- The state-owned telecom company OGERO launched a national internet strategy in February 2018 to deploy a fiber-optic network to be completed by 2020 (see Availability and Ease of Access).
- There was an alarming crackdown on online freedom of expression in the past year, with several individuals arrested and prosecuted for criticizing top government officials. At least one individual was sentenced to prison for online posts criticizing the government (see Prosecutions and Arrests for Online Activities).
- In January, Ahmed Al-Ayoubi, a freelance journalist who had been arrested in November 2017 for criticizing Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil on Facebook, was beaten by three men in Tripoli as he left his house (see Intimidation and Violence).
- A largescale cyberespionage campaign operating from a building of the General Directorate of General Security in Beirut was uncovered by security researchers at the digital rights organization Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and mobile security firm Lookout in January 2018 (see Technical Attacks).
Internet freedom declined in Lebanon during the coverage period due to increasing arrests, prosecutions, and violent attacks against individuals for online posts that criticized government officials.
Lebanon held long-awaited parliamentary elections in May 2018. For the first time, nonresident Lebanese citizens were able to register online to vote from their current country of residency, though voter turnout was unexpectedly low, registering at just 49 percent. Prior to the elections, government officials cracked down on free expression online by arresting, prosecuting, and filing libel or defamation charges against several critics.
One individual was sentenced to prison during the coverage period. In March 2018, Michel Qanabour, a journalist working for the news site Lebanon Debate, was sentenced to six months in prison and forced to pay a US$6,666 fine for an August 2017 article that criticized the director general of customs. Several others were arrested for criticizing top government officials, particularly President Michael Aoun, Prime Minister Saad Hariri, Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, and Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri.
Government critics also experienced violent attacks in retribution for their online activities. In January 2018, Ahmed al-Ayoubi, a freelance journalist who had been arrested in November 2017 for criticizing Gebran Bassil on Facebook, was beaten by three men in Tripoli as he left his house. In February, Rabia Demaj, the editor of the website Radar Scoop, was stabbed and beaten in his own home, though the motive for the attack is unclear.
Surveillance became a growing concern. In January 2018, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and mobile security firm Lookout reported that major surveillance operation nicknamed with nation-state level capabilities, nicknamed “Dark Caracal,” was operating out of a building of the General Directorate of General Security in Beirut. Targets included military personnel, government officials, activists, journalists, and lawyers in 21 countries. The operation developed a unique mobile surveillance malware, which was able to extract hundreds of gigabytes of data from Android devices via spearphishing tactics against Facebook and WhatsApp users.
Lebanon suffers from a weak telecommunications infrastructure, expensive communications services, and a digital divide between urban and rural areas. However, leaders appear intent on improving the country’s information and communications technology (ICT) sector. In November 2017, Imad Kreidieh, the chairman of OGERO, promised to bring a fiber-optic cable to Lebanon. Nevertheless, the internet remains relatively slow and expensive.1
Availability and Ease of Access
According to the latest data from the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), an estimated 76 percent of the population have access to the internet users, a marked increase from 44 percent in 2010.2 There were 67.24 mobile broadband subscriptions per 100 residents in 2016, up from 57.7 in 2015.3 Lebanon also scored an Internet Development Index (IDI) value—a metric that ranks internet use, access, and skills—of 6.30 in 2017, improving from 6.09 in 2016. Lebanon’s current rank is well above the world average of 5.11 and only behind Bahrain, Qatar, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Oman in the MENA region. Lebanon’s “use IDI” ranks higher relative to its overall IDI, which demonstrates that inadequate infrastructure is ultimately limiting use.4
Lebanon has the most expensive prepaid phone data in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, according to 2017 research.5 Internet subscription prices are set by the government, and internet Service Providers (ISPs) cannot lower prices unless a decree is issued by the Ministry of Telecommunications.6 Some positive efforts to reduce costs for consumers include Tariff Decree Number 6297, adopted in 2011, which allowed for 20 percent discounts on DSL prices in educational institutions, and Decree Number 8058, issued in 2012, which made internet access free between midnight and 7 AM, and free all day in public parks.7
In April 2017, OGERO (Organisme de Gestion et d'Exploitation de l'ex Radio Orient)—the backbone infrastructure of telecommunications networks in Lebanon and a subsidiary of the Ministry of Telecommunications8 —proposed a new plan to decrease internet prices and increase internet speeds in Beirut.9
https://smex.org/a-breakdown-of-the-proposed-ogero-internet-speeds-and-… The plan was still pending the approval of the government in 2018.
In a highly publicized campaign in February 2018, OGERO officially relaunched a new version of its national internet strategy, which was first introduced to the public in November 2017. Imad Kreidieh, chairman director general of OGERO, stated that the strategy aims to bring FTTx—a combination of fiber to the home, fiber to the office, and fiber to the cabinet, to the majority of Lebanon.10 In October 2017, the Council of Ministers allocated US$100 million to OGERO for an unnamed fiber-optic cable.11 Following the February announcement of the FTTx project, OGERO awarded contracts to three Lebanese companies that “will partner with international vendors:” Power Tech with the Norway-based Nokia, BMB Group with the US-based Calix, and SERTA with the Chinese-based Huawei. Moreover, OGERO announced that it expects this project will bring in US$1 billion in revenue.12
Restrictions on Connectivity
The government periodically restricts mobile or internet connectivity. From August 2014 to September 2017, mobile internet was inaccessible in Arsal, a town in northeastern Lebanon, for “security” reasons, according to former telecommunications minister Boutros Harb.13 Though the internet has since been restored, there is no law in place to prevent the government from ordering a similar shutdown, and the Telecommunications Law provides it with the authority to do so again.14
The Lebanese government maintains a monopoly over the internet backbone, as well as over the fixed and mobile telephone industry in general, and therefore it exercises tight control over ISPs. Lebanon has three international border gateways—in Beirut, Jdeideh, and Tripoli—where three underwater fiber-optic cables connect the country via the I-ME-WE (India-Middle East-Western Europe), Cadmos, and Berytar cables.15 The gateways are all operated by OGERO.
