The Beirut Bar Association council recently announced that any media interviews featuring a member of the bar speaking on legal issues will require prior authorization from the bar president.
The decision, made unanimously by the bar’s 12-member council, has sparked significant controversy.
Lawyers affiliated with the Oct. 17, 2019, protest movement view it as a violation of freedom of expression, while others have expressed their support for the move, stating that it is necessary to counteract the excesses of some of their colleagues.
On Monday, the lawyers in favor of the decision visited the office of Nader Gaspard, the president of the Beirut Bar Association, to express their support for the decision.
The newly added Article 41 of the Code of Ethics, which is included in the internal regulations of the legal profession, mandates that every lawyer seeking to participate in legal programs scheduled on media, electronic sites or social networks must obtain prior authorization from the bar president.
This marks a significant departure from the previous rule established in 2010, which stated that it is “preferable” for lawyers to “inform” the bar president of their intention to participate in media interviews.
Gaspard justified the council’s amendment of this rule by citing the need to “contain the abuses” by some bar members.
“We do not want to repress freedom of expression but to organize its exercise,” he told L’Orient-Le Jour.
However, Nizar Saghiyeh, the director of the Beiut-based nonprofit reasearh and advocacy organization Legal Agenda, who makes frequent media appearances, views the decision as a clear suppression of freedom.
“The decision of the council of Bar Association is not in accordance with the constitution because it violates the very substance of freedom,” Saghiyeh told L’Orient-Le Jour.
Another lawyer, speaking to L’Orient-Le Jour on condition of anonymity, said, “It is an unfair decision, especially since it comes from a body that is seen as a guarantor of freedoms.”
Meanwhile, Wassef Harakeh, a lawyer and activist known in the protest movement circles, commented, “It is inadmissible that a lawyer has fewer rights than an ordinary citizen, in a context of the country’s collapse and confrontation with the ruling power.”
‘Curbing the chaos’
Gaspard defended the measure by raising the argument of the danger of chaos.
“We want to curb the chaos caused lately by a handful of lawyers who appear in the media in a disorderly and repetitive manner,” he said.
Saghiyeh criticized Gaspard’s defense, saying, “Chaos is a pretext that any dictator invokes to attack freedoms.”
Gaspard also raised in the new rule’s defense that it is intended to address the issue of unfair competition between his colleagues, arguing that it is designed to protect the almost 10,000 members of the bar from the few lawyers who attract many customers through advertising, creating an inequality of opportunity.
Saghiyeh also dismissed this criticism, insisting that, “it is not a question of competition but of our right to defend our causes.”
Gaspard also denounced illegal practices and mentioned “social networks — notably Tik Tok — on which some lawyers give paid legal consultations.”
He went on to deplore programs on radio channels, periodically hosted by some of his colleagues who “give their opinion on unfinished court cases.”
“However, Article 39 of the internal rules of procedure has established a rule for nearly a quarter of a century, which firmly prohibits lawyers from using the media and the means of communication and publicity, whether written or audiovisual, to express themselves on cases that are before the courts,” Gaspard said.
“The council did not change the content of this article, except that it added to the list the new communication media, including social networks and electronic sites. Why are we suddenly challenging this article?” he added.
However, for the lawyer who requested anonymity and who has made several television appearances, “such text must simply be removed in the digital age.”
‘We are not civil servants’
Gaspard explained that matters of public opinion are excluded from this prohibition formulated in Article 39, even if they are pending. They require only authorization from the bar president, he said.
A lawyer who requested anonymity believes that although some of his colleagues “do go overboard,” the requirement for prior approval should be abolished when it comes to matters of public interest.
“We are not civil servants,” he said, adding, “it is not necessary that the answers to media questions on constitutional law, societal issues, human rights or even relations between states … be submitted and approved in advance.”
The bar president assured, however, that he is not reluctant to give his approval, especially when it comes to dealing with issues of national importance, such as the economic crisis and the 2020 Beirut port explosion.
However, Gaspard's willingness to grant approval is not the issue at stake, Saghieh said. “Even if the current bar president has the best of intentions, the established rule is not attached to his person,” he explained. “It is a regulation intended to be applied over time.”
Saghiyeh added that he fears “a future bar president may undergo pressure from networks of influence forcing them to allow or prohibit such and such an individual to express their opinion in the media depending on whether they are allied or opposed to the current ruling class.”
Saghiyeh also criticized the decision for “not laying down any criteria for authorization, or providing a time limit within which the bar president must respond.”
He pointed out that lawyers are sometimes solicited on the spot and do not have time to contact the president of the bar.
There is also an issue around how the new regulation will impact the media appearances of MPs who are lawyers by profession?
“For questions of politics or legislation, MPs benefit from parliamentary immunity,” Gaspard, said, noting that “on subjects having to do with the action and the functioning of the bar association, their appearance in the media is subject to the same conditions as their fellow members.”
The Bar Association council has cited several reasons for taking this action at this time, including the fact that programs, including those on television, “often bring together lawyers from all sides who exchange insults unworthy of the Beirut Bar Association,” according to Gaspard.
“It is important that a few members who do not weigh their words and do not respect ethics do not succeed in tarnishing the reputation of this century-old bar association,” he added.
However, lawyer Ramzi Haikal believes that “things would not have come to this if the president of the bar had intervened more quickly. The excesses should have been examined as soon as they were observed.”
Haikal added that “at this stage, imposing a prior authorization generates frustration.”
In the same vein, Harake believes that “rather than subjecting lawyers to general constraints, it is better to sanction those who commit offenses.”
“The bar council must reverse this decision that gags our voices,” he said, adding that many lawyers are considering requesting its cancellation before the Court of Appeal of Beirut, which is responsible for ruling on the bar’s decisions.
This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour. Translation by Sahar Ghoussoub.