Lebanon

Lebanon

Partly Free
52
100
A Obstacles to Access 12 25
B Limits on Content 23 35
C Violations of User Rights 17 40
Last Year's Score & Status
53 100 Partly Free

Overview

A number of online journalists and users were arrested or detained as a result of online speech during the coverage period, and the LGBT+ dating platform Grindr was blocked twice. Individuals were compelled to register their cell phones’ identity numbers starting in September 2018. A WhatsApp user was physically attacked after criticizing the speaker of parliament through the platform. Unlike in past years, the government did not restrict mobile or internet connectivity during the coverage period, though it retains a monopoly over the internet backbone and dominant ownership of the telecommunications industry. Lebanon’s telecommunications infrastructure is weak, though numerous initiatives seek to expand services and speeds.

Lebanon’s political system ensures representation for its many sectarian communities, but suppresses competition within each community and impedes the rise of cross-sectarian or secularist parties. It effectively elevates communities over individuals and communal leaders over state institutions. Residents enjoy some civil liberties and media pluralism, but the rule of law is undermined by political interference. The government struggles to provide services for and uphold the rights of the refugees who make up more than a quarter of Lebanon’s population.

Key Developments

June 1, 2018 – May 31, 2019

  • Unlike in past years, the government did not restrict mobile or internet connectivity during the coverage period, though it retained a monopoly over the internet backbone and dominant ownership of the telecommunications industry (see A3 and A4).

  • Telecom operator Touch blocked the LGBT+ dating platform Grindr in January, reportedly at the behest of the telecommunications ministry. Grindr was also blocked in May by OGERO, the state-owned telecom company (see B1). 

  • A worrying crackdown against online freedom of expression continued during the year, with 36 cases recorded in 2018 and at least two dozen as of July 2019, compared to just 12 in 2017 (see C3). 

  • Starting in September 2018, individuals must register their International Mobile Equipment Identity number, while in October, Parliament passed a flawed Electronic Transactions and Personal Data Law, which fails to adequately safeguard users (see C4 and C5).

  • Adnan Farahat was beaten at his home by supporters of parliamentary speaker Nabih Berri after circulating a voice message on WhatsApp that criticized Berri and his family. He was also arrested for the message (see C7).

A Obstacles to Access

Lebanon’s telecommunications infrastructure remains weak, and communications services expensive. The state retains a monopoly over the internet backbone and dominant ownership of the telecommunications industry. The government did not restrict mobile or internet connectivity during the coverage period.

A1 0-6 pts
Do infrastructural limitations restrict access to the internet or the speed and quality of internet connections? 46

Lebanon’s telecommunications infrastructure is weak, constraining access—though leaders have signaled commitment to bringing about improvements to the country’s information and communications technology (ICT) sector, including through the eventual establishment of a fiber-optic cable.1 The internet remains relatively slow and expensive, with an average download speed of 6.75 Mbps on fixed broadband, though the average mobile speed is 40.07 Mbps.2

According to recent reports, between 80 and 90 percent of people living in Lebanon use the internet,3 a marked increase from 44 percent in 2010.45 There were 64.5 mobile phone subscriptions per 100 inhabitants in 2018, according to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), up from 63.7 in 2016.6 In its most recent report, Lebanon also scored an Internet Development Index (IDI) value—a metric that ranks internet use, access, and skills—of 6.30 in 2017, improving from 6.09 in 2016. Lebanon’s current rank is well above the world average of 5.11 and only behind Bahrain, Qatar, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Oman in the Middle East and North Africa. Lebanon’s “use IDI” ranks higher relative to its overall IDI, which suggests that inadequate infrastructure is ultimately limiting use.7

In June 2018, work commenced on the first part of a campaign known as “FTTx,” aimed at bringing internet connection speeds of at least 50 Mbps to certain areas through fiber-optic cables.8 This came after a highly publicized campaign in February 2018, when OGERO officially launched a new version of its national internet strategy, which was first introduced to the public in November 20179 after the Council of Ministers had allocated $100 million to OGERO for fiber-optic cable development.10 Following the February 2018 announcement of the FTTx project, OGERO awarded contracts to three Lebanese companies that “will partner with international vendors” for development: Power Tech, with the Norway-based Nokia; BMB Group, with the US-based Calix; and SERTA, with the Chinese-based Huawei.11