In 2010, OGERO installed equipment to block voice over internet protocol (VoIP) throughout the network, but subsequently backed down under pressure from businesses, civil society, and politicians. The blocking was inconsistently applied: the VoIP service Vonage was blocked, while other VoIP services such as Skype and WhatsApp remained available.16 VoIP services are technically restricted under the 2002 Telecommunications Law, also known as Law 431/2002,17 and the government has been somewhat vague about its enforcement.18
The telecommunications industry is largely government-owned and tightly regulated.19 The fixed-line telephone and internet network is owned and operated by OGERO, from which all companies must purchase services. In addition to running the backbone, OGERO, which claims it has approximately 41 percent of the market share (290,000 of 700,000 official subscribers), sets internet prices and collectively manages online subscriptions with two dozen private ISPs, including Cyberia, Terranet Sodetel, and IDM.20 21 22 OGERO reduced the monthly fee that ISPs pay for the E1 line, which enables voice telephone calls, from US$1,000 in 2014 to US$110 in 2018.23
Private ISPs currently obtain a permit by decree from the Ministry of Telecommunications.24 Crucially, political influence can affect the allocation of contracts to private ISPs and mobile phone operators.25 In addition to the official ISPs, there are approximately 120 “semi-legal” ISPs operating in a “gray zone.” These ISPs are potentially connecting an additional 500,000 lines to the internet. The “gray zone” providers formerly purchased internet service internationally, but between 2014 and 2015 OGERO sold them access to its line at a reduced price.26 Prior to OGERO’s decision to allow private ISPs, former telecommunications minister Harb tried to penalize them by issuing complaints to the public prosecutor in an effort to put an end to “people extending internet services through illegal means.”27
Lebanon has two government-owned mobile phone companies, Alfa and Touch, which are managed by the private companies Orascom Telecom Holdings and Zain, respectively.28 Because the government sets prices and issues permits for the number of subscriptions allowed, there is little competition in the industry, and the two companies split the market evenly.29
Lebanese media and telecommunications laws are regulated by three semi-independent advisory bodies that report to the Council of Ministers. The National Council for Audiovisual Media and the Committee for Establishing Model Bylaws and Practices deal mainly with audiovisual media (TV, radio, and satellite), while the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA) is responsible for liberalizing, regulating, and developing the telecommunications sector; it has not issued an annual report since 2015. Overall, the three bodies are limited in their power and do not have a reputation for being particularly robust or independent regulators.
The TRA is nominally independent from the government, but in practice, influential political groups hold sway over the institution, often rendering it ineffective.30 The Ministry of Telecommunications retrains the strongest influence over the ICT sector. In fact, the past three telecommunications ministers claimed that the TRA has no real authority, given that the law establishing its powers has not yet been implemented.31 Tellingly, since its launch in 2007, many of the TRA’s objectives have not been met, including the transition from analogue to digital networks and the privatization of the telecommunications sector.
In January 2017, Abdel-Moneim Youssef was dismissed from his two posts as head of state-run telecommunications company OGERO and director general of investment and maintenance at the Ministry of Telecommunications. Youssef is now under investigation for corruption and negligence.32 The government subsequently appointed two replacements: Imad Kreidieh as head of OGERO, and Bassel Al-Ayyoubi as director general of investment and maintenance at the Telecommunications Ministry.
- 1Najib Mitri, “Quick Recap from Ogero Head’s Q&A Facebook Session”, Blog Baladi, April 6, 2017. http://blogbaladi.com/quick-recap-from-ogero-heads-qa-facebook-session/
- 2ICT Development Index 2017: Lebanon”, International Telecommunications Union, (n.d). http://www.itu.int/net4/ITU-D/idi/2017/index.html#idi2017economycard-ta…
- 3Phillippa Biggs et. al., The State of Broadband: Broadband catalyzing sustainable development, International Telecommunications Union, September 2016. http://www.broadbandcommission.org/documents/reports/bb-annualreport201…; “Measuring the Information Society Report 2017 Vol. 1” International Telecommunications Union, June 16, 2017,. https://www.itu.int/en/ITU-D/Statistics/Documents/publications/misr2017…
- 5Lara Bitar, “Why Boycott Lebanon's Mobile Phone Operators, Alfa and touch?”, SMEX, January 5, 2017. https://smex.org/why-boycott-lebanons-mobile-phone-operators-alfa-and-t…
- 6Livia Murray, "Four reasons Lebanon's internet is so slow", Executive Magazine, April, 8, 2015, http://bit.ly/1aufiXc.
- 7Progress Report 2013, Ministry of Telecommunications, January 13, 2014. http://www.mpt.gov.lb/documents/AnnualReports/MOT_brochure_en-corr.pdf
- 9Mariam Al-Shafie, “A Breakdown of the Proposed OGERO Internet Speeds and Prices”, SMEX, April 26, 2017.
