WASHINGTON—Congressman Alcee L. Hastings (D-FL), Co-Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (U.S. Helsinki Commission), and Commissioner Congressman Darrell E. Issa (R-CA) today expressed concern about reports that three citizens of Lebanon have been criminally charged for statements made about the country’s President on Facebook. The three have been charged with libel, defamation and insult under Lebanon’s penal code and could face up to two years in jail if convicted.
“Freedom of expression is a fundamental right of all people and an essential element of democracy,” said Hastings. “Putting people in jail for expressing political views is not only a violation of individual rights and of Lebanon’s commitments under international law, it creates a chilling effect on independent media which does not bode well for the consolidation of democracy in Lebanon.”
Co-Chairman Hastings also serves as Special Representative on Mediterranean Affairs for the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). During a visit to Lebanon in January Hastings encouraged President Suleiman and other government officials to re-engage in the OSCE process.
Congressman Issa called on the government of Lebanon to drop the charges against the defendants and to take steps to ensure free and vibrant political debate by reforming its penal code. “Lebanon has been a beacon of free expression in the Arab world and I hope that it will remain so” said Issa. “Clearly, laws against defamation in civil codes provide both private persons and public officials the opportunity to seek redress, including damages for alleged defamation. Therefore, criminal laws prohibiting defamation are unnecessary – and undemocratic.”
The Commission has consistently called for the elimination of criminal defamation statutes. Last week an international human rights panel passed a resolution by Commission Chairman, Senator Benjamin L. Cardin (D-MD), aimed at strengthening press freedoms and protection for investigative journalists. The measure calls for countries to repeal criminal defamation laws, increase the free flow of information, and actively investigate and vigorously prosecute those responsible for threats against or physical attacks on journalists.
Co-Chairman Hastings and Commissioner Issa have sent a letter to Lebanese President Suleiman requesting that he take steps to have the charges against the defendants dismissed and work to repeal the criminal defamation provisions of Lebanon’s penal code.