Tweets or street talk?... Let’s preserve our freedom

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A sign is posted on the exterior of the Twitter headquarters on February 5, 2014 in San Francisco, California. (Photo: Getty Images/AFP-Justin Sullivan)

By: Pierre Abisaab

Published Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Court of Publications in Beirut, presided by Judge Roukouz Rizk, sentenced on Wednesday Lebanese citizen Jean Elias Assi to two months in jail, and fined him fees and expenses for libel against the president on Twitter.

Assi was charged over a series of tweets he posted back in 2013 for “slandering and defaming” the President of the Republic Michel Suleiman.

The ruling prompted a cyber-campaign in solidarity with the young man. Supportive hashtags, tweets, and statuses took the internet by storm. We spontaneously retweeted the hashtag #We_Are_All_JeanAssi and posted a series of tweets denouncing the suppression of freedom and mocking the authorities, including the presidency.

Once again, we found ourselves amid a new battle; defending public freedoms. This time, it was about a blogger who dared to criticize his Excellency.

Then, we came across a tweet by one follower saying “You are right, it’s true that he is the most incompetent president we ever had and we cannot wait for him to leave! But isn’t it shameful to address him like this?” adding a screenshot of one of Assi’s tweets, too obscene to be published in this article.

It seems we fell into a trap this time. We had announced our solidarity with a citizen who criticized the president without checking the tweets in question first.

[Al-Akhbar’s journalists] Nadine and Fatima blushed as they showed us other tweets concerning prominent figures, which were used to incriminate him. He called one “castrated” and the other “a fag”, and these are only some examples! I deleted the hasty supportive tweet after my cyber friend’s remark and replied saying “after reading the tweets, I am no longer able to defend Jean. I defend freedom until the extreme, I defend harsh mockery but I cannot accept swearing and cursing.”

Criticism is a sacred right no matter how daring it might be, as long as it preserves the thin line between democracy and civil violence, between justifiable anger and a demagogy which only leads to chaos then dictatorship.

Freedom is a collective responsibility, one that is impossible to preserve without respecting the law and the rules of democracy.

However, we should point out that the Court of Publications sentence was rare and too harsh. While unfortunately, we cannot defend Jean Assi, we do appeal for extenuating circumstances for him.

This twitter personality is not a journalist entrusted with preserving journalistic standards and norms, he is just a regular citizen expressing himself in the internet jungle 2.0. Here, everyone gets to speak his mind regardless of his cultural standards, knowledge or awareness.

Imposing such harsh sentences on people active in the cyber sphere may as well be transformed into an absurd battle that may also be deemed as oppressive.

Is Judge Roukouz Rizk aiming to make Jean Assi a lesson for others? Is this the proper way to do it? Is it not better to proceed in a more “educative” manner with citizens of the cyber world?

Maharat Foundation [an organization that promotes freedom of expression in Lebanon] lawyer, Tony Mikhael, said “We can always resort to the system of low fines without a prison sentence while compelling convicts to do community service for the sake of public interest”.

It is about time we learn that tweets are different from street talk. Those who post on social networks are actually expressing themselves in a public sphere; hence they have to bear moral and legal responsibilities.

In this context, we should well define the necessary tools and procedures meant to raise the cyber public opinion to a level of maturity.

Pierre Abisaab is Vice-Editor of Al-Akhbar. Follow Pierre Abisaab on Twitter .

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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