A2 0-3 pts
Is access to the internet prohibitively expensive or beyond the reach of certain segments of the population for geographical, social, or other reasons? 13

Lebanon has expensive communications services—including the fourth-most expensive mobile internet in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, according to 2019 research by the website Cable.1 Internet subscription prices are set by the government, and internet service providers (ISPs) cannot lower prices unless a decree is issued by the Ministry of Telecommunications.2 However, in May 2017, the cabinet authorized OGERO’s plan to decrease DSL prices. It was passed by parliament the following month.3

Rural areas are less connected than urban ones.

A3 0-6 pts
Does the government exercise technical or legal control over internet infrastructure for the purposes of restricting connectivity? 46

While the government has periodically restricted mobile and internet connectivity in past years, no restrictions were reported during the coverage period. However, from August 2014 to September 2017, mobile internet was inaccessible in Arsal, a town in northeastern Lebanon, for “security” reasons, according to former telecommunications minister Boutros Harb.1 Though the internet has since been restored, there is no law in place to prevent the government from ordering a similar shutdown, and the Telecommunications Law provides it with the authority to do so again.2

The Lebanese government maintains a monopoly over the internet backbone, as well as over the fixed and mobile telephone industry in general, and therefore it exercises tight control over ISPs. Lebanon has three international border gateways—in Tripoli, Jdeideh, and Beirut—where three underwater fiber-optic cables connect the country via the I-ME-WE (India-Middle East-Western Europe), Cadmos, and Berytar cables, respectively.3 The gateways are all operated by OGERO.

Voice over internet protocol (VoIP) services are technically restricted under the 2002 Telecommunications Law, also known as Law 431/2002,4 but this ban has only been sporadically enforced.5 OGERO installed equipment to block VoIP services in 2010 and then invoked it on a handful of occasions to block the Vonage VoIP service, though not Skype or WhatsApp. However, it backed down from the Vonage block after coming under pressure from businesses, civil society, and politicians.6

A4 0-6 pts
Are there legal, regulatory, or economic obstacles that restrict the diversity of service providers? 26

The telecommunications industry is largely government-owned and is tightly regulated.1 The fixed-line telephone and internet network is owned and operated by OGERO, from which all companies must purchase services. In addition to running the backbone, OGERO, which claimed it had approximately 41 percent of the market share in 2017 (290,000 of 700,000 official subscribers), sets internet prices and collectively manages online subscriptions with two dozen private ISPs, including Cyberia, Terranet Sodetel, and IDM.2 OGERO reduced the monthly fee that ISPs pay for the E1 line, which enables voice telephone calls, from $1,000 in 2014 to $110 in 2018.3

Private ISPs currently obtain a permit by decree from the Ministry of Telecommunications.4 Crucially, political influence can affect the allocation of contracts to private ISPs and mobile phone operators.5 In addition to the official ISPs, there are approximately 120 semi-legal ISPs operating in a gray zone; these potentially connect an additional 500,000 lines to the internet. The “gray zone” providers formerly purchased internet service internationally, but between 2014 and 2015 OGERO sold them access to its line at a reduced price.6 Prior to OGERO’s decision to allow private ISPs, former telecommunications minister Harb tried to penalize them by issuing complaints to the public prosecutor in an effort to put an end to “people extending internet services through illegal means.”7

Lebanon has two government-owned mobile phone companies, Alfa and Touch, which are managed by the private companies Orascom Telecom Holdings and Zain, respectively.8 Because the government sets prices and issues permits for the number of subscriptions allowed, there is little competition in the industry, and the two companies split the market evenly.9

A5 0-4 pts
Do national regulatory bodies that oversee service providers and digital technology fail to operate in a free, fair, and independent manner? 14

Lebanese media and telecommunications laws are regulated by three semi-independent advisory bodies that report to the Council of Ministers. The National Council for Audiovisual Media and the Committee for Establishing Model Bylaws and Practices deal mainly with audiovisual media (television, radio, and satellite), while the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA) is responsible for liberalizing, regulating, and developing the telecommunications sector.1 Overall, the three bodies are limited in their power and do not have a reputation for being particularly robust or independent regulators, which makes the Telecommunications Ministry the de facto regulator.

