In response to the evident concerns raised by civil society organizations regarding a proposed Lebanese media law that could potentially pose risks unless those in authority prioritize fundamental liberties and freedom of expression, an essential query arises concerning the envisioned expanded role for the current National Council for Audio Visual Media in Lebanon. Numerous considerations center around the imperative aspects of transparency and accountability within the Council, as activists from civil society strive to introduce a new framework of media self-regulation.
Given the recent violations against journalists’ freedom of speech over the last four years, the perception of the current National Council's role comes into question, and an examination of the contribution of its suggested new responsibilities to safeguarding the media and enhancing the scope of freedoms remains crucial.
Credits: Alternative Syndicate of Press - 25/09/2024 - FOE Protest in Beirut
The controversial efficacy of the existing council's mandates
The National Audiovisual Council of Lebanon was established in 1994. It consists of ten members, half of which are appointed by the government and the other half are appointed by Lebanon’s Parliament. The existing Council, led by Abdel-Hadi Mahfouz, has remained unchanged since 2005. Its role remains advisory to the Ministry of Information.
Established in 1994, the National Audiovisual Council of Lebanon consists of ten members, half of which are appointed by the government and the other half by Parliament. It has remained unchanged since 2005 and has an advisory role to the Information Ministry
According to Media Landscapes, the Council’s members are chosen mainly along sectarian lines, as is always the case for Lebanese institutions.
In 2020, the Samir Kassir Foundation (SKF) reported that many media professionals view the National Media Council as informing them and instigating them, or favoring the authorities at their expense, and they do not see the importance of the existence and continuation of the Council. According to SKF’s report, former ministers of information believe that there is no need for the council and that its existence is a waste of public money.
The National Media Council, established under Syrian authority, faces challenges, including perceived political interference in decisions, an appointment process raising concerns about independence, and a lack of a clear framework for its role and members' appointment.
Journalist and Communications Officer of Samir Kassir Foundation, Jad Shahrour, notes that “the Council did not accomplish any achievements, except that it was able to maintain its president for 19 years without any elections.”
While journalists consider that the Council has not been very vocal in defending freedoms, and a new draft law is being discussed by the Committee of Administration and Justice, Head of Council Mahfouz believes that the independence of the new proposed Council should remain far from sectarianism. According to Mahfouz, “appointments of new members should stick to those who are competent and those who are free from sectarian nepotism.” In a question about the reality of such wishes amid sectarian divisions and the current sectarian appointments of the Council’s members, Mahfouz explains that the reality is that Lebanon currently has a system of sectarian favoritism although he wishes that the media remains far from that. “It all circles back to the government. If the new government guarantees sectarian independence, then the appointment can be free from sectarianism which is the current issue of the country. Implementing the laws and civil rest can guarantee this independence,” Mahfouz responded to Raseef22.
The National Media Council faces a number of challenges, including perceived political interference in decisions, an appointment process raising concerns about independence, and a lack of a clear framework for its role and members' appointment.
The discussion around the contradictory notions of independence prolong to the new proposed media law in a roundtable around media self regulation by Maharat foundation, an organization that initially submitted the media law’s draft in 2010, along with previous Member of Parliament Ghassan Mokheiber before the law’s distortion over time.
Contemplations on the proposed council's role: Insights from Maharat’s Roundtable Discussion
To facilitate discussions on the Council's mandate and exchange experiences related to the practices of other committees in Lebanon, Maharat Foundation organized an advocacy roundtable in Beirut on January 17th. Diverse participants—including civil society organizations such as Legal Agenda, the Samir Kassir Foundation, and the Alternative Syndicate of the Media, European media experts, journalists, and some members of Parliament—expressed various concerns during the event. Representatives from the National Human Rights Commission, the National Anti Corruption Commission, and the National Commission for the Forcibly Disappeared shared their experiences in attempting to maintain independence as well. Raseef22 observed and documented several of the concerns that were raised during the roundtable discussion.
Credits: Maharat Foundation Roundtable – 17/01/2024
The Council’s independence and members’ appointments:
In the roundtable, Nizar Saghieh, a lawyer and the cofounder of Legal Agenda, highlighted that the proposed method of appointing members will lead to providing political parties once again with the power of providing licenses to media outlets, which endangers freedoms. Saghieh suggested that candidates should instead present frameworks to the public upon applying to the membership. Dr. Halime Kaakour, member of the Parliament, also suggested that any sectarian division is against rights and diversity in this context. “It is essential to ensure that beyond the independent strategies of appointment, we look into the implementation of these strategies and ensure that it is as specific as possible,” Kaakour added to the discussion.
