A few days ago, a Lebanese journalist named Bassel Al Amin wrote a Facebook status that saw him thrown in jail. You’d never hear of such a sentence in any “civilized” country around the world, regardless of the content of said Facebook status, but here we are.
It translates to:
“The shoe of the Syrian refugee and worker and citizen is worth more than your Republic, your cedar, your Lebanon, your right-wing, independence, your government, history, revolution, and presidents. Do you get it?”
Many journalists and activists have risen up to defend Al Amin with the hashtag: A status is not a crime. Of course, many others have also taken up the anti-Al-Amin camp with their proclamation, such as MTV in this piece of theirs, that – and I quote:
“We are faced with a segment of the population that wants to say what it pleases, whenever it pleases. It’s a segment that is completely in refusal of everything and doesn’t hesitate to insult our nation and express an opinion that should never ever transgress on the dignity of our country and our citizens. And even if what Al Amin wrote expresses the opinion of some people, then those should relinquish their Lebanese nationality.”
Let’s put it out there. What Al Amin said is nauseating. You can criticize anything you want about the country in any way that you like, and if you read my blog you’d know there’s nothing I like more than that, but I find that reverting to insults or derogatory rhetoric to get a point across takes away of the point you are making.
That said, let me put this out there as well: it is Bassel Al Amin’s right to say whatever he wants to say about anything that he wants, Lebanese Republic and presidents and politicians and botany, and still not be thrown in jail because of it.
The moment we start to limit what we are allowed and not allowed to say, we give our government and every censorship bureau out there a more than open occasion into further limiting the scope of what we can say in absolute terms. How long would it be, if we stay silent about the arrest of a Lebanese citizen because of a Facebook status, before our own statuses and tweets and even words on the street that we say to friends become the subject of lawsuits or arrests because someone with political or legal muscle decided they were “offensive” or “illegal?””
MTV may not like this, given their categorization of our segment of the population as one that wants to say “whatever it wants whenever it pleases,” but that is actually our right. I am supposed to be able to say whatever I want, whenever I want, and however I want, and you, MTV and those who believe in what it has said, are just supposed to deal with it in the multiple of ways that you can do so with, beginning with actually debating what I have to say and not stringing up poetic language to show people how my opinion or even my formulation of an opinion is a horrific act.
Lawyers across the country have agreed that Bassel Al Amin’s words are not, in fact, legal. However, a law existing does not mean the law is right. To note, Lebanon’s penal code has article 522 which allows a rapist to be absolved of his crime if he marries the woman he raped. The Lebanese penal code also has article 534 which bans “sexual acts contrary to nature,” an article that was used quite proficiently by Lebanon’s authorities on some occasions to arrest LGBT people.
The arrest of Al-Amin is also as hypocritical as it can get. A few years ago, Jean Assy, a prominent FPM supporter, went on a Twitter tirade against the former (then current) Lebanese president Michel Sleiman, leading to his arrest – albeit for very limited time. Gebran Bassil, son in law and politician galore of current Lebanese president, tweeted the following back then:
Perhaps tweeting and Facebooking is only a crime when it touches upon your president or your own political party?
This whole talk about national “dignity” being represented in the most mundane of things – tweets, statuses, what have you – reminds me of a debate the United States was having when I was there a few days ago.
When Donald Trump (cringes) tweeted (cringes again) that he was going to prosecute and/or take away the American nationality from everyone who burned the American flag, the US was divided. What was a fact, regardless of what Trump and his supporters wanted, was that the burning of the American flag was a protected act under the first amendment of the United States constitution, which guaranteers freedom of expression, therefore turning the burning of a flag – arguably one of the highest insults to a country – as an expression of freedom of speech.
Lebanon, we have a long way to go.
But for those who are worried about their dignity as Lebanese because of a Facebook status, let me remind you of the following:
- You do not have 24/7 electricity,
- You do not have access to water all the time,
- Your internet sucks,
- Your security situation is as precarious as it can be,
- You need a visa to go to almost anywhere,
- Your passport is the most expensive around the world,
- You have not voted for parliament since 2009,
- You stayed without a president for more than 2 and a half years, after a president that needed more than 8 months of void to be elected,
- You literally live in garbage,
- Your women can – as of the writing of this post – be raped and then proposed to and everything becomes okay,
- Your women cannot pass on their citizenship to their children, something that many of you wholeheartedly agree with,
- Your women can be victims of domestic abuse without repercussions.
- Your LGBT population’s existence is considered “illegal,”
- Your roads are in disrepair,
- Your infrastructure is near non-existing,
- Many see the country’s worth as contingent upon the well being of their religious sect,
- Censorship bureaus decide what you get to be exposed to depending on their whims,
- Not having a national budget since 2005?
- Your politicians – read Wiam Wahhab – having militias,
- The country having militias to begin with,
- You getting “SSSS”‘ed at airports just because you’re Lebanese,
- You getting secondary interrogations before entering countries even after you’re given a visa because you’re Lebanese,
- Smugglers and criminals being arrested and then freed a short while later because you need them to buy cheap phones,
- Your very last public beach in Beirut will soon become a resort,
- Your entire coast – your public property – is something you need to pay to access (refer to this for comparison),
- Your forests are subject to “accidental” fires but their wood ends up in your fireplaces anyway,
- Your governmental facilities are among the world’s most corrupt,
- You consistently rank among the countries with the least faith in their politicians… but keep on voting for them anyway,
- You put curfews for foreigners depending on where they come from,
- Your political class is basically warlords.
But yes, please tell me more about how our dignity was irreparably insulted by a Facebook status?
to be fair though… the shoe probably is worth more.
I used to really enjoy reading your articles in the past. Something in the approach changed. by taking back the concept of freedom of expression to its roots this is not what it infers in any way. It’s easy to copy opinions from the US (with the whole flag burning issue) but what works for one country in one context and legal system doesn’t work for another not to mention this is completely different.
Hope you can broaden your approach for future readings
I actually like how Elie puts recent events into the perspective of the bigger picture.
As always, well-written
Take it from someone who lives outside Lebanon and who has never visited. I have no idea what that Facebook status was trying to say. Your country’s honor is intact.