The TRA is nominally independent, but in practice, influential political groups hold sway over the institution, often rendering it ineffective.2 The Ministry of Telecommunications retains the strongest influence over the ICT sector. In fact, three past telecommunications ministers have claimed that the TRA has no real authority, given that the law establishing its powers has not yet been implemented.3 Tellingly, since its launch in 2007, many of the TRA’s objectives have not been met, including the transition from analog to digital networks and the privatization of the telecommunications sector. The TRA also has not issued an annual report since the 2014 edition, and for the last few years the only new content on its website has been official public relations announcements.4

In January 2017, Abdel-Moneim Youssef was dismissed from his two posts as head of state-run telecommunications company OGERO and director general of investment and maintenance at the Ministry of Telecommunications. Youssef was under investigation for corruption and negligence, and was acquitted in June 2017.5 The government subsequently appointed two replacements: Imad Kreidieh as head of OGERO, and Bassel Al-Ayyoubi as director general of investment and maintenance at the Telecommunications Ministry.

B Limits on Content

While filtering of internet content is generally uncommon, authorities blocked the LGBT+ dating platform Grindr twice during the coverage period, and the Israel-based web-hosting platform Wix was also blocked. Individuals are often pressured by security officials to remove sensitive content, and the online information landscape, while diverse, is dominated by sectarian voices.

B1 0-6 pts
Does the state block or filter, or compel service providers to block or filter, internet content? 46

The state occasionally blocks content. In January 2019, the telecommunications minister allegedly ordered Alfa and Touch, the two major telecom operators, to block Grindr, the popular dating platform for LGBT+ individuals, on 3G and 4G mobile networks. Only Touch complied with the order.1 Sources close to the situation claimed that one of the security agencies, for reasons that were unclear had encouraged the telecommunications minister to block the application, which is technically illegal under Lebanese law.2 Then, in May, OGERO blocked Grindr at the request of a Telecommunications Ministry directive that referred to an order from the public prosecutor.3

Moreover, in December 2018, a judicial order cited the Israel Boycott law, also known as Decree 12562 of April 19, 1963, to block Wix, the Israel-based web-hosting platform, without giving its users any prior notice.4 Digital rights advocates argued that the state should at least have given users a warning so small businesses could prepare to move their websites to other hosts.

In 2015, the Social Media Exchange (SMEX), a Lebanese civil society group, found that a total of 50 websites had remained inconsistently blocked in Lebanon,5 including 23 related to escort services, 11 Israeli sites, 8 gambling websites, 2 websites that breached copyright, and one website identified as a forum for lesbians in the Arab region (see B3). In November 2014, the head of the Cybercrimes Bureau stated that it was monitoring terrorist content and that it had the ability to filter websites connected with terrorism.6

YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and international blog-hosting services are freely available. Facebook, Google, YouTube, Microsoft’s Live.com, and Wikipedia rank among the ten most visited websites in Lebanon.7

B2 0-4 pts
Do state or nonstate actors employ legal, administrative, or other means to force publishers, content hosts, or digital platforms to delete content? 24

There have been incidents in which government security officials, particularly from the cybercrime bureau, pressured individuals and ISPs to remove certain comments—mainly criticism of government officials or the army—from social media pages, blogs, or websites. This often occurs after an involved individual has been arrested. For example, journalist Fidaa Itani was arrested in July 2017 following a legal complaint by Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil over a critical Facebook post stating that Syrian refugees had been tortured and killed in Lebanon. Though Itani was not formally charged, he was compelled to remove the post.1

In March 2017, Salim Jreissati, the minister of justice, ordered Myriam Klink, a Lebanese pop singer, to remove her recent video clip “Goal,” one day after he held a meeting with Minister of Information Melhem Riachi over the matter.2 The lyrics talk about “scoring a football goal,” which authorities deemed as too sexually explicit, and labeled the video’s inclusion of a child as a form of “exploitation.” A press statement from Jreissati’s office announced that displaying, distributing, or circulating the music video online was strictly prohibited. Violating the decision could result in a penalty of 50 million Lebanese pounds ($33,170).3

According to Google’s transparency report, one piece of content was restricted for defamation and one for bullying/harassment between January and June 2018.4 From July to December 2018, Facebook restricted 11 pieces of content “in response to private reports related to defamation.”5

B3 0-4 pts
Do restrictions on the internet and digital content lack transparency, proportionality to the stated aims, or an independent appeals process? 24

Government decisions to restrict platforms have not always been fully transparent.

