Maya Gebeily

Jail sentence for web developer’s tweets to Lebanese president

Assy planning to appeal ruling based on media law’s ambiguities

Jean Assy expressed anger at the inconsistencies in his court ruling

As Lebanese continue to express their solidarity with Olympian skier Jackie Chamoun’s right to freedom of expression, another free speech issue has resurfaced. Lebanese web developer Jean Assy has been sentenced to two months of jail time for tweets he published last year about Lebanese President Michel Suleiman, after a Lebanese judge said these tweets amounted to “defamation and libel.”


The ruling came as a shock to Assy, who said he was expecting a fine. He told NOW that he and his lawyer are planning to appeal the decision, which they can do within the next ten days. They will specifically argue against the court’s ruling that Twitter is a “media outlet,” since Lebanon’s outdated media law doesn’t recognize any internet-based publication methods.


According to law expert Marwan Sakr, Lebanese courts rule on internet-based defamation charges on a case-by-case basis. He told NOW that the current law’s “very wide description” on what constitutes a publication method could give the courts enough wiggle room to complicate Assy’s appeal.


Advocates of freedom of expression have expressed disappointment at Assy’s sentencing. “Every person has the right to say what he or she wants, online, offline, publicly, and so on,” said Aymann Mhanna of the press freedom institute SKeyes. “This is against freedom of expression.”


He told NOW that even if laws against defamation, slander, and libel continue to be enforced in Lebanon, they should be considered civil – not criminal – offenses. “We’re not saying you should not seek justice,” Mhanna said. “However, all these things must happen in a civil case, as if it’s a contractual problem between one person and another. There is absolutely nothing justifying sending someone to jail because of an opinion he or she expressed publicly.” Lebanon’s current law on defamation and libel includes the possibility of a fine, jail sentence between two months and two years, or both.  


Another issue is the President of the Republic’s status as a “specially protected person.” Lea Baroudi of the Lebanese anti-censorship campaign MARCH said that although Lebanon’s media law is ambiguous, the law on insulting or defaming the president himself is unfortunately very clear. Any future media law, Mhanna said, should eliminate this special status.


Though the media flurry around Assy came after tweets he published in July of 2013, he told NOW that these aren’t the comments that sparked the case against him. Similar tweets he published in the first four months of last year are the ones included in the case. Assy said he continues to stand by what he said, even if what he did is illegal according to Lebanese law. “I was issuing a reaction to wrongful behaviors that are wrong politically, nationally, and when it comes to the army,” he told NOW.   


Many have pointed to contradictions in how the Lebanese government enforces its laws on defamation, slander, and libel. “There are thousands of takfiris and Salafists every day who are out there insulting the president and the head of the army, and say they’re planning operations against the army,” Assy fumed. “No one even talks to them.” MARCH’s Baroudi pointed out that even Lebanese politicians have said worse things about each other and about Lebanon’s president, but haven’t received any jail sentences.


Assy and others also expressed anger at the government’s prioritization of this issue when more pressing political, security, and economic problems have long been plaguing Lebanon. “Instead of taking care of the Lebanese and caring about who is killing the Lebanese, [the President] is concerned about who is insulting him on Twitter,” he told NOW.


“In the last two months of his presidency, Michel Suleiman’s legacy will be arresting Jean Assy and putting him in jail for two months instead of forming a government,” blogger Gino Raidy said. “There are so many other laws in Lebanon, and none of the others are enforced so forcefully.”  


Raidy also told NOW he was concerned about what Assy’s sentencing could mean for other bloggers and tweeps who are unhappy with political figures. “It’s dangerous, not just in the sense that you might get into trouble, but because you will start censoring yourself without noticing,” he said.


The rising trend of censorship and self-censorship has Assy worried, too. “I hope they support me, because what happened to me could happen to anyone.” 

Jean Assy expressed anger at the inconsistencies in his court ruling. (Twitter)

“There is absolutely nothing justifying sending someone to jail because of an opinion he or she expressed publicly.”

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    Lebanon is falling backwards and further into a lemon republic with kangaroo justice, just like many other third world mini-dictatorships. Sleiman has nothing better to do in a country where, under his mandate as army chief and president of more than a decade, he delivered to his own people nothing but more war, occupation, and killings? Instead of going after organized killing machines and terrorist political parties, his government goes after bloggers and Olympic champions? What a shame. What a sham. No wonder the good decent Lebanese keep on emigrating and leaving this country to barbarians, murderers and Mr. Sleiman's censors!

    February 13, 2014