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Sentencing Lebanese journalist Dima Sadek to prison: A warning to those who question

Sentencing Lebanese journalist Dima Sadek to prison: A warning to those who question

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Politics Freedom of Expression Basic Rights

Saturday 15 July 202305:38 pm
إقرأ باللغة العربية:

الحكم بسجن ديما صادق... السياسة فوق القضاء وقبل الحريات


A one-year prison sentence, deprivation of civil rights, and a fine of 110 million Lebanese pounds. This ruling was not issued against a Lebanese citizen who had committed a crime, nor against an official or minister involved in one of the many corruption cases in the country. Rather, it was issued against the journalist and TV presenter Dima Sadek following a lawsuit filed against her by the Free Patriotic Movement since 2020.

In the details of what happened, when the country was witnessing major protests during the October 17, 2019 revolution in various regions, a group of young men in Jounieh gathered around a young man from the city of Tripoli who was waiting for a van to return home. They insulted him, assaulted him, and threw him into the sewage drains, saying to him, "(Michel) Aoun is your master, and Tripoli's master."

The case gained attention later on, and among those who commented on it was journalist Dima Sadek, who tweeted: "The morning of the Lebanese Nazi Party... a new assault incident by the Free Patriotic Movement against a young man from Tripoli, Zakaria Al-Masri, in Jounieh, when he was hit on his head and thrown in the drains. They told him, 'Aoun is your master, and Tripoli's master'."

A one-year prison sentence, deprivation of civil rights, and a fine of 110 million Lebanese pounds. This ruling wasn't issued against a person who committed a crime, nor against a corrupt official. Rather, it was issued against a journalist over a tweet

The ruling was issued on July 10, 2023, but not against the attackers of Al-Masri, despite him personally filing a complaint against them. Instead, it was issued against Dima Sadek by Judge Rosine Hojeili, a single criminal judge in Beirut, following accusations made by the Free Patriotic Movement, represented by their lawyer Majed Boueiz, of fueling sectarian animosities between Jounieh and Tripoli and engaging in slander and defamation. Boueiz, who categorically denies that members of the movement assaulted Al-Masri, says, "Al-Masri fell into a sewer opening and was not attacked by any Free Patriotic Movement members at all."

The investigation report and the forensic doctor's report reveal that the young man had scratches on his face and was in an unstable health condition. He repeatedly recounted the details of being assaulted by a group affiliated with the Free Patriotic Movement. In his testimony, he stated that he was severely beaten under the Fouad Chehab Bridge, they assaulted him with great force, causing his head to hit the wall. Then they told him, "Michel Aoun is your god and Tripoli's god," and "Michel Aoun is your master and Tripoli's master."

How did accusations of racism turn against their critics?

Dima Chehade, Sadek's legal representative and attorney, expresses to Raseef22 her great astonishment at this decision against her client and says, "The verdict is illegal and unfair, and we will definitely take the course of appeal. The most surprising thing is how the standards have been reversed. How can a person who criticized a clearly described and documented racist act be labeled as racist and put on trial?" She adds that this sends a clear message to all Lebanese that any attempt to criticize racist actions committed by influential figures or those affiliated with political parties will be turned against you.

Chehade emphasizes the need for the Lebanese people to demand the complete independence of the judiciary and further states, "The case was initially with the Public Prosecution in Beirut, which rejected it and only adopted the charges of defamation without the incitement to racism or sectarian strife. However, after strong insistence by the legal representative of Minister Gebran Bassil and their insistence on considering the charge of inciting racism, the case was reviewed, and the description was modified, and this is a discretionary power granted to judges. While we would not have been surprised by a conviction for defamation charges, even though Sadek's statements do not contain slander or defamation since the movement boasts about its racism, for things to reach the point of charging her with racism is entirely incomprehensible."

Sadek also expresses her great astonishment at what happened to her, describing it as "madness" in a statement to Alhurra TV, adding that she sees it as a form of "intimidation" aimed at "suppressing any attempt to object, express discontent, or revolt. They believe that by intimidating one person in this manner, they prevent others from speaking out."

"While we weren't surprised by a conviction for defamation charges, even though Sadek's statements do not contain slander or defamation since the movement boasts about its racism, charging her with racism is entirely incomprehensible" — Lawyer Dima Chehade

Sadek's case is not the first or only one of its kind in 2023 against journalists, media professionals, and others. Amnesty International has documented more than 10 cases of summons for investigation by security and military agencies in 2023 alone.