- 10“Ogero Connecting the Nation”, Telecom Review, February 12, 2018. http://telecomreview.com/index.php/articles/exclusive-interviews/2045-o…
- 11Shikrallah Nikhoul, “$100 million to Ogero for fiber optic project”, Business News, October 6, 2017. http://www.businessnews.com.lb/cms/Story/StoryDetails.aspx?ItemID=6250
- 12Samer Rasbey, “Three local companies win tender to lay fiber optic network”, Business News, February 15, 2018. http://www.businessnews.com.lb/cms/Story/StoryDetails.aspx?ItemID=6407
- 13Elham Barjas, “Two Years of Collective Punishment: Mobile Data Remains Inaccessible to Arsal Residents”, SMEX, March 21, 2017. https://smex.org/two-years-of-collective-punishment-mobile-data-remains…
- 14حرية الانترنت في لبنان, Maharat Foundation, May 3rd, 2018. http://www.maharatfoundation.org/internetfreedom
- 15Murray, "Four reasons Lebanon's internet is so slow," Executive Magazine, April, 8, 2015. http://bit.ly/1aufiXc.
- 16Telecoms 2013 Progress Report, Tayyar, January 3, 2014. http://bit.ly/1oa28kP.
- 17Imad Atalla, “Lebanon is stifling your digital freedom,” The Daily Star, June 8, 2010. http://bit.ly/1QoURu9..
- 18Telecoms 2013 Progress Report, Tayyar, January 3, 2014. http://bit.ly/1oa28kP
- 20“Facts and Figures,” Telecommunications Regulatory Authority, December 2011. http://www.tra.gov.lb/Market-Data-Facts-and-figures. http://www.businessnews.com.lb/cms/Story/StoryDetails.aspx?ItemID=6187
- 21Rania Ghanem, “Service providers reduce internet charges 50 percent”, Business News, August 11, 2017. http://www.businessnews.com.lb/cms/Story/StoryDetails.aspx?ItemID=6187
- 22Matt Nash, “Unleash the speed: Ogero flips a switch and local internet transforms”, Executive Magazine, May 11, 2017. http://www.executive-magazine.com/economics-policy/unleash-the-speed
- 24According to the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA), it is TRA’s prerogative to assess and grant license to ISPs, but the past three ministers of telecommunication have considered that the TRA has no legal authority to do so, and the ministry has used an old law as a basis for their right to grant such license. See below for conflicts between the TRA and the Telecommunications Ministry.
- 25Jad Melki, et. al., Mapping Digital Media: Lebanon, Open Society Foundations, May 2012, 89. http://osf.to/1EOX3Kt.
- 26Matt Nash, “Unleash the speed: Ogero flips a switch and local internet transforms”, Executive Magazine, May 11, 2017. http://www.executive-magazine.com/economics-policy/unleash-the-speed
- 27“Lebanon telecoms minister launches crackdown on illegal internet providers,” The Daily Star, March 8, 2016, http://bit.ly/2oOzM4Y.
- 28“About Us”, Touch. http://bit.ly/1MhupRM; “About Alfa”, Alfa. https://www.alfa.com.lb/aboutus/companyinfo.aspx.
- 29“The Next Step,” The Business Year, 2012. http://www.thebusinessyear.com/publication/article/2/48/lebanon-2012/th….
- 30Melki, et. al., Mapping Digital Media: Lebanon, Open Society Foundations, May 2012, 34 and 82.
- 31Sami Halabi, “Redialing discord?”, Executive Magazine, July 3, 2011. http://bit.ly/1JUw5xC.
- 32Joseph A. Kechichian, “Lebanese government sacks telecom chief”, Gulf News, January 05, 2017. http://gulfnews.com/news/mena/lebanon/lebanese-government-sacks-telecom…
Lebanon does not engage in significant filtering of internet content. A total of 50 websites have been intermittently blocked since 2015, mainly for content related to escort services, Israel, and gambling. Website owners, particularly news sites, often receive informal removal requests from public officials or other powerful figures. Despite these limitations, Lebanon retains one of the most diverse digital landscapes in the Arab world, and several nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) engage in digital activism on political and social issues.
Blocking and Filtering
A total of 50 websites remained inconsistently blocked in Lebanon, according to a SMEX study from 2015.1 Among the websites blocked were 23 sites related to escort services, blocked in accordance with articles 523 and 524 of the penal code; 11 Israeli sites, in accordance with Decree 12562 of April 19, 1963, which called for the boycotting of Israel; 8 gambling websites, in accordance with Law 417 of 1995, which gives the “Casino Du Liban” exclusive rights to the gambling industry; 2 websites that breached copyright, following a request from the U.S. government; and one website identified as a forum for lesbians in the Arab region. Article 534 of the penal code criminalizes “sexual intercourse contrary to the order of nature” with up to one year in prison, and has been used to prosecute LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) individuals.2
While many of these blocking orders are rooted in the law, the move to block six well-known pornographic websites for alleged child pornography drew the ire of some digital rights activists for the seemingly haphazard manner in which they were chosen.3
Websites are blocked through court orders. Generally, the court receives a complaint and files it with the Cybercrimes Bureau for further investigation, later issuing a final order to the Ministry of Telecommunications, which then blocks the websites through OGERO. Website owners are not notified that their websites have been blocked, but still must appeal the blocking within 48 hours in order to have the decision overturned. In November 2014, the head of the Cybercrimes Bureau stated that it was monitoring terrorist content and that it had the ability to filter websites connected with terrorism.4 Digital media specialists in Lebanon have expressed doubt about the bureau’s abilities in this regard, though its intention to filter the web has drawn criticism.
YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and international blog-hosting services are freely available. Facebook, Google, YouTube, Microsoft’s Live.com, and Wikipedia rank among the ten most visited websites in Lebanon.5
Content Removal Requests
While filtering remains rare, there have been incidents in which government security officials pressured individuals and ISPs to remove certain comments—mainly criticism of government officials or the army—from social media pages, blogs, or websites. This often occurs after citizens have been arrested.
