BEIRUT

Lebanon News

Press ban on Lebanese physicians drags on

MTV’s “The Doctors” has been off of the air since the ban came into effect.

BEIRUT: A ban preventing Lebanese doctors from giving interviews to the media continued into a fourth month despite hopes that it would be lifted at the end of August.

The blanket ban, established by the Lebanese Order of Physicians, was put in place on June 13 following the detention of Dr. Musa Abu Hamad under the orders of Mount Lebanon’s public prosecutor. Abu Hamad had been detained following the death of a patient, Rita Zogheib, under his care at the Our Lady of Lebanon Hospital in Jounieh.

Zogheib was seven months pregnant at the time. An autopsy of her body later indicated that her death was due to an amniotic fluid embolism – an extremely rare condition which affects pregnant women and in most cases is fatal – and the physician has since been cleared of malpractice. Abu Hamad’s detention led to strikes in solidarity with the detained doctor at a number of hospitals in Beirut.

Speaking to The Daily Star at the time, Sharaf Abu Sharaf, head of the Order, expressed incredulity at the detention and criticized some media outlets for jumping to conclusions about Abu Hamad without evidence.

The organization stated that it had already been considering the creation of strategies to regulate the interaction of doctors with the media following a number of blunders in which misinformation or expressions of personal opinion have appeared in print, and a number of doctors have appeared to seek self-promotion on television. Currently no regulations are in place.

Since the ban came into place the popular MTV show “The Doctors” – in which four Lebanese physicians with different specialties answer health questions presented by the public – and the appearance of physicians on morning television programs has been discontinued.

Speaking to The Daily Star in mid-August Suzanne Heydamous, head of Media relations at the Order, said that “the situation was getting out of control” and a ban was necessary due to examples of “doctors spreading propaganda and seeking self-promotion on television in a way that contradicts the ethos of being a physician.” A number of doctors were disciplined for comments made on television shows and print in contravention of the ban. But Heydamous said that a resolution to the situation would be reached in September.

Ayman Mhanna, executive director of the Skeyes Center for Media and Cultural Freedom, criticized the all-encompassing nature of the ban.

“In the specific example of Doctor [Abu Hamad] then it is understandable that a media ban was issued while legal proceedings were ongoing – this is justified. However, we are against a blanket ban preventing any interaction between physicians and the media in unrelated cases,” he said.

As the ban entered its fourth month, Heydamous said that a central reason for its longevity is due to the difficulty reaching a consensus regarding the precise nature of regulations to be established. A central strategy under consideration is a system whereby doctors must submit interview requests to the head of their society and obtain approval before proceeding.

“If the doctor is a dermatologist he must seek approval from the head of the dermatology society, and et cetera, depending on the physician’s practicing discipline,” Heydamous said.

Copies and recordings of interviews would then be submitted to the Order after they have taken place, a process that could stymie interaction between doctors and the press due to the channels of approval that must be navigated before permission is granted. Heydamous said that debate has arisen as to whether the media should be permitted to publish – in print or broadcast – before submitted interviews have been given the OK by the Order.

“From a media point of view the quicker information can go to print the better, but from the Orders point of view taking some time to review the interviews is better,” Heydamous said. “However, the Order does not want to unnecessarily prolong the work of the media, especially in situations where obtaining information is urgent.”

Heydamous said that she expects a resolution to the current deadlock will be reached within a fortnight.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 17, 2012, on page 4.

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