Under the October 2018 Electronic Transactions and Personal Data Law, Article 125 allows the court to order “the suspension of certain electronic services, block certain websites or cancel accounts on such websites” linked to crimes including terrorism, child pornography, gambling, fraud, money laundering, and “crimes against internal and external security,” while Article 126 gives the public prosecutor power to suspend services and accounts and block websites for up to 30 days (see C5).1

Generally, websites are blocked through court orders: the court receives a complaint and files it with the Cybercrimes Bureau for further investigation, later issuing a final order to the Ministry of Telecommunications, which then blocks the websites through OGERO. Website owners are not notified that their websites have been blocked, but still must appeal the blocking within 48 hours in order to have the decision overturned. However, the first blocking of Grindr that took place during this report’s coverage period, in January 2019, was carried out in the absence of a court order.

Among intermittently blocked websites, those related to escort services were blocked in accordance with articles 523 and 524 of the penal code (see B1). The Israeli sites were blocked in accordance with Decree 12562 of April 19, 1963, which called for the boycotting of Israel, while the gambling websites were blocked in accordance with Law 417 of 1995, which gives the “Casino Du Liban” exclusive rights to the gambling industry. The websites blocked for copyright breach were the result of a request from the US government. While many of these blocking orders are rooted in the law, the move to block six well-known pornographic websites in 2014 for alleged child pornography drew the ire of some digital rights activists for the seemingly haphazard manner in which they were chosen.2

  • 1. https://smex.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/E-transaction-law-Lebanon-O…
  • 2. According to reports, the order came after an alleged child molester in Lebanon was reported to the Cybercrime and Intellectual Property Rights Bureau from a police station in Manchester, UK. Sources from the Cybercrime and Intellectual Property Rights Bureau who were present during the interrogation of the accused individual revealed that the websites were chosen because they appeared in the browser history of his personal laptop, and not necessarily because they published child pornography. A prominent Lebanese blogger and social media expert wrote that the websites were among the most famous pornographic websites worldwide and were unlikely to feature child pornography, given that they are not censored in other countries that ban child pornography. See Imad Bazzi, "كيف ولماذا حجبت المواقع الإباحية في لبنان؟"[How and Why Six Porn Websites were Banned in Lebanon], September, 3, 2014, http://trella.org/4234. , and Samir Kassir Eyes, "النيابة العامة تأمر بحجب ستة واقع إباحية في إطار مكافحة التحرش بالأطفال" [General Prosecutor Orders the blocking of Six Porn sites], Skeyes Center for Media and Cultural Freedom, September, 2, 2014, http://www.skeyesmedia.org/ar/News/Lebanon/4728.

B4 0-4 pts
Do online journalists, commentators, and ordinary users practice self-censorship? 24

Self-censorship is common in the blogosphere and in top media outlets, which are owned by powerful figures from all sides of the political spectrum. Users often fear repercussions from the government or certain political and sectarian groups if they post controversial content.

B5 0-4 pts
Are online sources of information controlled or manipulated by the government or other powerful actors to advance a particular political interest? 24

Reflecting Lebanon’s political fragmentation, Lebanese media is highly partisan and controlled by the dominant politico-sectarian actors. In December 2018, the Samir Kassir Foundation and Reporters Without Borders (RSF) released the Media Ownership Monitor, which found that “the top news websites in Lebanon belong to, or mirror, the same political parties that own the country’s traditional media. The same political agendas reflected in traditional media also exist online.”1

Elite families directly involved in politics own several prominent media outlets.23 For example, Prime Minister Saad Hariri and his family own Future TV; Al-Mustaqbal and the Daily Star, both print outlets with an online presence; and a host of other outlets. Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri partially owns the National Broadcasting Network and its affiliates, while Hezbollah controls a vast network of media outlets, including Al-Manar TV and Al-Nour radio. Dominant political figures choose the heads of these outlets, and their news content often advances a particular partisan message. Politicians are also known to attempt to bribe the few independent news outlets and journalists that do exist, particularly during election periods. The structure of the Lebanese media also encourages foreign and business interests to invest money in these companies in exchange for influence.4

