Lebanon is a parliamentary republic based on the 1943 National Pact, which apportions governmental authority among a Maronite Christian president, a Shia speaker of the Chamber of Deputies (parliament), and a Sunni prime minister. Lebanese law officially recognizes 18 religious sects or confessions. In 2016 parliament elected Michel Aoun to the presidency, ending more than two years of political deadlock. Following the 2017 passage of the country’s new electoral law, the government held parliamentary elections in May 2018, after parliament had extended its legal term three times between 2013 and 2017. The elections were peaceful and considered generally free and fair. President Michel Aoun accepted Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s resignation on October 29 following almost two weeks of protests starting October 17. As of the end of the year, no new government had been formed.
The Internal Security Forces (ISF), under the Ministry of Interior, are responsible for law enforcement, while the Directorate of General Security (DGS), also under the Ministry of Interior, is responsible for border control but also exercises some domestic security responsibilities. The Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), under the Ministry of Defense, are responsible for external security but authorized to arrest and detain suspects on national security grounds; they also arrested alleged drug traffickers, managed protests, enforced building codes related to refugee shelters, and intervened to prevent violence between rival political factions. The General Directorate of State Security (GDSS), reporting to the prime minister through the Higher Defense Council, is responsible for investigating espionage and other national security issues. Civilian authorities maintained control over the government’s armed forces and other security forces, although Palestinian security and militia forces, the designated foreign terrorist organization (FTO) Hizballah, and other extremist elements operated outside the direction or control of government officials.
The Syrian conflict affected the country economically and socially. Over the past several years, the Syrian conflict has generated an influx of more than one million refugees and strained the country’s already weak infrastructure and ability to deliver social services.
Significant human rights issues included: arbitrary or unlawful killings by nonstate actors; allegations of torture by security forces; excessive periods of pretrial detention by security forces; undue and increasing restrictions on freedoms of speech and press, including laws criminalizing libel and a number of forms of expression; high-level and widespread official corruption; criminalization of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) status or conduct; and forced or compulsory child labor.
Although the legal structure provides for prosecution and punishment of officials who committed human rights abuses, enforcement remained a problem, and government officials enjoyed a measure of impunity for human rights abuses, including evading or influencing judicial processes.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, and stipulates that restrictions may be imposed only under exceptional circumstances. The government generally respected this right, but there were some restrictions, particularly regarding political and social issues.
Freedom of Expression: Individuals were generally free to criticize the government and discuss matters of public interest; however, several legal restrictions limited this right. The law prohibits discussing the dignity of the president or insulting him or the president of a foreign country. The military code of justice prohibits insulting the security forces, and the Military Court prosecuted civilians under this statute.
Press and Media, Including Online Media: The 1962 Publications Law regulates print media. The law holds journalists responsible for erroneous or false news; threats or blackmail; insult, defamation, and contempt; causing prejudice to the president’s dignity; insulting the president or the president of a foreign country; instigation to commit a crime through a publication; and sectarian provocation. The law further contains detailed rules governing the activities of printing houses, press media, libraries, publishing houses, and distribution companies. This law provides rules and conditions for becoming a journalist and for obtaining licenses for new publications. It also prohibits the press from publishing blasphemous content regarding the country’s officially recognized religions or content that may provoke sectarian feuds.
There was uncertainty regarding which legal framework is applicable to online news sites in the country. No specific laws regulate online speech. The penal code, however, contains a number of speech offenses, such as defamation of public officials, public entities, and individuals. Accordingly, authorities are able to prosecute individuals, journalists, and bloggers for what they express online.
On March 11, the Military Court sentenced al-Jadeed TV correspondent Adam Chamseddine in absentia to three months in prison for criticizing the GDSS in a Facebook post. On April 12, a military judge ruled that, because Chamseddine is a journalist, the Military Court did not have jurisdiction over the case and returned the file to the military prosecutor who subsequently dropped all charges. Authorities heard these cases in both civil and military courts; they generally carried sentences of between one and three years in prison, although typically they resulted in fines.
The law governing audiovisual media bans live broadcasts of unauthorized political gatherings and certain religious events, as well as any broadcast of “any matter of commentary seeking to affect directly or indirectly the well-being of the nation’s economy and finances, material that is propagandistic and promotional, or promotes a relationship with Israel.” Media outlets must receive a license from the Council of Ministers to broadcast any type of political news or programs. The law prohibits broadcasting programs that harm the state or its relations with foreign countries or have an effect on the well-being of such states. The law also prohibits the broadcast of programs that seek to harm public morals, ignite sectarian strife, or insult religious beliefs.
Violence and Harassment: Journalists continued to face intimidation and harassment. Political friction and tension led some outlets to fear entering certain “politically affiliated” areas to report without removing brandings and logos identifying the outlets. For example, MTV reporters have been known to remove their outlet’s logo when entering Hizballah-affiliated areas. Outlets that sought to report in areas under control of Hizballah were required to obtain special permission from Hizballah’s media arm.