In March 2017, Salim Jreissati, the minister of justice, ordered Myriam Klink, a Lebanese pop singer, to remove her recent video clip “Goal,” one day after he held a meeting with Minister of Information Melhem Riachi over the matter.6 The lyrics talk about “scoring a football goal,” which authorities deemed as too sexually explicit, and labeled the video’s inclusion of a child as a form of “exploitation.” A press statement from Jreissati’s office announced that displaying, distributing, or circulating the music video online was strictly prohibited. Violating the decision could result in a LL 50 million (US$33,105) penalty.7
The government continued to request user account information from major companies such as Google, Twitter, and Facebook. For the first time since Facebook began reporting government takedown requests, the company restricted access to two pieces of content in Lebanon “in response to private reports related to defamation” between July and December of 2017.8
Media, Diversity and Content Manipulation
Despite evidence of some filtering, taboo subjects that would normally be banned from mainstream media outlets, such as pornography, content supportive of Israel, and sectarian hate speech, are generally available online. However, self-censorship is common in the blogosphere and in the top media outlets, which are owned by powerful figures from all sides of the political spectrum. Users often fear repercussions from the government or certain political and sectarian groups if they post controversial content. Because promoting or supporting LGBT causes is a crime under the penal code, content about the LGBT community operates in a legal gray zone and has faced censorship
Lebanese users have access to a variety of local and international news and media. Reflecting Lebanon’s political fragmentation, Lebanese media is highly partisan and controlled by the dominant politico-sectarian actors. Elite families directly involved in politics own several prominent media outlets.9 10 For example, former Prime Minister Saad Hariri and his family own Future TV, print publications Al-Mustaqbal and the Daily Star, and a host of other online and offline media outlets. Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri partially owns the National Broadcasting Network and its affiliates, while Hezbollah controls a vast network of media outlets, including Al-Manar TV and Al-Nour radio. Dominant political figures choose the heads of these outlets, and their news content often advances a particular partisan message. Furthermore, the structure of the Lebanese media encourages foreign and business interests to invest money in these companies in exchange for influence.11
Though bots have not been documented extensively in Lebanon, some outlets believe that Saudi bots were responsible for amplifying the “Lebanese Against Hezbollah” hashtag that became popular after Prime Minister Hariri announced his resignation in November 2017.12
While relatively pluralistic, the media landscape is dominated by the agendas of powerful politico-sectarian leaders and their allies, often overshadowing the voices of minority groups.13 Politicians are also known to bribe the few independent news outlets and journalists that do exist, particularly during election periods. Independent digital media outlets struggle for sustainability due to Lebanon’s relatively weak digital advertising market. Choueiri Media Group dominates the television market, capturing between 60 and 70 percent of television advertising revenue.14 The majority of advertising revenue continues to come from television and other traditional media, while digital sources only made up around 13 percent of total advertising spending as of 2015.15 One of the main obstacles in boosting the digital advertising market is Lebanon’s slow and unreliable internet. 16
In recent years, civil society organizations and individual actors have used the internet as a primary or secondary tool to extend the reach of their national awareness-raising campaigns:
- The Lebanese Democratic Women’s Gathering (RDFL), a secular NGO that promotes gender equality, launched a campaign in October 2017 to highlight the cost of child marriage and to pressure parliament members to set the legal age of marriage for both men and women at 18. The campaign, titled #NotBefore18 (#مش_قبل_ال١٨), disseminated its message across several social media channels. According to the organization's own reporting, campaign posts generated hundreds of thousands of views across Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube. It also received 216,000 impressions on Twitter in 28 days, after high-profile users shared their content.
- In January 2018, Human Rights Watch launched an online campaign demanding that authorities curtail the open burning of waste.17 The campaign, which used #StopTheBurning to spread its message, gained more attention and popularity after a storm in January 2018 brought waste onto Lebanon’s coast.18
- In April 2018, The Great Departed, a Lebanese band, alleged that the iTunes Middle East Platform had prevented it from uploading five songs because they were “inappropriate for the Arab world.” In response, SMEX and The Great Departed launched a Change.org petition. Two days after the petition, an iTunes representative contacted the band and informed them that Qanawat, a Dubai-based content aggregator, had been responsible for refusing to upload the song, and put the band in touch with another aggregator so the songs could be uploaded.19
- 1Mohamad Najem, “Mapping Blocked Websites in Lebanon 2015," SMEX, March, 26, 2015, http://bit.ly/1NiBh2Z.
- 2Sophie Chamas, “The fight goes on for Lebanon’s LGBT community,” Al Monitor, June 15, 2015, http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2015/06/lebanon-lgbt-gay-righ….
- 3According to reports, the order came after an alleged child molester in Lebanon was reported to the Cybercrime and Intellectual Property Rights Bureau from a police station in Manchester, UK. Sources from the Cybercrime and Intellectual Property Rights Bureau who were present during the interrogation of the accused individual revealed that the websites were chosen because they appeared in the browser history of his personal laptop, and not necessarily because they published child pornography. A prominent Lebanese blogger and social media expert wrote that the websites were among the most famous pornographic websites worldwide and were unlikely to feature child pornography, given that they are not censored in other countries that ban child pornography. See Imad Bazzi, "كيف ولماذا حجبت المواقع الإباحية في لبنان؟"[How and Why Six Porn Websites were Banned in Lebanon], September, 3, 2014, http://trella.org/4234. , and Samir Kassir Eyes, "النيابة العامة تأمر بحجب ستة واقع إباحية في إطار مكافحة التحرش بالأطفال" [General Prosecutor Orders the blocking of Six Porn sites], Skeyes Center for Media and Cultural Freedom, September, 2, 2014, http://www.skeyesmedia.org/ar/News/Lebanon/4728.
- 4Dhouha Ben Youssef, “Arab IGF III: What we will remember,” Nawaat, December 3, 2014, http://nawaat.org/portail/2014/12/03/arab-igf-iii-what-we-will-remember/.
