Why you should care

Because this country, long seen as a refuge for free speech in the region, is turning toward repressive tactics.

As he sang and danced across the stage in a black-and-white prison costume, comedian Hicham Haddad turned challenges to free speech in Lebanon from a nationwide controversy into television farce. Not everyone was amused. Already facing prosecution for jokes mocking Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Saad Hariri, the Lebanese prime minister, Haddad was slapped with new charges by prosecutors — for insulting them. It was the latest in a string of legal challenges and detentions linked to satire and political commentary, from television shows to Facebook posts.

Lebanon has been a refuge for free speech in a region where many authoritarian governments have prisons filled with political prisoners and journalists. But rights activists warn there has been an alarming turn toward repressive tactics using previously ignored laws.

“Lebanon is seen as quite progressive. But on the books, you still have laws that can put you in prison for three years for insulting the army,” says Bassam Khawaja at Human Rights Watch.

The broader issue is that we can’t have a real democracy without real democrats.

Ayman Mhanna, the Samir Kassir Foundation

Insulting political leaders — domestic or foreign — and even mocking the national emblem, the Lebanese cedar, can prompt a sentence of up to two years in jail. Hanin Ghaddar, a well-known journalist, was sentenced in absentia to six months in prison on charges of insulting the army while speaking at a conference in Washington.

Michael Young, an analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says many in Lebanon saw the case as a reflection of the army’s concerns that Western backers consider it too close to Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Shiite militant group. “I think there is a sensitivity on this issue because there is a fear of funding for the army being stopped,” says Young.

Lebanon’s political class is also acutely sensitive to being dragged deeper into the struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran. In November, Lebanon was rocked when Hariri announced his resignation in Riyadh, where he had apparently been detained on Prince Mohammed’s orders. The premier rescinded his resignation after he returned to Beirut the following month.

Haddad was initially charged over a joke that made a vague reference to the breakneck pace at which the crown prince is pursuing change in his kingdom and intervening aggressively abroad. The joke was in response to a famous Lebanese psychic who warned Prince Mohammed to avoid fast food. “Fast food? What do I care?” Haddad joked. “I’d advise him to stop fast arrests. I’d advise that he stop fast policies, fast campaigns, fast military strikes.” Talk show host Marcel Ghanem, another Lebanese TV figure, faces a lawsuit not for his own words but for comments made by two Saudi guests after Hariri’s resignation.

The irony, says Ayman Mhanna, head of the Samir Kassir Foundation, which advocates for freedom of speech, is that the greater repression might be due to the internationally praised deal that delivered Lebanon a president and cabinet after a two-year political vacuum. Lebanon is deeply divided along political and sectarian fault lines born of its 1975–1990 civil war. Those divisions meant that people who criticized one faction could seek protection from a rival force, Mhanna says.

“Now, this consensus among major parties has removed the cover for those with dissenting opinions,” he says. “The broader issue is that we can’t have a real democracy without real democrats.”

Censorship is on the rise too, critics say, pointing to a short-lived attempt by Lebanese security to ban The Post, a U.S. film that lionizes the free press. Haddad did not respond to a request for comment, but he made his views known on the fateful show that earned him a second indictment. Playing earlier sketches that pilloried Lebanese leaders, the comedian argued these were more offensive and deserving of lawsuits: “It’s a shame to sue over something so lame.”

His big problem, however, may prove to be a song mocking the general prosecutor for lawsuits over satire at a time when the government is battling myriad problems, including one over landfill contracts that at its height saw rubbish spewing onto Beirut’s streets.

“Oh, Judge Hamouda … there is garbage everywhere,” he said. “Doesn’t that deserve a lawsuit?”

+
By Erika Solomon

OZY partners with the U.K.'s Financial Times to bring you premium analysis and features. © The Financial Times Limited 2018.

OZYFast Forward

New trends and breakthrough thinking in politics, science, technology, business and culture. It’s futurism at its best.