Authorities continued to prosecute online, print, and television journalists for violations of the country’s publications law. NGOs and media watchdogs claimed such prosecutions were efforts to intimidate critics. Prosecutors sometimes referred these cases to criminal courts based on both private complaints and their own discretion, but more often they referred such cases to the Publications Court. Publications Court cases typically remained open for a year or more and typically ended with fines or dismissal.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Authorities selectively applied elements of the law that permit censorship of pornographic material, political opinion, and religious material considered a threat to national security or offensive to the dignity of the head of state or foreign leaders. The DGS may review and censor all foreign newspapers, magazines, and books to determine admissibility into the country, but these reviews are mostly for explicit, pornographic content. Some journalists reported that political violence and extralegal intimidation led to self-censorship.
On September 18, the president of the Lebanese University, Fouad Ayoub, had the judiciary request on his behalf that at least 20 media outlets remove all news and media reports related to him from their websites in an apparent attempt to edit his appearance on search engines. Media outlets were still determining their responses as of December 19.
The law includes guidelines regarding materials deemed unsuitable for publication in a book, newspaper, or magazine. Any violation of the guidelines could result in the author’s imprisonment or a fine. Authors could publish books without prior permission from the DGS, but if the book contained material that violated the law, including material considered a threat to national security, the DGS could legally confiscate the book and put the author on trial. Publishing without prior approval a book that contained unauthorized material could put the author at risk of a prison sentence, fine, and confiscation of the published materials.
Authorities from any of the recognized religious groups could request that the DGS ban a book. The government could prosecute offending journalists and publications in the publications court. According to NGOs, as of September each of the 30 book-banning cases the government registered in the publications court in 2017–mainly from libel suits filed by politicians, political parties, and private citizens–was in the process of being resolved. Authorities occasionally also referred such cases to criminal courts, a process not established in law.
Libel/Slander Laws: In most cases criminal courts heard libel and defamation complaints, which can carry sentences of one to three years but typically resulted in fines or a promise to remove offending material from the internet. NGOs and activists reported increased prosecutions under such laws, and political figures or their representatives filed several complaints against critics throughout the year. Human rights NGO ALEF (Association Libanaise pour l’Education et la Formation) reported that in several dozen cases this year, criminal defamation suits were filed against journalists, bloggers, political activists, and private citizens, including for posting their opinions in WhatsApp groups or on Facebook. While these cases rarely, if ever, resulted in prolonged detentions or jail sentences, interrogations by police and lengthy, expensive trials created a chilling effect on political speech.
Following publication of intentionally provocative articles on September 12 that criticized President Aoun and sarcastically suggested that Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is the true leader of Lebanon, editors of the newspaper Nidaa al-Watan were summoned to appear before the Office of the Prosecutor General for the State on charges of defamation of the president. On September 20, the case was referred to the Publications Court. On November 21, the editor was found not guilty.
Private citizens may file criminal complaints, which the law requires an investigating judge to consider, and many defamation cases were initiated via the allegations of private citizens. Politicians at times responded to allegations of wrongdoing leveled at them by filing criminal complaints alleging defamation. The military justice code also prohibits defamation of the army.
The ISF Cybercrimes Bureau reported that, as of May 15, they had received referrals of 432 defamation cases for investigation. The Cybercrimes Bureau reportedly investigated 1,451 defamation cases in 2018, an increase of 81 percent from 2017. In November Human Rights Watch reported a 325 percent increase in the number defamation cases investigated by authorities and noted prison sentences against at least three individuals in defamation cases between 2015 and 2019. On October 5, four lawyers filed a complaint against the Economist, accusing the magazine of damaging the country’s reputation and insulting the Lebanese flag in its article reporting on the country’s dollar shortage that was published the same day.
On May 13, the GDSS arrested social media activist Rasheed Jumblatt and detained him for four days over a Facebook video post that allegedly included provocative and sectarian comments and insults against Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil. Jumblatt was subsequently released after charges were dropped.
Nongovernmental Impact: Political and religious figures sometimes sought to rally public outcry aimed at inhibiting freedom of expression and the press, including through coercion and threats of violence. This included public statements by some political and religious figures calling for the cancellation of a concert by local indie rock band Mashrou’ Leila due to threats of violence or content of the band’s music they perceived as offensive (see Academic Freedom and Cultural Events).
The law does not restrict access to the internet. The government reportedly censored some websites to block online gambling, pornography, religiously provocative material, extremist forums, and Israeli websites, but there were no verified reports the government systematically attempted to collect personally identifiable information via the internet. On May 24, the Ministry of Telecommunications requested that its internet service provider block Grindr, a networking app used primarily by LGBTI communities, based on a judicial order.
