Beirut, Lebanon – Layal Bahnam leans forward in her chair and presses her hands together. “There have been several harsh cases against investigative journalists exposing corruption and also against bloggers” she says, with a shake of her head.
“All this has occurred in the last few years … this is why we are saying that the time to reform Lebanon’s media law is now,” Bahnam, programme manager for the Lebanese media watchdog and rights group Maharat, told Al Jazeera.
With a large variety of political viewpoints represented across a range of mediums, Lebanon has long enjoyed the sort of media plurality of which many countries can only dream – and, yet, the industry has recently experienced a crackdown.
This, coupled with the long-awaited end to political and governmental stagnation, which had lasted nearly a year, prompted Maharat to launch a campaign in May to urge the adoption of a new media law – one that the group first proposed to a parliament member in 2010.
Of particular note is the growing number of charges being brought against Lebanese bloggers, who have neither the resources nor the support of more established newspapers and TV stations to battle legal challenges to their work.
In March, cyber-advocacy expert Imad Bazzi was interrogated by the Internal Security Forces Cybercrimes Bureau – set up in 2006 – over defamation charges filed against him due to a critical article he wrote last year on his blog in which he claimed that a former state minister had abused his power.
All this has occurred in the last few years... This is why we are saying that the time to reform Lebanon's media law is now.
In January, another blogger, Gino Raidy, was called in by the same bureau to answer to a libel and slander case initiated by a company called Bonofa over a post suggesting their ambitious social media platform may not live up to its hype.
“The fact that a slander and libel case is taken into criminal court and a criminal investigation is undertaken is horrendous,” Raidy wrote in a subsequent post, the emphasis is his.
“The fact that a lawyer isn’t allowed with you, is scary. The fact that you actually need to show up physically and file a deposition under the threat of a 48 hour detention, which can be renewed, and is an attempt to entrap you by the signing of a commitment which incriminates you in its wording, is outright bullying, and happens too often in Lebanon.”
Although both bloggers were released after being interrogated, the charges against them have not been dropped.
“The problem is that there is nothing specifically related to online writing at the moment,” said Bahnam, from Maharat’s fifth-floor office in a busy Beirut suburb. “The current laws are the Press Law and the Audiovisual Law, there is nothing concerning websites or media.”
No laws means no protection, which means that those writing online are subject to the Penal Code and the Military Code of Justice, of which the former was used to prosecute Bazzi and Raidy.
Print media, on the other hand, is thoroughly covered by the 1962 Press Law, while TV and radio come under the 1994 Audiovisual Media Law. The Press Law in particular is complex, having been revised several times since its inception, it covers everything from the professional criteria to become a journalist, licensing of newspapers and vendors, to union organisation.
Article 75 of the Press Law includes a statement widely open to interpretation that prohibits the publishing of news which “contradict public ethics or are inimical to national or religious sentiments or national unity”. The lack of legislation relating specifically to the Internet means that either of the above laws could also be applicable to online journalists, but the rules are unclear and their application is inconsistent.
In 2010, Maharat and numerous other groups, drew up a wide-ranging and in-depth proposal that touched on everything from cutting down on the restrictive and costly licensing requirements for media outlets to reducing the information minister’s powers.
The new law covers all forms of media and has evolved and grown since first being put forward. When it comes to the internet, the idea is simple: No one should have the right to restrict freedom of expression. “This … would be applicable to everyone expressing an opinion online as we have not defined ‘journalist’,” Bahnam said.
“The only thing we did was differentiate between professional news websites and other Internet users – proper news websites must mention who is in charge so that right of reply can be used and people can file defamation cases… [But] people would no longer be liable to be arrested for insulting the president.”
After nearly four years of wrangling, the governmental Committee of Information and Communication has nearly finished debating the draft media law. If everyone can agree on the amendments, the law will make its way to the National Assembly for a vote – when exactly that might be, however, is impossible to tell now that the Parliament is once again unable to legislate properly because it has no president.
Although the importance of free and protected online expression is increasingly and universally acknowledged, in Lebanon, bloggers serve another, more unique role: They provide a much-needed counterpoint to the huge number of partisan news outlets.
Nearly all of the country’s popular newspapers, television channels and radio stations have a clear political or religious bias, and are funded by the corresponding party or group.
a more engaged, critical, analytical audience that forms their opinions themselves.”]
A 2012 report on digital media by the Open Society Foundations said Lebanon’s newspapers have been called “viewspapers”, noting each “supports and represents the agenda of a political personality or party”. The same is true of the country’s TV channels, radio stations, and news websites.
Unlike in many other countries, digitisation has not led to pluralisation, but has simply allowed the agendas that already existed in the mainstream media to echo online.
For example, the five most popular websites in Lebanon, according to analytics tool Alexa, are Al Manar, Tayyar, Elnashra, the National News Agency, and Annahar. All have very clear political agendas.
For Tony Mikhael, a legal expert and consultant at Maharat, this is a reflection of Lebanese society: “In Lebanon, the people are politicised … so you find the websites affiliated to political parties are the most visited websites. The media is the mirror of the society.”
Al Manar (The Beacon), Hezbollah’s media arm, is not only the most popular news website in Lebanon, but also the second most visited site overall, after Facebook. It adheres to a rigid stance.
“It’s our commitment to the resistance [against Israel],” Batoul Wehbe, acting editor-in-chief of Al Manar’s English site, told Al Jazeera about the reason behind their popularity. “We are against the Israeli occupation and its aggressions against Lebanon, Syria, and Palestine … in particular we have never forgotten the Palestinian cause.”
Al Manar TV station is considered a “Specially Designated Global Terrorist Entity” by the US due to its links to Hezbollah, and is therefore subject to sanctions in several countries.
Yet the website, which includes live streaming of the TV channel, positive coverage on Hezbollah’s military role in Syria, and statements by party chief Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, continues to reach a huge audience.
Meanwhile, Lebanese blogs account for a much smaller percentage of web traffic, but provide a vital and vibrant independent space for citizens to challenge mainstream media – and tellingly, blog posts are more likely to pop up on Facebook or Twitter, according to Karl Sharro, who founded the satire blog Karl reMarks.
“Although it is a smaller audience, [blogs have] a more engaged, critical, analytical audience that form their opinions themselves,” Sharro told Al Jazeera.
“There is space for alternative voices to emerge … I’m not saying everyone has an equal voice but it is much more horizontally spread than in other countries,” he added. “A Lebanese person is not bound to follow one type of news or another, there is choice.”
Follow Venetia Rainey on Twitter: @venetiarainey
Source: Al Jazeera