Freedom in the World 2003

Trend Arrow: 

Lebanon received a downward trend arrow due to the closure of the country's main independent television station, the unprecedented threatening of mainstream opposition figures with investigations for alleged ties to foreign powers, and the invalidation of a June by-election for politically motivated reasons.


A series of unprecedented developments in 2002 undermined the state of political and civil liberties in Lebanon. The closure of a major independent television station threatened the country's vibrant independent media, and the ouster of a leading member of the parliamentary opposition dealt a major blow to Lebanon's democratic institutions. The government failed to adequately investigate four major assassinations and political killings during the year, even as it launched investigations against political opponents. The presence of more than 20,000 Syrian troops remains the greatest impediment to freedom in Lebanon and the most salient issue of contention between government and opposition.

For over a thousand years, the rough terrain of Mount Lebanon attracted Christian and heterodox-Muslim minorities fleeing persecution in the predominantly Sunni Muslim Arab world. After centuries of European protection and relative autonomy under Turkish rule, Mount Lebanon and its surrounding areas were established as a French mandate in 1920. After winning its independence in 1943, the new state of Lebanon maintained a precarious democratic system based on the division of parliamentary seats, high political offices, and senior administrative positions among the country's 17 officially recognized sectarian communities. As emigration transformed Lebanon's slight Christian majority into a minority, Muslim leaders demanded amendments to the fixed 6-to-5 ratio of Christian to Muslim parliamentary seats and to exclusive Maronite Christian control of the presidency. In 1975, war erupted between a coalition of Lebanese Muslim and leftist militias aligned with Palestinian guerrilla groups and an array of Christian militias bent on preserving Christian political privileges.

After the first few years of fighting, a loose consensus emerged among Lebanese politicians regarding a new power-sharing arrangement. However, following the entry of Syrian and Israeli troops into Lebanon in 1976 and 1978, the various militias and their foreign backers had little interest in disarming. The civil war lost much of its sectarian character over the next decade, with the bloodiest outbreaks of fighting taking place mainly within the Shi'a, Christian, and Palestinian communities. Outside forces played a more direct role in the fighting. The Syrians battled Israeli forces in 1982, attacked a Palestinian-Islamist coalition in the mid-1980s, and fought the Lebanese army in 1989-90, while the Israelis combated Palestinian and Shi'a groups.

In 1989, the surviving members of Lebanon's 1972 parliament convened in Taif, Saudi Arabia, and agreed to a plan put forward by the Arab League that weakened the presidency, established equality in Christian and Muslim parliamentary representation, and mandated close security cooperation with occupying Syrian troops. After the ouster of General Michel Aoun from east Beirut by Syrian forces in October 1990, a new Syrian-backed government extended its writ throughout most of the country.

Over the next 12 years, Syria consolidated its control over Lebanese state institutions, particularly the presidency, the judiciary, and the security forces. However, in return for tacit Western acceptance of its control of Lebanon, Damascus permitted a degree of political and civil liberties in Lebanon that exceeded those in most other Arab countries. While those who directly criticized the occupation risked arbitrary arrest and imprisonment, criticism of the government was largely tolerated. The motley assortment of militia chiefs, traditional elites, and nouveaux riches who held civilian political positions in postwar Lebanon were persuaded to accept continued Syrian hegemony, primarily through a system of institutionalized corruption fueled by massive deficit spending on reconstruction during the 1990s. By the end of the decade, Lebanon's government debt exceeded its own gross national product and the economy was in deep recession.

As a result of this dismal economic downturn, the May 2000 Israeli withdrawal from south Lebanon, and the death of Syrian president Hafez Assad a month later, a vocal opposition to the Syrian presence began spreading across the political and sectarian spectrum. Mass demonstrations against the occupation grew in size and frequency throughout 2000 and 2001, while traditional Christian political and religious leaders who had previously been silent about the issue began speaking openly. Syria downsized its military presence in 2001, but demands for a complete pullout persisted.

After the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, Western pressure to preserve civil liberties subsided, in exchange for Syrian and Lebanese cooperation in the war against al-Qaeda. A number of unprecedented measures were taken to stifle freedoms in 2002. In September, security forces closed Murr Television (MTV), an independent station that had covered government crackdowns against the opposition and given voice to political dissidents. The decision was seen as a move to undermine the growing influence of its prime shareholder, Gabriel Murr, who had won a parliamentary by-election in June. In November, the Constitutional Council invalidated Murr's victory on the grounds that MTV had violated a law prohibiting campaign advertising, handing the seat to a candidate who received just 1,773 of 71,278 votes cast. The resulting public outcry led even pro-Syrian newspapers to condemn the assault on press freedom and democracy.

In the fall of 2002, the government announced that several opposition figures were under investigation for alleged ties to Israel and other foreign powers, and included prominent Christian leaders who had previously enjoyed immunity from government harassment because of their ties to the West, such as former president Amine Gemayel and Dory Chamoun.