Though bots have not been documented extensively in Lebanon, some outlets believe that Saudi Arabia–based bots were responsible for amplifying the “Lebanese Against Hezbollah” hashtag that became popular after Prime Minister Hariri announced his resignation in November 2017.5

B6 0-3 pts
Are there economic or regulatory constraints that negatively affect users’ ability to publish content online? 23

Independent digital media outlets struggle for sustainability due to Lebanon’s relatively weak digital advertising market, as the majority of advertising revenue is absorbed by television and other traditional media. One of the main obstacles in boosting the digital advertising market is Lebanon’s slow and unreliable internet. 1

  • 1. Elias Sakr, “Online advertising untapped in Lebanon,” The Daily Star, April 20, 2012, http://bit.ly/1Q1IH9T.

B7 0-4 pts
Does the online information landscape lack diversity? 34

Lebanese users have access to a variety of local and international news and media. While relatively pluralistic, the media landscape is dominated by the agendas of powerful politico-sectarian leaders and their allies, often overshadowing the voices of minority groups (see B5).1

Despite evidence of some filtering, taboo subjects that would normally be banned from mainstream media outlets, such as pornography, content supportive of Israel, and sectarian hate speech, are generally available online. Because promoting or supporting LGBT+ causes is a crime under the penal code, content about the LGBT+ community operates in a legal gray zone and has been subject to censorship (see B1).

B8 0-6 pts
Do conditions impede users’ ability to mobilize, form communities, and campaign, particularly on political and social issues? 66

In recent years, civil society organizations and individual actors have used the internet as a primary or secondary tool to extend the reach of their national awareness-raising campaigns. For example, in January 2019, Bayanat Box, an online media outlet, and the UN Development Programme (UNDP) launched #Bala_Fabrakeh (#بلاـفبركة), which identified fake news campaigns in Lebanon and pointed readers towards reliable news sources.1 The campaign was reportedly widely shared in WhatsApp groups.

In December 2018, protests against corruption, a poor economy, and the overall political situation were held in Beirut. Modeled after the yellow vest movement in France and numbering in the thousands, they were organized through social media (though some clashes erupted between protesters and security forces).2 After the coverage period, in July 2019, around 500 protesters in Beirut demonstrated against an ongoing crackdown on online freedom of expression (see C3). The protest was also reflected online under the hashtag #AgainstRepression (translated).3 In October 2019, protests erupted after the government announced it would create a tax on voice calls made over WhatsApp. Though the government reversed its plans, widespread demonstrations broke out against economic deterioration, corruption, and the political system.4

C Violations of User Rights

Lebanon lacks a legal framework to protect user rights. An alarming crackdown on online freedom of expression continued during the coverage period, with several individuals arrested for criticizing top government officials. A man who circulated a voice message critical of the parliamentary speaker was physically attacked. Starting in September 2018, individuals were compelled to register their mobile phone’s identity number.

C1 0-6 pts
Do the constitution or other laws fail to protect rights such as freedom of expression, access to information, and press freedom, including on the internet, and are they enforced by a judiciary that lacks independence? 26

The constitution guarantees freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, and freedom of the press. However, articles in the penal code and the military justice code place restrictions on freedom of expression (see C2). The judiciary also lacks independence, as it is subject to considerable political influence.1

Other issues persist. While Lebanon passed a law on the right to access information in 2017,2 state agencies rarely comply. For example, when the Gherbal Initiative, a Lebanese nongovernmental organization (NGO), sent access-to-information requests to 133 administrations, they received just 34 responses. 3

C2 0-4 pts
Are there laws that assign criminal penalties or civil liability for online activities? 24

The Lebanese penal code prohibits defamation of the president, public officials, and the army, Article 157 of the military code of justice also prohibits insults against the army.1 In 2016, the Court of Cassation ended the debate over which law regulates speech promulgated on social media in Lebanon, opting to place it under the jurisdiction of the penal code instead of the Publications Court.2 Because the Publications Law does not explicitly refer to electronic publishing and websites, the Criminal Court of Cassation used the general definition of publication from legal articles to decide whether a given website qualified as a press publication. This resulted in some confusion about what forms of online speech are subject to restriction under the Publications Law. The Publications Court has considered journalists’ social media post under its jurisdiction, even as a number of other courts and nonjudicial bodies have prosecuted journalists for articles they wrote.

