made clear that harassment, intimidation, or stigmatization of individuals for their opinions constitutes a violation. Laws prohibiting displays of disrespect for religion, including blasphemy laws, are fundamentally incompatible with the Covenant.
Nour Hajjar’s arrest stands as a stark reminder of how Lebanon’s authorities are deploying insult and defamation laws to intimidate and harass their critics, ultimately stifling freedom of expression in the country. The time has come for Lebanon to address these grave human rights concerns and reaffirm its commitment to safeguarding the right to freely express opinions. Lebanese authorities must respect their international obligations and ensure that freedom of expression remains a fundamental pillar of Lebanese society, fostering an environment where diverse voices can flourish without fear of persecution.