Two prominent public figures were assassinated in 2002, reportedly after quarrelling with pro-Syrian politicians. In January, former Christian warlord Elie Hobeika was killed by a car bomb in a high-security Beirut suburb close to key government offices. In May, unknown assailants abducted a prominent student opposition activist, tortured him to death, and left his body in the trunk of his car. These killings, along with the murders of an American missionary and an Iraqi dissident, were eerily reminiscent of the country's 1975 civil war.

In order to preserve economic and political stability in the country, 18 wealthy nations and global financial institutions convened the Paris II conference in November and provided Lebanon with $4.3 billion in financial support to reduce debt servicing and prop up the currency. However, many in the opposition complain that international largesse in the absence of pressure to reform merely prolongs the demise of a corrupt, paralyzed government incapable of solving the country's problems.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

The Lebanese people have only a limited capacity to choose their own government. The Lebanese president is formally selected every six years by the 128-member parliament. In practice, however, this choice is made after Syrian authorization, known as "the password" in the Lebanese media. Syria and its allies also influence parliamentary and municipal elections more indirectly. The distribution of parliamentary seats is skewed in favor of regions where Syrian forces have been stationed the longest, such as the Beqaa Valley, and electoral districts are blatantly gerrymandered to ensure the election of pro-Syrian politicians. There has also been widespread interference during the elections themselves, with Lebanese security forces often present inside the polls. Prior to the June 2002 by-election in Metn, Interior Minister Elias Murr declared that using voting booth curtains to ensure secrecy was "optional," a remarkably blatant move to facilitate vote buying.

Arbitrary arrests and detentions are commonplace, and security forces have used torture in the past to extract confessions. It is widely known that the Syrian-controlled security agencies monitor the telephones of both cabinet ministers and political dissidents.

The judiciary is strongly influenced by Syrian political pressure, which affects the appointments of key prosecutors and investigating magistrates. The judicial system consists of civilian courts, a military court, and a judicial council. International standards of criminal procedure are not observed in the military court, which consists largely of military officers with no legal training, and cases are often tried in a matter of minutes.

Freedom of expression in Lebanon surpasses that of any other Arab country, but is strictly limited on issues concerning Syria. Lebanon has a long tradition of academic freedom and a vibrant private educational system. There are five independent television stations and more than 30 independent radio stations in Lebanon, though they are owned by prominent political and commercial elites. Dozens of independent print publications reflect a diverse range of views.

In September 1991, the government signed a treaty with its larger neighbor explicitly pledging to "ban all political and media activity that might harm" Syria. This treaty, and a variety of subsequent laws drafted to comply with it, allows judges to censor foreign publications and to indict journalists for critical reporting on Syria, the Lebanese military, the security forces, the judiciary, and the presidency. In practice, such laws are mainly used to pressure the media into exercising self-censorship and rarely result in the imprisonment of journalists or the closure of media outlets. However, journalists who persistently violate taboos can be indicted and imprisoned on more serious charges. In March 2002, Antoine Bassil, a journalist for the Saudi-owned, London-based Middle East Broadcasting Corporation (MBC), and Habib Younis, the Beirut bureau chief of Al-Hayat, were convicted by a military court of "contacting the Israeli enemy" and sentenced to prison terms, later commuted to 15 months and two-and-a-half years. Permanent closure of licensed media outlets was rare until the closure of Murr Televisions (MTV) in 2002, which generated palpable anxiety among media owners of all political persuasions.

Freedom of association and assembly is restricted. Although political parties are legal, a 1994 ban on the Christian Lebanese Forces (LF) party remains in place. Public demonstrations are not permitted without prior approval from the Interior Ministry, which does not rule according to uniform standards, and security forces routinely beat and arrest those who demonstrate against the Syrian occupation. In late October 2002, a major demonstration organized by the mainstream Christian opposition, Qornet Shehwan Gathering, was canceled after the Interior Ministry declined to issue a license. Clashes between police and student activists occurred periodically throughout the year, particularly after the closure of MTV. Two student demonstrators were wounded in clashes with police on September 8. Eighteen student demonstrators were injured on October 31, and another 16 arrested. In November, on the eve of Lebanon's independence day, 15 students were detained and 4 others hospitalized after security forces dispersed an anti-Syrian demonstration.

All workers except those in government may establish unions, strike, and bargain collectively. However, foreign domestic workers are routinely exploited and physically abused by employers.

Freedom of religion is guaranteed in the Lebanese constitution and protected in practice, though sectarianism is formally enshrined in the political system. Nearly 350,000 Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon are denied citizenship rights and face restrictions on working, building homes, and purchasing property.

Women enjoy most of the same rights as men, but suffer social and some legal discrimination. Women are underrepresented in politics, holding only 2 percent of parliamentary seats, and do not receive equal social security provisions and other benefits. Men convicted of so-called honor crimes against women are seldomly punished severely.

2003 Scores


Not Free

Freedom Rating

(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Civil Liberties

(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Political Rights

(1 = best, 7 = worst)