Meanwhile, despite the fact that social media posts contain letters, forms, words, and pictures, the Publications Court has also decided that social media posts are special publications not intended for distribution to the public on an ongoing basis, in a specific name, and with successive parts—and therefore not subject to the regulations relating to the Publications Law. Instead, the court ruled definitively that social media postings are subject to the penal code, which contains fewer protections for individuals.3 The authorities use article 317, which penalizes those who incite sectarianism or racial strife; articles 383 to 387, which criminalize the defamation of public officials and the insulting of national emblems; and articles 473 and 474, which concern blasphemy and religious rituals, to prosecute legitimate online speech.

C3 0-6 pts
Are individuals penalized for online activities? 26

A significant crackdown on online freedom of expression began in late 2017 and continued through the coverage period.1 SMEX, a Lebanese NGO tracking online freedom of expression, recorded 36 violations of free expression online in 2018, compared to just 12 in 2017. Twenty-five such cases have been recorded in 2019, as of July.2

The public prosecutor has ordered security forces to detain netizens, who are sometimes subjected to multiday interrogations, particularly at the hands of Cybercrime Bureau—which was established in 2006 without a legislative decree that outlined its mandate or defined cybercrime.3 It often pressures social media users to apologize for their posts, delete controversial content, and sign a letter promising not to harm those offended in the future. While some cases have reached the courts, few are publicly known. Security and military agents also appear to be monitoring social media, leading to interrogations.4

At least two cases resulted in sentences during this report’s coverage period, though one was overturned and the other occurred in absentia. In March 2019, a military tribunal sentenced in absentia Adam Chamseddine, a journalist at the television station Al-Jadeed, to three months imprisonment. Chamseddine had criticized the arrest of a tattoo artist on Facebook in October 20185 and was charged under an article of the penal code. State security had detained the Syrian tattoo artist, alleging in a disclosure offering his full name that he had HIV/AIDS, and encouraging his customers to get tested—though they later claimed he had been arrested for illegally working as a tattoo artist. Chamseddine reportedly did not receive subpoenas from the military tribunal and was not present at his trial.6 The following month, the tribunal ruled that Chamseddine’s case was outside the court’s jurisdiction and referred the case back to the military prosecutor.7 Separately, in June 2018, journalist Fidaa Itani was sentenced in absentia to four months in prison for a Facebook post that criticized the president, foreign minister, and others for the alleged torture and deaths of Syrian refugees in custody.8

A number of individuals were detained during the coverage period for criticizing top government officials, particularly President Michel Aoun and Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil. Numerous lawsuits were filed by other public officials and religious figures, alleging defamation and other offenses.

For example, in April 2019, the General Directorate of General Security arrested Rasheed Joumblatt, the former leader of the Arab Tawhid Party, on charges of "inciting sectarian strife and insulting some positions" and "insulting and slandering Minister Gebran Bassil." Bassil filed a complaint based on a Facebook video. Detained for four days, Joumblatt was released on bail and Bassil dropped the case.9 Gebran Basill also sued Yara Shehayeb in August 2018 for defamation after she tweeted in June that his father taught him how to be a thief. After a period of time, he dropped the suit.10 In February, the Cybercrime Bureau questioned Ziad Itani over his tweets criticizing Suzanne al-Hajj Hobeiche, the former head of the Cybercrime Bureau, and her family. Itani was permitted to leave the bureau after deleting the relevant tweets and signing a pledge not to approach the family in the future.11 Also in February, the public prosecutor in the city of Nabatieh accused Ali Barakat of “stirring sectarian strife” for mocking Rafiq Hariri, the prime minister assassinated in 2005, on Twitter months earlier; the public prosecutor initiated the process at the request of lawyers affiliated with the Hariris’ Future Movement party.12 The case remained open as of July 2019.13 Samir Geagea, the head of the Lebanese Forces party, sued journalist Abbas Saleh in August 2018, after he posted on Facebook in June that Geagea had stolen state money. Geagea ultimately dropped the case.14 In the same month, Geagea also filed a suit against Jean Elias, claiming he mocked the Lebanese Forces on Facebook.15 And in June 2019, army intelligence agents detained a minor in Akkar Governate because he had shared an image on WhatsApp more than a year earlier that criticized Aoun. He was held in custody for a day, despite pleas from his father, and was forced to sign a pledge promising not to publicly criticize the president.16

