BEIRUT: A Lebanese journalist being investigated by the Internal Security Forces’ cybercrime unit scored a legal victory Tuesday when the public prosecutor agreed to transfer his file directly to the prosecution, sparing the reporter a second interrogation session with the unit.
Mohannad Hajj Ali is under investigation for his role in the dissemination of an article about Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea’s alleged war crimes. The article, which includes testimony from sources claiming to be former LF fighters, was written anonymously last year and shared over a thousand times, prompting the party to file a defamation suit.
Early reporting indicated that Hajj Ali was being pursued by the cybercrime unit because online publication was not covered under the press law.
Hajj Ali’s lawyer, Nizar Saghieh, said they were easily able to show several cases that set a strong precedent for the press court in Beirut to handle any kind of writing published online, whether on Facebook, news websites or blogs.
“We succeeded in terms of Mohannad’s case but also in terms of restoring the practice that all journalist press crimes and everything regarding [published] articles be heard by a judge and not the police,” Saghieh told The Daily Star. “Now every journalist may take advantage [of this decision] by citing this precedent.”
Saghieh went on to accuse the cybercrime unit of overstepping its jurisdiction by conducting interrogations when its role should be limited to advising judges on technical aspects of cases related to online activity.
“The cybercrime unit has moved very fast by trying to extend its competence and power and of course without any legal guarantees or legal constraints,” said Saghieh, adding that the legality of the unit itself should be questioned since it was not created by decree or law.
“With this precedent, for the first time, and very importantly, we not only reminded the prosecutor about this practice [referring journalists to a judge] and that it should be respected, [but] we also opened a much-needed discussion about the competence of this unit, the legality of this unit, the possibility of reforming this unit and the right to privacy.”
A source in the ISF vehemently denied any accusations of wrongdoing, insisting that the public prosecutor had transferred the file to the cybercrime unit, which was then obligated to carry out an investigation.
“We would rather they not send these kinds of cases to us because it should be covered under the press law,” he said. “We have more important things to do. ... They asked us to investigate because it’s a criminal case.”
The source called for legal clarification to be issued by the relevant bodies, adding: “It’s not for us to decide. It is our duty to assist the public prosecutor.”
Several dozen journalists and activists gathered outside the judiciary to support Hajj Ali and protest the handling of the case. Some held signs asking if “sharing” an article warrants arrest, what would the punishment be for “liking” or “tagging” one.
“The first time he was interrogated without a lawyer by a security branch, not the judiciary, within an institution whose legal parameters are not clear,” said Alia Ibrahim, a reporter for Al-Arabiya. “We are here to say that this is now how things are, there is such a thing as the freedom of the press and the freedom of expression.”