- 5“Top Sites in Lebanon”, Alexa, accessed October 16, 2016. http://www.alexa.com/topsites/countries/LB.
- 6Fionn Hargreaves, “Fans who share raunchy music video of a Lebanese pop star writhing on a bed are threatened with a $32,000 fine by the country's justice department”, Daily Mail, March 6, 2017. http://dailym.ai/2qe2Lmz
- 7“Myriam Klink's provocative music video banned by Minister of Justice”, The Daily Star, March 4, 2017. http://bit.ly/2qlzz9t
- 8“Government Requests to Remove Content”, Facebook Transparency Report, Facebook, May 15, 2018. https://transparencyreport.google.com/government-removals/by-country/LB…
- 9Melki et. Al., Mapping Digital Media: Lebanon, 21-22.
- 10Sarah El-Richani, The Lebanese Media: Anatomy of a System in Perpetual Crisis”, Palgrave McMillan, 2016, 103-105.
- 11Nabil Dajani, “The Myth of Media Freedom in Lebanon”, Arab Media and Society, Issue 18, Summer 2013, 3.
- 12Rosie Alfatlawi, “Are Saudi Bots Behind Hashtag ‘Lebanese Against Hezbollah’”, Al Bawaba, November 12, 2017. https://www.albawaba.com/loop/original-saudis-behind-lebanese-hezbollah…
- 13Melki et. Al., Mapping Digital Media: Lebanon, 56-58.
- 14El-Richani, The Lebanese Media: Anatomy of a System in Perpetual Crisis”, 123.
- 15Marwan Mikhael and Lana Saadeh, “Digital Advertising in Lebanon,” Blominvest Bank, October 23, 2015, http://blog.blominvestbank.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/Digital-Adver….
- 16Elias Sakr, “Online advertising untapped in Lebanon,” The Daily Star, April 20, 2012, http://bit.ly/1Q1IH9T.
- 17“Lebanon: Waste Crisis Posing the Health Risks,” Human Rights Watch, December 1, 2017. https://www.hrw.org/news/2017/12/01/lebanon-waste-crisis-posing-health-…
- 18“Lebanon rubbish: Storm dumps pules of waste along the coast”, BBC, January 23, 2018. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-42788829
- 19“Against iTunes Middle East Censorship”, Change.org, May 11, 2018. https://www.change.org/p/apple-against-itunes-middle-east-censorship-%D…; Maghie Gali, “The great departure from iTunes ME”, The Daily Star, May 16, 2018. http://www.dailystar.com.lb/Arts-and-Ent/Culture/2018/May-16/449527-the…
Lebanon lacks a legal framework to protect user rights. There was an alarming crackdown on online freedom of expression in the past year, with several individuals arrested and prosecuted for criticizing top government officials. At least one individual was sentenced to prison for online posts criticizing the government. Two individuals experienced violent attacks. A large spyware campaign operating out of a General Directorate of General Security building in Beirut was uncovered in January 2018.
The constitution guarantees freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, and freedom of the press. In 2016, the Court of Cassation ended the debate over which law regulates speech promulgated on social media in Lebanon, opting to place it under the jurisdiction of the penal code instead of the Publications Court.1 Because the Publications Law does not explicitly refer to electronic publishing and websites, the Criminal Court of Cassation used the general definition of publication from legal articles to decide whether a given website qualified as a press publication. Social networking websites, including Facebook, allow subscribers to publish their news, photos, and opinions on their personal accounts; some of these accounts are public, while others are restricted to chosen friends only.
Despite the fact that social media posts contain letters, forms, words, and pictures, the court decided that social media posts are special publications not intended for distribution to the public on an ongoing basis, in a specific name, and with successive parts. Therefore, social media content is not subject to the regulations relating to the Publications Law; instead, the court ruled definitively that it is subject to the penal code, which has less protections for individuals.2 The authorities use article 317, which penalizes those who incite sectarianism or racial strife; articles 383 to 387, which criminalize the defamation of public officials and the insulting of national emblems; and articles 473 and 474, which concern blasphemy and religious rituals, to prosecute legitimate online speech.
Prosecutions and Detentions for Online Activities
During the reporting period, there was an alarming crackdown on online freedom of expression. In the past year, several individuals were arrested and prosecuted for criticizing top government officials, particularly President Michael Aoun, Prime Minister Saad Hariri, Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, and Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri:
- In June 2018 (after this report’s coverage period), journalist Fidaa Itani was sentenced to four months in prison for a Facebook post that criticized the president, foreign minister, and others for the alleged torture and deaths of Syrian refugees in custody.3
- In March 2018, Michel Qanabour, a journalist working for the news site Lebanon Debate, was sentenced to six months in prison and forced to pay a US$6,666 fine for an article he wrote in August 2017. Officially, he was charged with “defamation, libel, and publication of fake news.” The article criticized the director general of customs for not enforcing the taxation of certain items in Tripoli, where his wife is director of customs.4
- In January 2018, activist Tima Hayek was detained for criticizing the Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri. Posting on Facebook, she had expressed solidarity with Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil and indirectly referenced his comments that Berri is a “thug.”5
- In January 2018, army intelligence arrested Abadat Yusuf for a series of Facebook posts criticizing Aoun, Bassil, Hariri, and Berri. Yusuf was detained for three days after he was interrogated at an army base in the Bekaa. He was then transferred to Zahle.6
- In October 2017, the ISF detained activist Firas Bou Hatoum for a post he published on Facebook, which criticized Gebran Bassil. 7
- Political activist Handy Gerges was arrested in August 2017 for a Facebook post that allegedly defamed Aoun, Bassil, and Hariri. The ISF detained her on a Friday, a common tactic used to keep people “legally” detained over the weekend, and she was released on bail the following Monday.8 Social media users had demanded Gerges’ release and national news outlets covered the issue. The ISF requested that she delete her posts.