Restrictions on freedom of speech concerning government officials applied to social media communications, which authorities considered a form of publication rather than private correspondence. Human rights groups reported that political parties and their supporters intimidated individuals online and in person in response to online posts deemed critical of political leaders or religious figures, such as in the Mashrou’ Leila case (see Academic Freedom and Cultural Events).
The ISF’s Cybercrime Bureau and other state security agencies summoned journalists, bloggers, and activists to question them about social media and blog posts, especially when they criticized political figures or religious sects. On July 15, Riad el-Assaad was summoned by the ISF Cybercrime Bureau in response to a post on his Facebook page referencing suspicion of corruption within the Syndicate of Lebanese Contractors. El-Assaad removed the post under threat of detention.
NGOs noted the number of known summonses might not be accurate since many individuals chose not to discuss or report their cases.
Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process
Although the law provides citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections conducted by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage, lack of government control over parts of the country, defects in the electoral process, previous prolonged extensions of parliament’s mandate, and corruption in public office restricted this ability.
Elections and Political Participation
Recent Elections: Michel Aoun was elected president in 2016, ending two and one-half years of political stalemate. Following the passage of a new electoral law, parliamentary elections were held in May 2018 for the first time in nine years. Observers concluded that the elections were generally free and fair. On July 31, President Michel Aoun signed a decree calling for the parliamentary by-election to fill Hizballah MP Nawwaf Moussawi’s seat in Tyre following his resignation. The by-election was scheduled to be held on September 15, but a Hizballah-affiliated candidate ran unopposed after other candidates withdrew their candidacies.
Political Parties and Political Participation: All major political parties and numerous smaller ones were almost exclusively based on confessional affiliation, and parliamentary seats were allotted on a sectarian basis.
Participation of Women and Minorities: No laws limit participation of women or members of minorities in the political process, and they did participate. There were, however, significant cultural barriers to women’s participation in politics. Prior to 2004, no woman held a cabinet position, and there have been only seven female ministers subsequently, including current ministers. Four women served in the 30-member cabinet formed in January, one of whom became the Arab world’s first female interior minister. Only six of 128 members of parliament were women, and several of the female members of parliament were close relatives of prominent male politicians. Female leadership of political parties was limited, although three parties introduced voluntary quotas for their membership. Since 2017 women have been able to run in municipal elections in their native towns instead of the municipality of their spouses.
Minorities participated in politics. Regardless of the number of its adherents, authorities allocated every government-recognized religion, except Coptic Christianity, Ismaili Islam, and Judaism, at least one seat in parliament. Voters elected three parliamentarians representing minorities (one Syriac Orthodox Christian and two Alawites) in the 2018 elections. None of the minority parliamentarians were women. Members of these groups also held high positions in government and the LAF.
Since refugees are not Lebanese citizens, they have no Lebanese political rights.
Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government
Although the law provides criminal penalties for official corruption, the government did not implement the law effectively, and officials reportedly engaged in corrupt practices with impunity and on a wide scale. Government security officials, ISF, agencies, customs, and the judiciary were subject to laws against bribery and extortion. The lack of strong enforcement limited the law’s effectiveness. The Ministry of State for Combating Corruption was eliminated when a new government was formed on January 31; the ministry previously had little operational budget or authority.
The Central Inspection Board (CIB), an oversight body within the Office of the Prime Minister, is responsible for monitoring administrative departments, including procurement and financial actions, and remained mostly independent of political interference. The CIB may inspect employees of the national and municipal government, and has the authority to seek their removal or refer cases for prosecution. The CIB’s authority does not extend to cabinet ministers or to municipal executives. The Social Security Fund and the Council for Development and Reconstruction, public entities that managed large funding flows, were outside the CIB’s jurisdiction.
Corruption: Observers widely considered government control of corruption to be poor. There was limited parliamentary or auditing authority oversight of revenue collection and expenditures. During the continuing protests that began October 17, alleged corruption in the government and public sector was a major complaint of protesters and a major impetus for the protests. Within the first month after protests began, there was an increase in the number of corruption-related investigations and prosecution actions.
Types of corruption generally encountered included systemic patronage; judicial failures, especially in investigations of official wrongdoing; and bribery at multiple levels within the national and municipal governments. Corruption led to diversion of resources intended for other objectives. A few judges were suspended from duty pending investigation of allegations of receiving bribes from lawyers and intermediaries; some were released while one judge remained under further investigation as of November 19.
Financial Disclosure: The law requires the president of the republic, the president of the Chamber of Deputies, the president of the Council of Ministers, as well as ministers, members of parliament, and judges to disclose their financial assets in a sealed envelope deposited at the Constitutional Council, but the government does not make the information available to the public. They must also do the same when they leave office. Heads of municipalities disclose their financial assets in a sealed envelope deposited at the Ministry of Interior, and civil servants deposit their sealed envelopes at the Civil Servants Council, which are also not available to the public. If a case is brought to the State Council for noncompliance, the State Council may take judiciary administrative action to remove the offender from office.