Several cases during the coverage period involved religious authorities. In July 2019, Charbel El Khoury made a joke about Saint Charbel on Facebook, leading to the Catholic Information Council filing a suit that invoked Articles 473-475 of the penal code. After pledging to refrain from using Facebook for a month, he was released by the Cybercrime Bureau and the case was closed.17 The Catholic Information Council filed similar suits in July and August, one for sharing El Khoury’s post.18 And, in April, Khodor Abu Ghazli was arrested by army intelligence agents in a raid at the Ain al-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp, after posting a Facebook video critical of Sidon’s mufti, who had issued a complaint.19

C4 0-4 pts
Does the government place restrictions on anonymous communication or encryption? 34

The government requires registration for prepaid SIM cards and has flirted with the idea of introducing biometric registration. Effective in September 2018, the Ministry of Telecommunications requires individuals to register their International Mobile Equipment Identity number, which corresponds to their phone number, on a nonsecure government website.1 In December 2017, the Ministry of Telecommunications proposed the introduction of biometric SIM Cards, which would force every person who purchases a SIM card to provide biometric information. The ministry did not expand on how this plan would work in a country where people routinely purchase mobile phones from private shops, but cited “security concerns” as the reason for the proposal.2

C5 0-6 pts
Does state surveillance of internet activities infringe on users’ right to privacy? 26

Mass digital surveillance in Lebanon is facilitated by the weak legal framework on digital privacy, and a legal framework that gives the government a wide mandate to conduct surveillance.

Article 14 of the constitution “ensures the inviolability of the home,” but it is unclear if this law applies to private communications.1 The Telecommunications Interception Act of 1999 (Law 140/1999) nominally protects the secrecy of communications, but it has limitations and does not mention modern forms of electronic communication. Moreover, the law gives the government the right to surveil communications if a judge grants government agencies access, or if the ministry of interior or minister of defense submits a request to the prime minister for matters concerning “combating terrorism, state security, or crimes related to state security.”2

In October 2018, Parliament passed the Electronic Transactions and Personal Data Law, which fails to adequately safeguard personal data. By granting the Ministry of Economy and Trade the responsibility to process data requests, the law effectively turns it into a data protection authority. In addition, Article 97 gives the Ministers of Interior, Defense, Justice, and Health the authority to license data related to state security, court proceedings, and health, placing even more power in the executive branch. Moreover, the law only mentions the instances where a license is not required, rather than clearly outlining all the instances in which entities must obtain a license. Additionally, it does not define a number of key terms, such as “consent,” and fails to place limits on data storage.3

In October 2017, the cabinet gave security agencies renewed, unhindered access to all telecommunications metadata for a period of four months, after some ministers raised concerns on a previous cabinet motion that had granted access for four months to one year (see C6). The cabinet requested that security apparatuses no longer have unhindered access to telecommunications data in the future.4 Additionally, intelligence agencies have separate links to different politicians or parties, and in turn their own agendas, which has led to privacy violations.

For years, the government has used various forms of spyware, but the largest campaign was revealed in 2018. In January, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and Lookout, a mobile security firm, reported that Dark Caracal, a major surveillance operation with nation-state level capabilities, was operating out of a General Directorate of General Security building in Beirut.5 Targets included military personnel, government officials, activists, journalists, and lawyers in 21 countries. The operation developed a unique mobile surveillanceware tool, dubbed Pallas, which was able to extract hundreds of gigabytes of data from Android devices. Using spearphishing tactics, Dark Caracal sent links to Facebook and WhatsApp users that redirected them to a “watering hole” to download fake applications loaded with malware. These applications were counterfeit versions of WhatsApp, Threema, Signal, Psiphon, Tor, and other secure messaging and circumvention applications. The malware had the ability to extract messages and phone calls, download applications, monitor calls, and upload files onto Android devices. Additionally, the operation also used more traditional malware such as CrossRAT and BandookRAT to extract information from desktop devices. The researchers observed that the campaign did not require a high level of sophistication, but it was effective nonetheless.

