2 Nov 2011

Online Regulation? No, Thanks, I like my freedom.

Following last week's news that the National Audiovisual Council in Lebanon is planning to ‘organise online media’ and speculation that this might include a requirement for blogs to be registered with the council, NOW Lebanon interviewed Abdel-Hadi Mahfouz the head of the council in an article published today. Mahfouz confirmed the council's proposals, including the requirement for registration: 

'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.'

Given that Mahfouz is known neither for his imagination nor for his enterprising spirit, the council's initiative comes almost certainly as a result of a political decision. The improvised and arbitrary nature of this process reflects the political class's sense of lack of control of the online sector which has become increasingly irksome and feisty. Mahfouz expressed this anxiety in a typically paternalistic manner, saying that the council: 'wanted to protect, not censor, online media'. Protect from what? Critique, free thinking, inquiry? Note that this 'protection' comes with the threat of a ban if bloogers fail to comply. 

It is clear that Mahfouz doesn't have the faintest clue where this is going, but wants bloggers to submit to the council's authority nevertheless. But the thing to remember here is that the council and the government behind it can cause a lot of damage despite their incompetence. Even though the threat of bans is laughable given the failure of far more authoritarian Arab regimes to implement such bans, this is a matter of principle. The principles involved are the freedom of speech and expression where there should be no compromise under any pretext.There is no shortage of laws to deal with cases of libel or defamation, any further 'organisation' can only introduce further control and prospects of censorship. 
The suggestion that online news sites should write a 'code of ethics' should also be dismissed outright. This attempt at formalising self-censorship is even more dangerous than outright state censorship. We have to trust editors and writers to make independent decisions and allow them the freedom to challenge social norms and restrictions.If they transgress any limits, let public opinion be the judge not the government's officially-designated media dinosaurs. The prospect we face if we go down the route of self-censorship is  irrelevant banality, an even more troubling outcome than confrontations with the censors. 
Ultimately, this is about freedom. Tell the council to butt out.


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  2. Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn't pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same.


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

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