If Lebanon's reputation were to be damaged, an article in The Economist wouldn't be the reason for it. But, a group of Lebanese lawyers are convinced that the British magazine has sullied Lebanon for reporting on the country's unstable economy.
According to The Daily Star, the lawyers - Khalil Qabbani, Rami Itani, Mohammad Doughan and Sana al-Rifai - filed a legal complaint to the public prosecutor over an Oct. 5 article titled "Broke in Beirut: A long-feared currency crisis has begun to bite in Lebanon."
The Economist's article addressed the country's current dollar shortages, revealing the reality Lebanese individuals are currently faced with. "Over the past few weeks, customers have queued for hours only to learn that they cannot access their money. One was told that his branch had less than $2,000 in the vault," the article states.
In addition to that, the article sheds light on the rising unofficial dollar exchange rates and the "downturn in deposit growth in commercial banks." The shortage of dollars at the official rate prompted gas station owners to go on strike at the end of last month. But, talking about the problem, and not the actual problem, seems to be the lawyers' concern.
"Talk about Freedom of Speech"
The lawyers' complaint said that the magazine's article "damaged the reputation and financial status of the Lebanese state" and "insulted the Lebanese flag and Cedar tree." They were referencing the photo inside the article which shows the Lebanese national tree tumbling off the country's flag.
The lawyers are demanding the removal of the article's copies from the market.
Lebanon is currently reeling under massive financial debt, estimated at around $86 billion or more than 150 percent of the country's Gross Domestic Product (GDP). While Lebanese officials have attempted to alleviate concerns over dollar liquidity and vowed to implement the necessary reforms, the country faces an alarming loss of confidence among foreign investors and depositors, according to Reuters.
"Trying to censor international media outlets for stating facts?"
Last week, a Lebanese journalist was summoned to appear before the Cybercrimes Bureau by the International Security Forces (ISF) after sharing a tweet saying he'd been prevented from withdrawing U.S. dollars at a local bank.
Amer Chibani, who worked as a journalist with Future TV and now works on the Al Mustaqbal news site, told The Daily Star that he had gone to an SGBL branch to withdraw cash for a $600 car payment. He was told there is no U.S. currency available for withdrawal, despite the fact that his account was in the stated currency.
So, he tweeted about it, not thinking his social media post would cause trouble. An attorney for the bank contacted him, demanding he removes the post. After refusing to do so, the Cybercrimes Bureau contacted him and asked him to come in for questioning. Following the interrogation, Chibani deleted the tweet.
Lebanon's constitution guarantees freedom of expression, but the country's penal code "criminalizes libel and defamation against public officials and authorizes imprisonment of up to one year in such cases," according to Human Rights Watch.
"Article 384 of the penal code authorizes imprisonment of six months to two years for insulting the president, the flag, or the national emblem. Article 157 of the military code of justice criminalizes insulting the flag or army, punishable by three months to three years in prison."
HRW states that "libel, defamation, and insult" are not well-defined in the Lebanese law. This means the law is applied whenever authorities deem it necessary.