A recent decision by the National Audiovisual Media Council, an independent body, regarding news websites—and apparently blogs—is catching a lot of flak. The council called for all news websites to register with it starting November 1, prompting fears the move is both illegal and could be a step toward censorship.
In an interview with NOW Lebanon, Abdel-Hadi Mahfouz, head of the 10-member NAMC, said the council merely wants to get an idea of the electronic media landscape in the country prior to passing a new law that would include online publications—currently not covered by the most recent media law of 1994.
Mahfouz told NOW Lebanon that both news websites and blogs should register, after which details would be hammered out on how the two should be regulated in the future (i.e., whether there should be a legal distinction between them). After registering, Mahfouz said online news sites should write a code of ethics to follow and contribute to drafting a new media law that would include them.
He added that failure to register could result in the site being banned but insisted that the council wanted to protect, not censor, online media.
Bloggers and free speech activists see it differently.
As the popular blogger BeirutSpring quipped, “It’s like asking us to walk into a prison so that they could protect us from murder.”
Ayman Mhanna, executive director of the press-freedom-promoting SKEyes Center, said he feared censorship was the main goal of the initiative and lamented what he called the council’s past dismal record of speaking up when journalists were beaten or intimidated as well as the council’s lack of explanation for its recent decision.
“Also, there are deep flaws in the decision,” he said. “There’s absolutely no clarity in terms of what they mean by ‘news websites.’ I really think that they themselves don’t know the difference between official news websites, blogs, citizen journalism platforms [and the like].”
Change and Reform bloc MP Ghassan Moukheiber, who authored a new media law that would address electronic media and is currently under review in parliament, also questioned the decision, highlighting what he called its complete illegality.
The council was created in 1996 as part of the 1994 Audiovisual Media Law. Based on the text of the 1994 law, the council is responsible for licensing and regulating television and radio stations—which proliferated in the lawlessness of the 1980s. It has been derided as an independent but toothless organization used as a political tool in a media environment where news outlets are tied to politicians.
Moukheiber and Mhanna said the 1994 law does not mention electronic media at all, and therefore it, and the council it created, has no legal authority to regulate websites.
“This decision is not only [legally incorrect] but dangerous,” Moukheiber said. “Although it looks benign, legally [registration would be] a de facto recognition that electronic media are subject to the  law.”
Speculation in the Lebanese press suggested the NAMC’s move might reflect tension between the council, reportedly close to Amal and the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, and Information Minister Walid Daouk, an ally of President Michel Sleiman. Other reports indicated the council acted after being pressed by people who were eager to sue online publications that they accused of libel but who could not find details of who owned the sites they wanted to go after, Moukheiber said.
The MP said he thinks the country needs a new law—and promoted the one he’s already drafted—to regulate electronic media and cement press freedoms for journalists who work at online publications, which, in theory, they don’t have, as there is no law that mentions online media.
Mhanna agreed with protecting freedom of the press, noting, “The only way we can go toward a positive regulation of news websites is to provide them all the legal protections, immunities, etc., that print journalist have. This is a kind of reform related to regulating news websites that would be going in the right direction… We can’t but be suspicious toward any other kind of regulation of news websites.”