Once hailed as a model for free thinking and expression, Lebanon is becoming increasingly authoritarian toward dissenting voices and the rights of journalists to be critical of government action and political parties. Media outlets and independent writers are gradually finding themselves in a tougher environment to do their job of informing the public of the truth.
An unfortunate example of the risks journalists faces while working in Lebanon is the loss of our fellow writer and activist, Lokman Slim. Lokman was a long-time critic of Hezbollah and other parties that belonged to the sectarian ruling class. But he directed his most fiery and brisk denunciation at the heart of where he believed Lebanon’s problems lie: Hezbollah. He was found dead in the south of Lebanon, a region Hezbollah has the strongest influence in the country. His death was gruesome. Four bullets to the head and one in the back. Why did he die? Because someone thought his beliefs “crossed the line.” Lokman himself came from a Shia Muslim background but refused to allow Hezbollah to have the monopoly on the Shia community from which it claims to draw its legitimacy. Such a grim reality cannot be ignored. Organizations and individuals have taken notice of the shift in how the media is being treated on the ground in Lebanon.
Freedom House, a non-partisan human rights organization that monitors the levels of democratic freedoms across the globe, reported signs of substantial self-censorship in Lebanon by journalists and bloggers. It found in 2019 that self-censorship has increased in the blogosphere and in top media circles out of fear of offending certain sectarian voices in the government.
The study also revealed how highly partisan the official media is in Lebanon because of its connections to the political class. Thankfully, because of internet access and the rise of digital media, it is challenging the system’s power in controlling the flow of information. However, government officials are using other means to block independent voices from delivering the news.
Journalists who are friends and acquittances have spoken up about how difficult things have become when exercising their right of freedom of expression. Tarek Hmaidan, founder and CEO of Thawra TV, a channel dedicated to supporting the principles of Lebanon’s 2019 revolution, spoke to The National Interest about the frustrations independent media faces while trying to cover events in Lebanon.
“At the Parliament, they don’t let us work freely and now won’t let us go in. Ever since independent MPs Najat Saliba and Melhem Khalaf started their sit-in in Parliament in objection to the lack of a president, some independent media have lost access.” Tarek also talked about Lokman Slim and why he believed he was marked for death. “He was Shia criticizing Shia. This put him in a dangerous situation. If he was Christian, Druze, or any other religion, maybe they would not have killed him.” The point Hmaidan was making is: some members of the sectarian class do not tolerate criticism from those of their same confession. Instead, they are deemed traitors and must pay a penalty. Regardless of the motivation behind Lokman’s killing, the current environment makes people hesitate to speak and write with confidence that no harm will come to them.
Diana Moukallah, a journalist who works with Daraj Media, commented to TNI on today’s climate regarding free speech issues. “I believe it’s the mother of all battles here in Lebanon as the intimidation is increasing. If Lebanon loses the battle, then, the whole meaning of the country is lost for good. From the case of journalists being summoned to the case of imposing prior permission on lawyers to give interviews to the rising grip on mainstream media, I believe we are battling a vicious ruling class trying to impose restrictions on free speech.”
If journalists in Lebanon start believing their voices could be silenced through blackmail or violence, the situation will worsen. Hmaidan expressed support for the idea that independent journalists should “unify and form a type of union to protect one another.” Without solidarity, true journalism will perish. It is time to put the criteria for free media protection back on the table if Lebanon is to have any serious chance of rebuilding what it once had as a democratic way of life.
Adnan Nasser is an independent foreign policy analyst and journalist with a focus on Middle East affairs. Follow him on Twitter @Adnansoutlook29.