BEIRUT: Following an outpouring of criticism from bloggers and civil liberty campaigners, a bill intended to regulate online media drafted by Information Minister Walid Daouk has been effectively withdrawn, an MP told The Daily Star.
“For all practical purposes it has been withdrawn,” Metn MP Ghassan Moukheiber said.
“I think [the minister] was not well-advised and did not conduct much-needed consultation before he took the decision,” said Ayman Mhanna the executive director of the SKeyes press freedom center, which advocated against the bill.
The bill, submitted to the Cabinet by Daouk on March 7, calls for the registration of news websites and the application of existing media laws to those who work for them.
The backlash against the bill online was overwhelming, prompting Prime Minister Najib Mikati to use Twitter to say on March 12 that he was calling for a review of the law.
It raised concerns with bloggers and civil rights activists, in particular for its vagueness over definitions of what kinds of websites would be covered, and its stipulation that further changes to the law could be made by decree, meaning amendments would bypass the parliamentary review system.
“Matters relating to public freedoms should only be regulated by a law passed through Parliament,” said Tony Mikhael, a lawyer with the organization Maharat, which works to protect freedom of expression. “This is a legal principle, a constitutional principle that public freedoms should be regulated by a law, not by a decree.”
The bill submitted by Daouk incorporates electronic media into the 1994 audiovisual media law, which predates the online media explosion.
“This is the worst of its shortcomings,” said Moukheiber, “because it would incorporate this new medium into a very antiquated law on media.”
Mikhael added that the bill had little value for controllingelectronic media. Defamation and intellectual property laws can already be applied on material published online, so long as the individuals involved can be identified. In 2010, the authorities detained three individuals for criticism of President Michel Sleiman on Facebook.
Following the outcry against the bill, Daouk began a series of meetings with activists and bloggers on March 19, meeting with an informal grouping of bloggers originally organized to advocate for better Internet services. After that meeting, they reported that Daouk had denied the bill had been withdrawn but had assured them the regulations would be opt-in only.
“He started retracting and backpedalling step by step,” said Mhanna. “I heard more and more of people coming out of meetings with him and saying the bill was dead.”
Mhanna said he was “cautiously relieved” that the bill as drafted by Daouk appeared to have been scrapped.
“We know that these things in Lebanon can pop up, especially when people are distracted by political and economic issues,” he said.
Mikhael, who met with the minister Wednesday, said Daouk had become open to discussion of the bill after seeing the reaction.
“The minister said to us he wants to get stakeholders involved in this. He said that, ‘OK I made a mistake and didn’t involve stakeholders in my proposal and I should [have],’” he added.
A separate bill drafted by Moukheiber and Maharat which covers broader reforms to the media law, including online media, is currently in the parliamentary review process. Its limited mention of online media calls for a distinction between professional and non-professional (including blogs and social networks) online media and calls for professional journalists to identify the owner and managing director of their site.
Mikhael said he now believed Daouk’s bill would return to the parliamentary review process, and be incorporated by the parliamentary committee with Maharat’s bill.
“If they insist on passing an electronic media law separately we should lobby and advocate that his proposal adopt our principles,” he said.
Moukheiber said that, given the prior existence of the bill drafted by him and Maharat, he wasn’t sure why Daouk had pushed the draft law, especially given its vague and potentially limited impact.
“I truly don’t understand. I have no idea [what his intentions were,]” he said. “Parliament will continue debating in the media committee the bill already submitted by myself and Maharat.”
Daouk has repeatedly said he acted because online media regulation had become urgent.
Mikhael said that during a meeting with Daouk Wednesday, he had outlined the reasons the bill had been passed to Cabinet. “He proposed this law because someone came to him and said ‘some website defamed me and insulted me and what can I do to have my rights?’”