Government officials also filed legal complaints against those who have questioned or critiqued them online:
- Parliament member Nicolas Fattoush sued Manal Shayya, a journalist for Annahar, in February 2018, but it is unclear what article sparked the suit.9 Previously, Shayya had written about the attempt of Pierre, Fattoush’s brother, to build a cement factory in Ain Dara.10 Also in February, the court ruled that Toni Abi Najem, the editor of the IMLebanon news site, had to pay LL 1 million (US$665) to the Fattoush brothers because he criticized them on Facebook in 2015, as well as at a conference.11
- In February 2018, Major General Jamil al-Sayyed, who was suspected of involvement in Rafik Hariri’s assassination, sued MTV News anchor Jessica Azar after she criticized his actions in the 1990s in a tweet.12 Al-Sayyed also threatened to sue veteran journalist May Chidiac for a tweet that accused the general of being responsible for the assassination attempt that left her without a leg in 2005.13
- Likewise, Gebran Bassil filed a legal complaint against Fidaa Itani after he criticized Gebran, the president, and others in a post he wrote on Facebook that stated Syrian refugees had been tortured and killed in Lebanon. Itani was released on July 11, 2017, one day after his detention, and he was not formally charged, though he was forced to remove the Facebook post.14
While most of the arrests have concerned political rhetoric, the state has also detained individuals for posting speech that insults or challenges religious norms. While none of these individuals have been prosecuted, they are often detained for many days, and their cases frequently remain open even after they are released. In November 2017, 65-year-old poet Ahmed ‘Mustafa’ Sbeity was detained for a Facebook post in which he made a sexual innuendo about the Virgin Mary. The authorities detained Sbeity for fifteen days, finally releasing him on December 13, 2017 on LL 500,000 (US$331) bail. Many in the Christian media demanded that the authorities take harsh action against him.15
The public prosecutor also has ordered security forces to detain netizens, who are sometimes subjected to long interrogations, particularly at the Cybercrime Bureau. The bureau was established in 2006 without a legislative decree that outlined its mandate or defined cybercrime.16 It often pressures social media users to apologize for their posts, delete controversial content, and sign a letter promising not to harm those offended in the future. While some cases have reached the court, few are not publicly known.
Surveillance, Privacy, and Anonymity
Mass digital surveillance in Lebanon is facilitated by the weak legal framework on digital privacy. Article 14 of the constitution “ensures the inviolability of the home,” but it is unclear if this law applies to private communications.17 The Telecommunications Interception Act of 1999 (Law 140/1999) nominally protects the secrecy of communications, but it has limitations and does not mention modern forms of electronic communication. Moreover, the law gives the government the right to surveil communications if a judge grants government agencies access, or if the ministry of interior or minister of defense submits a request to the prime minister for matters concerning “combating terrorism, state security, or crimes related to state security.”18 Therefore, the legal framework gives the government a wide mandate to conduct surveillance.
In recent years, the cabinet has passed a motion giving the security agencies unhindered access to all telecommunications metadata, for periods ranging between four months and one year. Alfa and touch, the two telecommunications companies, are compelled to comply because they are owned by the government. In October 2017, the cabinet gave the security agencies renewed access for a period of only four months, after some ministers raised concerns. The cabinet requested that security apparatuses no longer have unhindered access to telecommunications data in the future.19 Additionally, intelligence agencies have separate links to different politicians or parties, and in turn their own agendas, which has led to privacy violations.
For years, the government has used various forms of spyware, but the largest campaign was revealed in the past year. In January 2018, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and Lookout, a mobile security firm, reported that Dark Caracal, a major surveillance operation with nation-state level capabilities, was operating out of a General Directorate of General Security building in Beirut.20 Targets included military personnel, government officials, activists, journalists, and lawyers in 21 countries. The operation developed a unique mobile surveillance-ware tool, dubbed Pallas, which was able to extract hundreds of gigabytes of data from Android devices. Using spearphishing tactics, Dark Caracal sent links to Facebook and WhatsApp users that redirected them to a “watering hole” to download fake applications trojanized with malware. These applications were counterfeit versions of WhatsApp, Threema, Signal, Psiphon, Tor, and other secure messaging and circumvention applications. The malware had the ability to extract messages and phone calls, download applications, monitor calls, and upload files onto Android devices. Additionally, the operation also used more traditional malware such as CrossRAT and BandookRAT to extract information from desktop devices. The researchers observed that the campaign did not require a high level of sophistication, but it was effective nonetheless.
Prior to Dark Caracal, the government had used other types of spyware to surveil citizens and residents. Security agencies have used surveillance technologies such as FinFisher, Bluecoat PacketShaper, and IMSI catchers.21 Wikileaks exposed the government’s use of FinFisher, which is sold exclusively to law enforcement agencies and allows them to exploit system updates on targets’ computers.
