Lebanon has long had the reputation of being one of the freest Arab countries. But in recent years, civil liberties groups say, freedom of expression in Lebanon has come under attack as authorities increasingly use the country’s broad and vague defamation laws in an effort to stifle criticism of government officials and other powerful people.
Naji Karam, a now-retired professor of archaeology at the Lebanese University, is a case in a point.
About a decade ago, Karam was deeply troubled that plans to erect several high-rise buildings over the site of a 5th to 4th century B.C. Phoenician port in present-day Beirut would destroy a valuable archaeological site. But his appeals to the Ministry of Culture fell on deaf ears.
So, in a February 2013 live television interview, he criticized the then culture minister for “mismanaging” the country’s cultural heritage.
The minister responded by bringing a defamation complaint against Karam, and the professor was summoned to several criminal interrogations. As he was leaving one of the meetings, the plaintiff’s lawyer turned to Karam in the elevator and asked if he would like to settle the matter by apologizing to the minister.
“I said, No,” recalls Karam, “the minister should apologize to the Lebanese people.”
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In 2017, Lebanon’s slow-moving “Publications Court,” which hears complaints involving written or broadcast media, found Karam guilty of defamation for similar comments he had made on Facebook. But the following year, a new head judge of the court reversed that ruling and exonerated Karam of all charges.
In his ruling, the judge wrote, “Justice and the law do not justify the conviction of those who point to and expose corruption in an objective manner.”