In an official statement, the organization strongly condemns the escalation of judicial prosecution aimed at criminalizing freedom of expression in Lebanon. While activists have become accustomed to facing complaints from authorities, sentencing someone to prison for exercising their right to freedom of expression represents a dangerous escalation. The statement reminds Lebanon of its international obligations to protect freedom of expression and calls on parliament to "repeal the provisions on defamation in the penal code and replace them with civil provisions."

In this context, lawyer Farouk el-Moghrabi points out that some judicial cases in Lebanon rely on the argument that "freedom of expression is not absolute, referring to Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. This was also evident in a previous case involving lawyers, without paying attention to the public commentary that explained and refuted this argument in approximately 20 pages. This makes the matter subject to the judge's interpretations and his/her determination of the scope of freedom of expression."

While el-Moghrabi affirms that everyone has the full right to criticize public figures, he suggests that Judge Hojeili may have considered in her ruling that the moral aspect of Sadek's offense was the act of publishing the tweet during a tense atmosphere in the country, viewing it as a "criminal intent to stir up tensions and incite sectarian strife". Regarding the charges of defamation, el-Moghrabi reminds us of the 2018 recommendation issued by the United Nations Human Rights Committee, emphasizing the need to repeal these articles from the Penal Code and refrain from prosecuting journalists and activists based on them.

The language used in the Penal Code is vague and unclear, allowing for interpretation that aligns with the interests of those in power, and the ruling regime uses the law as it sees fit


A systematic campaign against anyone who says "no"

Elsy Moufarrej, coordinator of the Alternative Press Syndicate (APS), believes that the verdict against Sadek is part of a deliberate and ongoing campaign against anyone who dares to express their opinion and simply say "no". She recalls incidents of journalists being taken to security centers and the Cybercrime Bureau for the purpose of intimidation and interrogation, with the most recent example being the case of journalist Jean Kassir from the "Megaphone" news platform, who is currently facing legal prosecution.

Moufarrej refutes the argument that the decision doesn't constitute an attack on the press or freedom of the media, but rather is an "act that infringes upon complete freedoms and directly affects the freedom of expression. In exchange for expressing an opinion in a tweet on social media, a prison sentence has been issued." She asserts that matters related to freedoms should fall under civil jurisdiction, not the criminal judiciary, and imprisonment should never be considered as a possible punishment.

She points out that "the syndicate will stand up to attempts to restrict freedoms, as it has done in the past, whether through movements on the street or by coordinating with international human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, and by sending a message to the Special Rapporteur on Freedoms in the Human Rights Council."

The verdict against Dima Sadek is part of a deliberate and ongoing campaign against anyone who dares to express their opinion and simply say "no". Her case is not the first or only one of its kind in 2023 against journalists, media professionals, and others

Jad Shahrour, the media officer at the "SKeyes Center for Media and Cultural Freedom," shares Sadek's and her lawyers' astonishment at the prison sentence, fine, and deprivation of civil rights. He highlights that "this is not the first time that influential individuals or political factions have targeted journalists and activists, particularly during Michel Aoun's presidency, with many journalists facing legal pursuit and receiving prison sentences that forced some of them to leave the country. Journalist Fidaa Itani is a prime example of this."

Shahrour denies that Sadek's tweet constituted defamation; rather, it was a "political description or characterization". He attributes the root of the problem to the Penal Code, stating that "the language used in it is vague and ambiguous, allowing for interpretation that aligns with the interests of those in power. The ruling regime manipulates the law as it pleases and in accordance with its own interests."

He emphasizes that the battle for freedoms is not solely a struggle within the media or activist circles, but a broader fight for human rights. He states, "This is something that people need to realize. However, the second issue lies in the prevailing mindset of imposing punishment in the country, particularly among partisan groups who threaten anyone who expresses their opinion."

The Samir Kassir Foundation has documented the incident as a violation against a journalist, as part of its role as a human rights organization, while waiting and anticipating the outcome of the appeal. Afterwards, "the documentation will transform into a legal call to action by human rights organizations or the issuance of statements involving international human rights organizations," according to Shahrour.

The one-year prison sentence has caused significant upheaval among journalists, activists, and defenders of freedom. While it is not the first time such incidents have occurred, it may be the most clear and straightforward attempt to suppress freedoms. On the other hand, celebrations have spread among the ranks of the electronic army of the Free Patriotic Movement, who have personalized the case and perceive the judiciary's ruling as vindication against the "false accusation by Dima Sadek," as stated in lawyer Majed Boueiz's tweet, which concluded with an air of threat and intimidation: "Hopefully, you have learned your lesson."


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