The rise in the use of biometric technologies by the security agencies has also highlighted the need for a strong data protection law, which currently does not exist. Since the General Directorate of General Security adopted biometric passports in the summer of 2016, the government has embarked on more questionable identification initiatives.22 Without a data protection law or a judiciary committee, it is unclear if the biometric data is actually being protected.23 In an October 2017 report, SMEX described the weak legal framework regarding personal data and the dangers posed by the authorities’ increased dependence on biometric identification.24
In April 2017, the government announced that it would begin issuing biometric residence permits to foreigners.25 The government elected to issue biometric election cards as well, but it ultimately abandoned the idea due to a lack of resources and time constraints. Then, in December, the Ministry of Telecommunications proposed the introduction of biometric SIM Cards, which would force every person who purchases a SIM card to provide biometric information. The ministry did not expand on how this plan would work in a country where people routinely purchase mobile phones from private shops, but it cited “security concerns” as the reason for the proposal.26
Intimidation and Violence
Physical acts of violence in retaliation for online speech are rare in Lebanon, but some alarming incidents were documented during the reporting period. In January 2018, Ahmed Al-Ayoubi, a freelance journalist who had been arrested in November 2017 for criticizing Gebran Bassil on Facebook, was beaten by three men in Tripoli as he left his house.27 In February, Rabia Demaj, the editor of the website Radar Scoop, was stabbed and beaten in his own home, though the motive for the attack is unclear.28
In addition to violence, journalists sometimes face intimidation for their online comments. Marginalized groups also sometimes experience threats. For example, in September 2017, the Facebook page Where is the State, which regularly posts videos of crimes and asks its followers to identify the alleged criminals, uploaded a video of a transgender woman engaging in a consensual sexual act with a man and asked its followers to identify and out the woman.29 Though the page has not targeted LGBT individuals since September, the incident illustrates the vulnerability of LGBT people and other marginalized groups, especially considering that the page has semi-official backing from the ISF.30
Lebanon also has issues with sextortion, a practice where predators attempt to convince targets to send them nude photographs and then blackmail them. The ISF claimed that they receive five or six complaints about such cases each day, but did not provide data on which groups are most commonly targeted.31
Cybersecurity firms have indicated a rise in cyberattacks on Lebanon in comparison to global averages. Cybersecurity breaches, cyber warfare, and criminal hacks have increased greatly in recent years. According to Ihab Chaaban, ICT security officer at the Office of the Minister of State for Administrative Reform (OMSAR), there has been a 4,000 percent increase in the rate of cyberattacks in the last five years.32
In May 2018, Kaspersky Lab, a Moscow-based cybersecurity firm, reported that it had identified a cyber espionage campaign, with servers based in Iran, that targeted Android users in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, and Iran.33 The operation had the capability to record audio and extract messages, browser data, GPS information, and images. While the Kaspersky Lab report provided no information about the Lebanese targets, it noted that the operation specifically targeted United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) employees in Jordan. In a follow-up interview with Motherboard, one of the researchers also noted that it targeted individuals who worked with international NGOs.34
Additionally, in April 2017, the website of the Lebanese Medical Association for Sexual Health (LebMASH) was defaced with a homophobic message, allegedly by an Israeli hacker. A LebMASH board member claimed the website was “totally destroyed,” but the site has since been restored and is running again.
- 1ما يرِد على صفحات «الفايسبوك» يخضع لقانون العقوبات لا «المطبوعات”. [What appears on ‘Facebook’ pages is subject to the penal code, not ‘publications’], Addiyar, February 15, 2016. https://goo.gl/5bXAfG
- 4"'سكايز' يُدين الحكم بسجن الصحافي قنبور ويطالب بالرجوع عنه وعدم إصدار أحكام مماثلة" [‘SKeyes’ condemns the prison sentence of journalist Michel Qanabour and demands his release and that similar judgments should not be issues], SKeyes, March 16, 2018. http://www.skeyesmedia.org/ar/SKeyes-Statements/Lebanon/7041; "فضيحة في مرفأ طرابلس" [A scandal in the port of Tripoli], Lebanon Debate, August 2, 2017. https://www.lebanondebate.com/news/345853
- 5“Une Libanaise incarcérée pour s'en être pris à Berry sur Facebook, affirme un avocat” [A Lebanese woman is Arrested for Attacking Berri on Facebook, according to a lawyer], L’orient le jour, February 1, 2018. https://www.lorientlejour.com/article/1097883/une-libanaise-incarceree-…; "الناشطة تيما حايك بقبضة المخابرات والتهمة… 'بوست' على 'فايسبوك'", [Activist Tima Hayek in the grip of intelligence and with a charge (for a) Facebook Post], IMLebanon, February 1, 2018. https://www.imlebanon.org/2018/02/01/tima-hayek-arrested-fb/
- 6"مخابرات الجيش تستدعي الناشط عبادة يوسف وتوقفه ثلاثة أيام بسبب منشورات على 'فايسبوك'” [Army intelligence calls Abadat Yusuf and detained him for three days because of Facebook posts], SLeyes, January 26, 2018. http://www.skeyesmedia.org/ar/News/Lebanon/6932