Prior to Dark Caracal, the government had used other types of spyware to surveil citizens and residents. Security agencies have used surveillance technologies such as FinFisher, Bluecoat PacketShaper, and IMSI catchers.6 Wikileaks exposed the government’s use of FinFisher, which is sold exclusively to law enforcement agencies and allows them to exploit system updates on targets’ computers.

The rise in the use of biometric technologies by the security agencies has also highlighted the need for a stronger data protection law. After the General Directorate of General Security adopted biometric passports in the summer of 2016, the government has embarked on more questionable identification initiatives (see C4).7 In April 2017, the government announced that it would begin issuing biometric residence permits to foreigners.8 The government elected to issue biometric election cards as well, but it ultimately abandoned the idea due to a lack of resources and time constraints. Without a strong data protection law or a judiciary committee, it is unclear if the biometric data is actually being protected and could be used to increase surveillance.9

C6 0-6 pts
Are service providers and other technology companies required to aid the government in monitoring the communications of their users? 36

The government continued to request user account information from major companies such as Google, Twitter, and Facebook.1 In recent years, the cabinet has passed motions giving the security agencies temporary but unhindered access to all telecommunications metadata (see C5). Alfa and Touch, the two telecommunications companies, are compelled to comply because they are owned by the government.

C7 0-5 pts
Are individuals subject to extralegal intimidation or physical violence by state authorities or any other actor in retribution for their online activities? 25

Journalists and ordinary citizens sometimes face intimidation for their online comments. In May 2019, supporters of the parliament speaker Nabih Berri attacked and beat Adnan Farahat at his home in response to a voice message he sent on WhatsApp that criticized Berri and his family. He was later arrested and held for two days before being released on bail.1

Members of marginalized groups also sometimes experience threats. For example, in September 2017, the Facebook page Where is the State, which regularly posts videos of crimes and asks its followers to identify the alleged criminals, uploaded a video of a transgender woman engaging in a consensual sexual act with another person, and asked its followers to identify and out the woman.2 Though the page has not targeted LGBT+ individuals since then, the incident illustrates the vulnerability of LGBT+ people and other marginalized groups, especially considering that the page had semiofficial backing from the Internal Security Forces (ISF).3 Lebanon also has issues with sextortion, a practice where predators attempt to convince targets to send them nude photographs and then blackmail them. The ISF had claimed they receive five or six complaints about such cases each day.4

C8 0-3 pts
Are websites, governmental and private entities, service providers, or individual users subject to widespread hacking and other forms of cyberattack? 13

Cybersecurity breaches, cyber warfare, and criminal hacks have been worrying trends in recent years. For example, in November 2018, Cisco Talos Intelligence Group found that the Ministry of Finance and the private Lebanese air carrier Middle East Airlines were targets of a cyberattack by unknown perpetrators.1 According to Ihab Chaaban, ICT security officer at the Office of the Minister of State for Administrative Reform (OMSAR), there was a 4,000 percent increase in the rate of cyberattacks between 2012 and 2017.2

A committee of ministry, military, intelligence, and private sector representatives was established in November 2018 by Hariri, and tasked with presenting recommendations to Parliament on establishing a national cybersecurity agency in 2019.3

In May 2018, Kaspersky Lab, a Moscow-based cybersecurity firm, reported that it had identified a cyberespionage campaign, with servers based in Iran, that targeted Android users in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, and Iran.4 The operation had the capability to record audio and extract messages, browser data, GPS information, and images. While the Kaspersky Lab report provided no information about the Lebanese targets, it noted that the operation specifically targeted UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) employees in Jordan. In a follow-up interview with Motherboard, one of the researchers also noted that it targeted individuals who worked with international NGOs.5

Country Facts

  • Freedom in the World Status

    Partly Free
  • Networks Restricted

    No
  • Websites Blocked

    Yes
  • Pro-government Commentators

    No
  • Users Arrested

    Yes

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