The Council’s mandate and role:
Mahfouz pointed out to Raseef22 in a separate interview that the new mandate of the Council would provide it with full authority over regulating the media. The Council would also be responsible for looking at any media violation. Denouncing the suggested mandate, Saghieh also flagged that the proposed new law provides full authoritarian power to the Council, which can jeopardize the freedom of the media once again. Saghieh suggests that the mandate of the Council remains advisory and clear to avoid any authoritarianism.
Regulation of the online sphere:
On the one hand, Mahfouz pointed out that the new mandate would regulate the online sphere and include it in a legal framework. “The Council supports the freedom of the media, and to ensure this freedom, online websites need to comply with the law. Implementing the law in this case is essential to guarantee this freedom.” On the other hand, Members of Parliament Ibrahim Mnaimne and Saghieh suggested to fellow actors in the roundtable that this particular authority could add threat to the freedom of expression. “The goal of the existing political system might be to start restricting online space. The representation of freedom defenders in the Council is essential in this case.” Parliamentary member Firas Hamdan, who has been working on Mnaymneh and Kaakour’s side in the Parliament to ensure that this law complies with international standards, believes that there is a political will to refrain from amending the new media law, and if it were to pass, it would be a distorted version that takes media freedom backwards in Lebanon.
Parliamentary member Firas Hamdan believes that there is a political will to refrain from amending the new media law, and if it were to pass, it would be a distorted version that takes media freedom backwards in Lebanon
Credits: Alternative Syndicate of Press - 02/07/2020 - FOE Protest in Beirut
Media self-regulation: The country’s readiness amidst political diversion
In the midst of this, proposing a self-regulation framework for the media is crucial in nurturing a responsible and ethical media environment. In Lebanon, where media significantly influences public opinion as per political motives, self-regulation has become an innovative tool for preserving credibility, upholding journalistic standards, and ensuring the delivery of accurate and unbiased information. In the roundtable, European Union experts introduced varied approaches to implement media self-regulation, emphasizing the necessity of having National Regulatory Authorities (NRAs) free from political interference. According to the experts, the NRAs should adhere to diverse standards, including financial and political independence, competencies, and engaging in open discussions with the public. Drawing on global experiences, Toby Mandel, the Executive Director of the Centre for Law and Democracy, pointed out the importance of precisely distinguishing between traditional media and social media in any Lebanese legislation to prevent the risk of excessive regulation within the media sphere. Experts elaborated that the European regulation distinguishes between licensed media, such as broadcasting channels, and those that do not require licenses, like newspapers and digital platforms. They stressed the importance of avoiding excessive regulation, with an exception being made for not intervening in how online hate speech is addressed for example.
Nizar Saghieh, lawyer and cofounder of Legal Agenda, highlighted that the proposed method of appointing members in the Council will lead to providing political parties once again with the power of providing licenses to media outlets, which endangers freedoms
Credits: Alternative Syndicate of Press – 02/07/2020 – FOE Protest in Beirut
As we explore strategies to reshape the media landscape, particularly through initiatives such as self-regulation, many suggest that changes to the law will eventually compromise foundational principles of freedom and human rights. Jean Kassir, Co-founder of Megaphone news, cautioned at the end of the roundtable against amending the law during a period marked by threats to freedom. "Slowing down on the amendment process may be a more strategic course of action to divert additional legal constraints on journalists," suggested Kassir to other actors in the room.
While activists, experts and legal advisors collaborate closely with new Members of Parliament to navigate potential challenges, fundamental questions persist: Is it wiser to wait for a political system to change within the current Committee of Administration and Justice, or to rather continue fighting towards an amended law that takes independence more seriously? Furthermore, will human rights observers succeed in regulating the media far from the political forces shaping the media landscape currently?
*This article has been prepared within the project "Media Reform to Enhance Freedom of Expression in Lebanon."
The European Union funded this publication. The responsibility for its content lies solely on the Maharat Foundation and does not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union.
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