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In Lebanon, Facebook can land you in jail

Facebook is making headlines again – this time in Lebanon, where four male college students were arrested, and spent a week in jail, for defaming a female student. By LAYAL ABOU RAHAL

Menassat, Here's what's happening in Arab media.
R.R. / Illustration by arabimages.com

BEIRUT, Jan. 21, 2008 (MENASSAT.COM) – In a unique case, the Lebanese security forces have briefly arrested four students of Saint Joseph University in Zahle in Eastern Lebanon, accusing them of electronic defamation against a female colleague on the social networking site Facebook. The arrest, which came immediately after the students were summoned to the Zahle courthouse on January 10, has raised many questions about the lack of specific legislation for electronic media in Lebanon.

The female student filed a legal complaint against the four other students after visiting a group they had created on Facebook, the social networking site that is especially popular among young Lebanese, in November 2007. According to the girl, the Facebook group included a defamatory description of her, along with pictures of her that were taken and posted online without her knowledge or approval. According to the complaint, there were “disgusting comments, and sexual defamatory words.”

The father of the plaintiff advised her to save all the comments posted to the site and to present this evidence to the dean of the university. When the dean failed to take action, the family filed a legal complaint.

After the four accused got wind of the legal action undertaken by the family, they immediately deleted the comments from the site. But the girl's family, using the backed-up comments as evidence, went ahead and filed the complaint anyway.

The public prosecutor for the Bekaa valley then summoned the four male students as well as a fifth female student. Upon seeing the evidence, they admitted to the charges and were immediately detained for one day at the courthouse. The next day, an arrest warrant was issued and the four male students were transferred to the Zahle prison. The girl, who was under-age, was released into her father's custody.

The "Facebook arrest" is a first in Lebanon, and it might be the first in the world on defamation charges. (People have been arrested in the U.S. for threatening to kill others on Facebook, and police have used Facebook to identify suspects who committed crimes. )

Facebook itself is off the hook; its Terms of Use clearly state that the user agrees not to post materials that "will violate or infringe upon the rights of any third party, including copyright, trademark, privacy, publicity or other personal or proprietary rights; or contain libelous, defamatory or otherwise unlawful material."

Much has been made of the lack of specific legislation regarding the Internet. But according to the girl's lawyer, Micheline Bardawil, this argument is moot. She points out that the four students were arrested under Articles 531 and 582 of Lebanon's Penal Code, which cover defamation without specifying the means of dissemination. The use of Facebook is only an aggravating factor because of the global reach of the site.

But there are other things to consider. As the Maharat Foundation, a new organization for freedom of expression, points out, Lebanese law prohibits cautionary arrest in defamation cases. Therefore, the four students should not have been arrested but allowed to stay free pending a trial. Maharat considers the Zahle arrest illegitimate.

For the four students in question, the consequences were dire. They were arrested just four days before they were supposed to take their final exams on January 14. On that day, the students' families and fellow students staged a sit-in in Zahle, protesting what they called "an illegal arrest" which effectively ruined the students' academic careers, and put them in jail for a week in the company of thieves and murderers.

But the girl has so far refused to back down, even after mediation efforts, saying, "We live in an eastern community and we come from decent families. These guys should be made an example for all their friends who use defamatory words to describe girls.” A female friend backed her up, saying, "They deserve to be jailed so they would realize that girls are not toys from their amusement."

The mother of the plaintiff said the comments "played with her daughter’s feelings and reputation", and came about "because the boys wanted to take revenge on her because she didn't show any interest in them."

Legally speaking, the case continues to stir up discussion about whether the case should have been brought under the Press Law, which covers print media, rather than the Penal Code.

According to lawyer George Abboud, "If we consider Facebook as means of public expression, we could prosecute based upon the material published on its pages." Yet in his personal opinion, he says. "such trials should be under the Penal Code, not the publication law."

Abboud brings up another point. "If we look at Facebook, or the Internet in general, there are many cases much worse than the one at hand. It is enough to watch the news on any given day to witness all kinds of defamation against officials and political leaders in which the judicial system has not taken action."

Another lawyer, Ziad Baroud, said in al-Akhbar newspaper that electronic crimes remain a legal void, pointing to some legal texts treating with electronic crimes without explicitly mentioning them (such as article 209 of the Penal Code). He added that the Bureau of Intelligence Crimes, part of the Internal Security Forces, is working hard in this area, cooperating with the Internet companies in Lebanon to get the information it needs.

In the end, the four students were released on January 17, after one week in jail. Their trial is set for next month.

Marseille,02 01 2008
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