President Michel Sleiman’s Facebook page hit back Tuesday at critics who were arrested on Monday for allegedly defaming him. Under the “President Michel Sleiman’s Notes” section of what seems to be the president’s official page, an unidentified author defends Sleiman’s respect for free speech and argues that a now-defunct Facebook group called “We don’t want a traitor as president” offered insults and disrespect, not constructive criticism.
Defamation is a crime according to Lebanon’s penal code, and both the public prosecutor’s office and military intelligence monitor news outlets and the internet, launching investigations against alleged defamers.
Publically, Sleiman has not yet addressed the issue, though the office of Justice Minister Ibrahim Najjar issued a press release explaining the legal rational behind the move, Al-Arabiya reported. The release said the suspects – known on the web as the Facebook 3 – violated articles outlawing defamation, slander and libel in both the Penal Code and the 1962 Press Law.
The Penal Code, according to a lawyer who spoke to NOW Lebanon on condition of anonymity because he is not allowed to talk to the press, bans people from defaming, slandering or libeling someone else “in public,” a vague definition that arguably includes Facebook. The code also includes special provisions related to Lebanon’s president and the president of any “sisterly state.”
When these heads of state are defamed, slandered or libeled, the public prosecutor can launch investigations, issue warrants and make arrests unilaterally upon finding evidence of the crime without anyone first filing a lawsuit, the lawyer said. In all other cases, the courts cannot act until someone first files suit.
The press law, however, is quite different. First, it applies only to physically printed newspapers and magazines, not the internet, the lawyer said. It also bans pre-trial detention of anyone accused of defamation, slander or libel – a ban not respected in this case, as the Facebook 3 – identified by AFP as Naim George Hanna, 27, Antoine Youssef Ramia, 29, and Shebel Rajeh Qasab, 27 – are in custody but have not been to trial, the lawyer added.
The “traitor” group included a long essay that leveled several criticisms at Sleiman both as president and as commander of the army, a post he held up until his May 2008 election to the nation’s highest office. Some of the criticism of Sleiman’s job as president in the essay was similar to comments made by MP Wiam Wahhab in March, who faced no defamation charges.
Hanna, Ramia and Qasab were interrogated and arrested Monday on the orders of State Prosecutor Said Mirza.
A fourth suspect, Ahmed Ali Shuman, remains on the loose, AFP reported.
The president’s post both targets the essay itself as insulting and points to comments left by other Facebook users that, for example, call Sleiman a “snake.” In its defense of the president’s respect for freedom of expression, the post seems aimed at the shocked and sometimes angry internet response to Monday’s arrests. A petition is being circulated and many are accusing Lebanon of silencing free speech.
Sleiman did not know about the arrests before they happened, a source familiar with this case – who is not authorized to talk to the media and so spoke anonymously – told NOW Lebanon. The source said there is a department in the public prosecutor’s office dedicated to monitoring the media and internet for insults against the president.
This department is not unique. A few months ago, a Facebook user not living in Lebanon insulted a retired member of the army, a source familiar with the incident told NOW Lebanon on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution. Two people agreed with that assessment, posted follow-up comments and were soon being investigated by military intelligence, the source said.
Retired General Elias Hanna told NOW Lebanon that, similar to the public prosecutor’s office, there is a department within military intelligence that monitors news outlets and the internet for defamation, libel and slander against members of the army.
The two who agreed with insults against the retired army member were questioned by military intelligence, the military police and the public prosecutor’s office in an ongoing defamation case, the source said. Because they did not initiate the alleged defamation, no further action was taken against them, but the file is still open and should the person who originally posted the insult come to Lebanon, he will be arrested, the source said.
Those accused of defaming the president, meanwhile, could face two months to two years in prison, a fine or both if convicted, the lawyer said. Hanna, who now teaches Political Science at several local universities, said he thinks Sleiman will soon call for an end to the investigation as the arrests look terrible for Lebanon and are opening it up to criticism.