- 7"بعد الدعوى القضائية ضده الناشطhttps://www.al-akhbar.com/Media_Tv/240193 فراس بو حاطوم يعلق: باسيل يتقاضى راتبه من جيبي!" [After the lawsuit against him, activist Firas Bou Hatoum comments: ‘Bassil receives his salary from my pocket’], Janoubia, October 7, 2017. http://janoubia.com/2017/10/07/%D8%A8%D8%B9%D8%AF-%D8%B1%D9%81%D8%B9-%D…
- 8“Hanady Gerges Released in Tripoli,” National News Agency - Ministry of Information, August 14, 2017. http://nna-leb.gov.lb/en/show-news/82338/Hanady-Gerges-released-in-Trip…
- 9"محكمة المطبوعات تستدعي الصحافية منال شعيا بدعوى 'قدح وذمّ' على خلفية مقال" [Publications court calls for journalist Manal Shayya under the pretext of ‘insult and defamation’ on the basis of article], SKeyes, February 22, 2018. http://www.skeyesmedia.org/ar/News/Lebanon/6996
- 10Manal Shayya, "معمل الاسمنت... درّ الى عين دارة؟!", [Cement Factory...Turn to Ain Dara], Annahar, February 6, 2016. https://www.annahar.com/article/309559-%D9%85%D8%B9%D9%85%D9%84-%D8%A7%…
- 11"محكمة المطبوعات تُغرّم الصحافي طوني أبي نجم مبلغ مليون ليرة بدعوى فتوش" [Publications court fines journalist Toni Abi Najem 1 million Lebanese Lira due to Fattoush’s claim], SKeyes, March 1, 2018. http://www.skeyesmedia.org/ar/News/Lebanon/7007
- 12"لماذا يُقاضي جميل السيّد المذيعة جيسيكا عازار؟" [Why is Jamil al-Sayyed suing announcer Jessica Azzar], Al Modon, February 22, 2018. http://www.almodon.com/media/2018/2/22/%D9%84%D9%85%D8%A7%D8%B0%D8%A7-%…
- 13"اللواء السيّد يهدّد بمقاضاة الإعلامية مي شدياق في حال لم تسحب تغريدة عنه على 'تويتر'" [Major General al-Sayyed threatening to sue the media in case May Chidiac does not pull a tweet from Twitter], SKeyes, February 26, 2018. http://www.skeyesmedia.org/ar/News/Lebanon/7003
- 14Kareem Chehayeb, “Lebanese journalist released after overnight detention”, The Daily Star, July 11, 2017. http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Lebanon-News/2017/Jul-11/412397-lebane…
- 15“Free Mustafa Sbeity: With the Detention of Lebanese Poet, Authorities Show Lack of Grace,” SMEX, November 30, 2017. https://smex.org/freemustafasbeity-with-the-detention-of-lebanese-poet-…
- 16Ghida Frangieh, "Bureau of Cybercrimes: An Unorganized Online Censorship” [in Arabic], Legal Agenda, December 3, 2013, http://bit.ly/2q9xtdR
- 17Mohamad Najem and Lara Bitar, Mapping the Landscape of Digital Surveillance in Lebanon, SMEX, December 2016. https://www.smex.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/SMEX-Landscape-Mapping-…
- 18SMEX, State of Privacy: Lebanon, Privacy International, January 2018. https://privacyinternational.org/state-privacy/1081/state-privacy-leban…
- 19Yehia El Amine, “Security agencies maintain access to telecom data”, Annahar, April 27, 2016. http://nna-leb.gov.lb/en/show-news/84710/Cabinet-meets-in-ordinary-sess…
- 20Michael Flossman, Eva Galperin et. al, Dark Caracal: Cyberespionage at a Global Scale, Electronic Frontier Foundation & Lookout, January 18, 2018. https://info.lookout.com/rs/051-ESQ-475/images/Lookout_Dark-Caracal_srr…
- 21“SMEX Launches Inaugural Report on Digital Surveillance in Lebanon”, Social Media Exchange, December 14, 2016. https://smex.org/smex-launches-inaugural-report-on-digital-surveillance…
- 22“Biometric Lebanese passports issuance”, General Security, (n.d.). http://www.general-security.gov.lb/en/posts/182
- 23Mohamad Najem, “Questions the Lebanese Government Should Answer about the New Biometric Passports”, SMEX, July 19, 2016. https://smex.org/legitimate-questions-about-biometric-passport-lebanese…
- 24Elham Barjas and Hussein Mehdy “Building Trust: Towards a Legal Framework that Protects Personal Data in Lebanon”, SMEX, October 5, 2017. https://smex.org/building-trust-toward-a-legal-framework-that-protects-…
- 25“A brief History of Personal Data Collection in Lebanon”, SMEX, December 18, 2017. https://smex.org/a-brief-history-of-personal-data-collection-in-lebanon/
- 27"ثلاثة شبان يعتدون بالضرب على الصحافي أحمد الأيوبي في طرابلس" [Three young men beat journalist Ahmed al-Ayyubi in Tripoli], SKeyes, January 15, 2018. http://www.skeyesmedia.org/ar/News/Lebanon/6895; "ضوّ تعليقا على استمرار توقيف الأيوبي: نظام 'عضوميّ' جديد" [Daou’s comment on the continuation of the arrests with Al-ayoubi: A new ‘social’ system], Janoubia, November 18, 2017. http://janoubia.com/2017/11/18/%D8%B6%D9%88%D9%91-%D8%AA%D8%B9%D9%84%D9…
- 28"شخصان يقتحمان منزل الصحافي ربيع دمج في كفرشيما ويعتديان عليه بالضرب المبّرح" [Two people break into the home of journalist Rabia Demaj in Kfarshima and beat him severely], SKeyes, February 6, 2018. http://www.skeyesmedia.org/ar/News/Lebanon/6957
- 29“Online Vigilantism: A Threat To Justice in Lebanon”, SMEX, September 26, 2017. https://smex.org/online-vigilantism-a-threat-to-justice-in-lebanon/
- 30Kaveh Waddell, “Facebook Vigilantism is a Scary Thing”, The Atlantic, March 19, 2018. https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2018/03/the-moral-dil…
- 31Federica Marsi, “Sextorition is a growing concern in online crime”, The Daily Star, April 22, 2017. http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Lebanon-News/2017/Apr-22/402884-sextor…
- 32Jeremy Arbid, “The public sector's vulnerability to a cyberattack”, Executive Magazine, March 16, 2017. http://www.executive-magazine.com/cybersecurity/the-public-sectors-vuln…
- 33“Who’s Who in the Zoo: Cyberespionage Operation Targets Android Users in the Middle East”, Kaspersky Lab, May 2018. https://media.kasperskycontenthub.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/43/2018/…
- 34Joseph Cox, “Vigilante Hacks Government-Linked Cyberespionage Group”, Motherboard, May 10, 2018. https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/qvn4kq/vigilante-hacks-gover…
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Global Freedom Score43 100 partly free
Internet Freedom Score51 100 partly free