The Daily star – August 12 2011
BEIRUT: With a rich print media heritage and the freest press in the Arab region, Lebanon has long prided itself as a haven for freedom of expression, but the last few months have seen journalists attacked, human rights activists detained and musicians arrested for defamation, and experts are warning the need for a new media law is more urgent than ever.
In their latest annual Press Freedom index, Reporters Without Borders ranked Lebanon as 78 out of 178 countries, placing the country within the “somewhat free” category, and falling 18 places from 2009. Its next regional neighbors in the list are Israel in 86th place and the United Arab Emirates in 87th. Syria comes in at 173rd.
“Although the Lebanese press continues to enjoy freedom of expression virtually unrivalled in the region, it has been undermined by political tensions,” RWB stated in the report.
On the day that Najib Mikati was appointed prime minister Jan. 25, following the toppling of Saad Hariri’s government in mid-January, several news outlets, deemed sympathetic to the Hezbollah-led March 8 coalition, were attacked.
In what RWB labeled a “Black day for media in Lebanon,” an Al-Jazeera van was set alight in Tripoli. NBN and National News Agency journalists were also attacked in Beirut, and had equipment destroyed.
Reporters Without Borders stated that “the Lebanese authorities must do everything possible to ensure that journalists can operate safely.”
Dr. Jad Melki, professor of journalism and media studies at the American University of Beirut, said that the nature of the Lebanese media, with most outlets affiliated to certain political parties, means that the authorities “have had little interest in protecting the press as whole and helping it become independent and truly free from absolute political control.”
“Whether at the legal, economic, or security level, the Lebanese government has done very little to protect journalists and journalism,” he adds.
But perhaps more worrying a threat to press freedom than journalists unable to work without fear of persecution is the self-censorship which many practice.
Freedom House, an international freedom watchdog, said of Lebanon, “Although media do not face direct interference from the government, political developments and violence in recent years have resulted in increased security risks and self-censorship among journalists.”
Specific themes appear particularly difficult to cover with freedom. In August last year Hassan Alliq, a reporter at Al-Akhbar was questioned over an article concerning the flight of a retired army general accused of spying.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, the article “suggested Lebanese intelligence officials colluded with Israeli counterparts to delay an investigation and allow the general to flee the country.”
The CPJ added, “[former] Defense Minister Elias Murr quickly convened a press conference to deny the allegations in Al-Akhbar’s story and warn news media against challenging the military, news accounts said. He said journalists would be arrested and questioned if they reported information seen as defaming the army.”
And just last month, Saadeddine Shatila, an activist with international human rights group Alkarama, was interrogated without access to a lawyer over reports he had submitted to the United Nations regarding the use of torture by the authorities. He is currently awaiting a referral from the military judge investigating the case, and could be charged with publishing false information or for publishing information harmful to the military’s reputation.
The issue goes further than that of just self-censorship, Melki said, with many journalists acting as tools for different parties.
“Although there are many excellent, professional, ethical Lebanese journalists, this situation [political affiliations] has created a culture that encourages journalists to become spokespeople and propagandists for the politicians who in turn protect and feed these journalists who have no other form of protection and an unsustainable livelihood.”
So while Article 13 of the Constitution guarantees freedom of the press, Layal Bahnam, program officer at the Maharat Foundation, a Lebanese media watchdog, said that “current licensing of media outlets is inconsistent with the guarantees set out in the constitution.”
Work is now under way to introduce one comprehensive media law, to replace the many various pieces of legislation appearing from the Publications Law to the Military Justice Code.
In collaboration with several journalists and legal experts, Maharat worked with Metn MP Ghassan Moukheiber to draft a new law proposal.
Moukheiber registered the draft in Parliament last November only to get stalled during political stagnation earlier this year. It is now under discussion by Parliament’s Media Committee.
The draft law would cancel statutes that allow for the detainment or prosecution of journalists in relation to their work – Lebanese media watchdog SKEyes recorded 50 cases of legal action against journalists in 2010, mainly for cases of libel and slander – and relaxed the strict conditions surrounding media ownership, among other measures.
Bahnam told The Daily Star that so far 25 out of around 75 articles have been adopted by the committee, and it is due to continue discussions next week.
The draft law also introduces legislation by which journalists in different media will be treated equally under law.
“Under the current laws, a print journalist could be arrested for on television repeating something he had published. The draft law would protect all journalists equally, and not just that, but it would allow for freedom of expression for artists, performers, and Facebook posts,” Bahnam explained.
Last year four people were arrested and charged with defamation over a Facebook page criticizing President Michel Sleiman, a charge that carries a sentence of up to two years.
The same law was used to arrest Lebanese musician Zeid Hamdan, lead singer of Zeid and the Wings, last month. The band’s song “General Sleiman,” released last year, which contained the lyric “Sleiman, go home,” was deemed defamatory. His arrest was followed by immediate and widespread international censure, and he was released without charge.
There are fears, however, that given the complex political nature of Lebanese media, successful adoption might be difficult.
Rima Marrouch, Middle East and North Africa research associate at CPJ, said, “Some remain skeptical that in a country where political figures and groups dominate media ownership such an initiative can pass.”
Melki believes that the draft law is a step in the right direction, but has its limitations. “The new law may bring some coherence to the confusing and vague hodgepodge of media laws in Lebanon, but since the problem is in the political system, it’s hard to believe that a legal text will do much for protecting freedom of press.”
The biggest obstacle facing press freedom, Melki believes, is “the sectarian confessional political system in Lebanon. The whole constitution needs to change in a manner that allows the Lebanese people to be Lebanese citizens, and not human herds controlled by sectarian groups and interests.”