26 Oct 2011

The Looming Threat of Online Censorship in Lebanon

I read this Daily Star story about Lebanon’s plan to ‘organise online media’ with a combination of alarm and amusement. I am alarmed by the censorship role that the National Audiovisual Council has been playing increasingly in recent years, but I am also amused by the incompetent authoritarianism of the Lebanese political class and its fumbling efforts to control the dynamic online scene. I should stress that this is not a characteristic that is unique to this government but is something that it shares with the previous March 14 cabinets.

It’s likely that most online users, bloggers and activists will ignore this latest initiative by the archaic NAC and treat it as the irrelevance that it is perceived to be. However, this creeping censorship role should be taken more seriously and opposed widely. While such battles with authority may not sound as glamorous as the Arab uprisings, it is important to defend the relative freedom of expression and speech that exist in Lebanon. It is also important to oppose such measures as that proposed by the NAC, requiring all Lebanese websites to register with the council for example at the risk of facing a ban, on principled grounds and not on fickle and instrumental grounds.

Worryingly, two of the online editors that the Daily Star interviewed seemed to be quite accommodating of the new measure. The editors of both Al-Nashra and LebanonFiles seemed to be in favour of an online media law in principle, even if they had some minor squabbles with the nature of that law. Moreover, the editor of Al-Nashra seemed to be preaching the value of self-censorship and arguing that his publication has established its own ethics: ‘we avoid writing pieces on religion, children, or sects’. This is a common attitude in Lebanon, believing self-censorship to be the lesser of two evils. In fact, self-censorship is even worse than government censorship and it operates more insidiously.   

Ayman Mehanna, from the Samir Kassir Eyes Foundation, rightly pointed out that the council ‘cannot impose regulations on online media with laws that were passed in 1994’. But there is more to be debated here than the need for more modern laws to regulate online publishing. It is the question of whether such regulation is needed at all. Online content is not exempt from the general media laws in Lebanon, but any further formal regulation will only serve as an instrument of control and censorship. There is already a growing tendency for security agencies to act in response to online content, and that trend should be reversed not formalised.

While freedom of the press remains strong in Lebanon despite the attempts of various regimes to control it, there is no doubt that online publishing has led to the emergence of many new voices that would have struggled to be heard otherwise, in the process forcing traditional media outlets to raise their standards. I would argue that the strength of the online publishing scene in Lebanon lies in its unregulated and free-for-all nature and that government ‘organisation’ can only harm that. Naturally this means tolerating a lot of mediocrity and, in the case of the Beirut Observer, outrageous fabrications, but it’s the only process that guarantees a free and dynamic exchange of ideas. To that end, we must oppose the NAC’s ludicrous propositions.

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6 comments:

  1. Well said, thx for sharing. I just can't believe that the online community hasn't reacted effectively yet.

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  2. meh I think March 14 governments were a tad little better on the freedoms issue. Wajih

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  3. "Freedom of speech" is nothing but a fake slogan in Lebanon! if you just check the new Proposed Law for media, you will discover that much more to come in this country, where freedom of speech is only allowed when you hail the leaders and nothing else !

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  4. In fairness to Ayman Mhanna, he told me that he had a long interview with the daily star in which he stressed again and again the principle of free speech, but they ended up publishing only the bits where he talks about legal technicalities.

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  5. Mustapha, I am sure he did, I hope it didn't sound like I was criticising him, I was just building on his argument.

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  6. Censorship of the online sector or the online media is only doomed to failure. The policies the NAC is advocating are simply aimed at controlling the media and making television channels look like Tele Liban or Al-Manar.
    Anything more than this is considered unethical; and this is what the President of the so-called NAC told me.

    While I respect the positive opinions of this blog, I would like to remind the blog that freedom of expression and speech became a reality because of March 14 and the Interior Ministry it established toward the end of 2005.

    All attempts today to organize, censor or control television programs and online media are aimed to reverse what was achieved in 2005. But as a 2,500 year old story taught us: Once people see light, they would sacrifice their lives instead of losing it again.

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Karl reMarks is a blog about Middle East politics and culture with a healthy dose of satire.