By Van Meguerditchian
BEIRUT: Although Lebanon is often celebrated among Arab nations for its protection of freedom of expression, media watchdogs and professionals are warning that media of all forms and particularly online media are coming under attack.
The government-founded National Audiovisual Media Council recently warned several local television channels not to air episodes of programs that were criticized by civil society groups and religious figures for their coverage of social issues, and described as controversial by the council.
A number of politicians spoke out against the council’s warning, decrying what they said was an attack on freedom of expression.
This week, the council announced its plans to establish a database of media websites in an effort to organize online media.
The council’s president Abdel-Hadi Mahfouz Monday called on all Lebanese website hosts to register their websites at the council and said they would begin accepting applications Nov. 1.
Mahfouz didn’t specify the types of websites that need to register or the technical means to be used to create such a database.
Although neither the government nor the Parliament have agreed on a new law regulating online media, the council said that its recommendations and decisions should be followed by all media and online organizations until a new law is passed.
But the executive director of the media watchdog Samir Kassir Eyes Foundation disagrees.
“This is nothing but a legal heresy. The council, whose mandate ended three years ago, cannot impose regulations on online media with laws that were passed in 1994,” Ayman Mehanna told The Daily Star Tuesday.
“The council cannot demand the implementation of a law that it thinks will be passed in the near future,” said Mehanna. “It’s as if they want to tax people who they expect will get rich in the future.”
Mehanna also said that it is unacceptable for an advisory board such as the council to disregard all new developments in the World Wide Web. “There have been so many changes in this sector since 1994. Today there are blogs and online portals that have become major news source for many Lebanese,” Mehanna explained.
But Mahfouz said that the council has no intention of damaging freedom of expression in the country.
“Yes, it is true that our mandate has ended … however, we cannot but carry out our duties in protecting audiovisual organizations,” Mahfouz told The Daily Star Tuesday, adding that online media is part of the audiovisual sector.
Mahfouz, who said he held extended meetings with Prime Minister Najib Mikati, warned of the potential for future government crackdown on websites if they are not organized.
“Our recent decision to organize the online media will only protect websites from a future government ruling against them … if they are not registered or within our database, the government could easily ban them,” Mahfouz added.
Several hundred of blogs, and more than a dozen of online news portals have been opened over the past couple of years.
Political parties have also established their individual news reporting websites to campaign against their opponents online.
Joseph Semaan, the editor-in-chief of Al-Nashra, an online news portal, said he supports some kind of regulations and organization of the online media.
“As long as it is not politicized and not serve political agendas, we support such a decision to organize the sector,” Semaan told The Daily Star Tuesday.
According to Semaan, the government should support online media because it is a new sector that is recruiting many Lebanese graduates.
“We have established our own ethics at Al-Nashra … we avoid writing pieces on religion, children, or sects,” said Semaan, adding that it would be harmful to Lebanon if the council’s decision is aimed at censorship of the media.
The head of Al-Nashra’s competitor on the web, LebanonFiles portal, also expressed support organizing online media. “We have made several initiatives to organize the online sector … but the recent announcement by the council is not clear at all,” Dany Haddad, editor-in-chief of LebanonFiles told The Daily Star.
“We still don’t know which websites need to formally notify the council of its existence … we would prefer to stick with a well-defined law passed by the Parliament,” Haddad added.