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Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Lebanon’s 2022 elections: Freedom of speech at risk

Lebanon's 2022 elections
Lebanese expats dance as they queue to cast their votes for the May 15 legislative election at Lebanon’s Consulate in the Gulf emirate of Dubai on May 8, 2022. Karim SAHIB / AFP

Dana Hourany

 Shaden Fakih, a Lebanese stand-up comedian and social critic, has released her latest politically provocative work in the form of a music video titled “Khod” a week before Lebanon’s much-anticipated parliamentary elections.

In a setting that resembles that of an abandoned school, Fakih’s rap persona, “Lil Shadz,” harnesses discontent and indignation as musical inspiration to attack Lebanon‘s corrupt rulers.

“Stop intimidating and accusing us of treason. Stop talking and trying to persuade us. It is now time for you to leave. A corrupt leader will never change,” Fakih belts out to the beat as young dancers circle her. Portraying the anger that was once on the streets during the October 17 uprising, Fakih and her crew make it clear that their incentive is to push people to vote against the country’s establishment parties on May 15.

Describing it as “the boldest artwork in the history of the country,” some fans have declared they will be blasting the song from their cars on their way to the polls. Lebanon’s most recent national election was held in 2018, with a voter turnout of 49.7%. The forthcoming election will be the first since the country’s economic crisis began in October 2019, sparking nationwide demonstrations.

Freedom of expression in Lebanon has worsened significantly since the 2019 protests, according to several rights organizations. Authorities have continued to arrest and prosecute people for criticizing government officials, perpetuating a history of prosecutions for challenging authorities. According to a Human Rights Watch investigation, the Internal Security Forces’ cybercrimes office summoned activists for interrogation over social media posts criticizing authorities and forced them to sign pledges to stop criticizing officials, Fakih included.

The comedian was summoned to the ISF Cybercrime Bureau for interrogation in June 2021 after being suspected of mocking the ISF by calling them during lockdown to inquire for sanitary pads. Her trial date is set for June 24, 2022.

Why the music video?

 The music video, according to Fakih, is a personal passion project and collaboration with creative partner Khansa. The main goal behind the work is to persuade people to use their voices inside and outside of the voting booth.

“I want people to feel so enraged that they want to hurl Molotov cocktails at politicians. We must keep people inspired!” she told Fanack.

In the Instagram caption beneath her video, Fakih shared her preferred electoral candidates as a means to provide guidance to those seeking it. Her primary target are young voters who do not consume traditional media outlets and politics. By utilizing street art, she appeals to the youth who are hungry for change.

“We, unlike the previous generation, are capable of bringing about political change in our nation. This is why I only pay attention to those I can influence, rather than those who wish to intimidate or harass me,” she told Fanack.

As for her June 24 court hearing, the comedian claims she received word that a new, harsher judge has been assigned. Fakih expects she will be charged with defamation and undermining the prestige of the Internal Security Forces, and later released on bail. She claims, however, that she is unmoved and unconcerned by the outcome.

“I refuse to be silenced. I will keep doing what I do because this is who I am and their intimidation only pushes me to do more,” she said.

Freedom of speech in Lebanon

 Lebanon’s freedoms, once hailed as the most progressive in the region, are increasingly being undermined by government agents and non-state actors.

According to the Samir Kassir Foundation’s SKeyes Center for Media and Cultural Freedom, 106 media professionals were assaulted and intimidated by non-state actors between October 2019 and March 2021. During the same time period, 80 journalists covering protests were assaulted by government agents. In the months leading up to the COVID 19 pandemic, SKeyes documented 23 attacks against journalists on average.

Lebanon is a mixed bag of freedoms and oppressions, according to Wadih Al Asmar, President of the Lebanese Center for Human Rights. Despite the fact that the uprising provided a forum for public scrutiny of high-ranking government officials, it came at a staggering price.

“The extent of freedom one is afforded in Lebanon is unpredictable. There’s always the possibility of being summoned by government officials for trivial matters like social media posts,” he told Fanack.

He claims that the 1962 Press Law, which prevents the media from publishing anything “that endangers national security […] national unity […] or that insults high-ranking Lebanese officials […] or a foreign head of State,” is being fought by activists as it threatens free expression.

If it is fully implemented and passed in its newest iteration, it will result in a slew of broad criminal defamation prosecutions aimed against digital activists.

On an alarming decline

 Most complaints presented by the Internal Security Forces’ Cybercrime Unit, according to Al Asmar, culminate with a demand that specific posts be deleted. He says that this is why Lebanon is in better standing than its MENA counterparts, where laws are harsher and consequences are severe.

“Officials in Lebanon are concerned with appealing to the International Community in order to maintain the flow of Western aid. They’re wary of using heavy sentences in such cases,” he said.

Al Asmar points to a significant flaw in Lebanon’s freedom of expression: television stations’ hegemonic dominance over the political discourse, particularly during election season. According to Al Asmar, TV channels charge unduly large fees for candidates to appear on their programs, restricting visibility to those who may not have the financial means but possess the necessary qualifications. As a result, opposition candidates with limited resources make fewer television appearances than their traditional-party opponents.

“What’s the point of having free speech when you can barely afford to exercise it? Even ads on social media are expensive,” he said.

“In our battle against tyranny, Lebanese must remain active on the streets. The more we demonstrate, the more influence we have,” Al Asmar said.

As for the future of freedom of speech in Lebanon, Al Asmar estimates a post-election clampdown on speech and media rights once the elections are over, and the establishment ventures to flaunt its newly acquired power to the public.

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