BEIRUT: Parliament’s Media and Telecommunications committee has inched closer to better organizing the media sector by entering the final stages of completing a long-awaited draft law.
Based on the proposal presented by Metn MP Ghassan Moukheiber in cooperation with Maharat Foundation, a media watchdog group, the draft law recognizes electronic media and covers all aspects of audiovisual and print media. It also abolishes precautionary detention and jail sentences for journalists who have been convicted of media violations.
Currently, the country’s media outlets are regulated by the Law of Publications of 1962 and the Audiovisual Media Law, passed in 1994.
According to Tony Mekhayel, Maharat’s legal adviser, the draft law stipulates that news websites should provide full disclosure to the Information Ministry.
“Only news websites would be required to notify the Information Ministry on who owns the website, the name of its responsible director and its address,” Mekhayel said.
Falling under the category of news websites are sites that publish news on a daily basis, update them continuously and have staff. Blogs and websites that do not match the requirements would not need to notify the ministry.
The draft law also abolishes the distinction between political and non-political publications along with the license system for newspapers.
According to current laws, anyone can publish a nonpolitical publication in return for paying a certain fee, but needs to buy a license to open a newspaper. The number of these licenses is limited, as no new ones have been issued for decades. There are only a few licenses for newspapers that are not being published any more.
“According to the draft law, a person will only need to notify the Information Ministry in order to establish a newspaper,” Mekhayel explained. “A statement should be provided to the Information Ministry including the name of the paper’s owner and the responsible director along with another document stipulating the budget and sources of revenue.”
Currently, media outlets are obliged to regularly provide the ministry with information on their budgets, but this is not actually happening.
“I don’t know if the new article will be implemented as well, but we mentioned it in order to maintain transparency,” Mekhayel added. “The owner of a media outlet will tell you: ‘Why do you want to know my source of funding? I have my employees that need to earn their living.’”
The draft law abolishes precautionary detention and jail sentences for all journalists over media violations, including those operating social media websites who will be fined instead. Currently, only newspaper journalists are immune to precautionary detention when accused of media violations.
It would also give more power to the National Audiovisual Media Council, which currently has limited influence and only makes recommendations to the government.
“According to the draft law, the council will have decision-making power and it will be the only authority that audiovisual media outlets can refer to,” said Abdel-Hadi Mahfouz, the head of the council.
“It will be giving licenses [for radios and TVs], monitor their performance and determine what is and is not a violation,” he explained. Currently, the council only recommends that the government gives or revokes licenses for audiovisual media outlets.
Journalist Walid Abboud, the host of a late-night talk show program, believes that there is a “structural flaw” in the council that prevents it from carrying out its work even if it is given more powers.
This problem is that the council cannot be fully independent, given that half of its members are elected by Parliament and the other half are appointed by Cabinet. The members represent all parties and sects in the country and this will not change under the new law. Abboud said that in both cases, the members would be under the authority of political groups.
“There is a structural flaw because political groups share membership in the council and which is a flaw in practice, manifested in the fact that the term of the council’s members has expired and no new members have replaced the old ones,” he said. “The council will continue to be dependent [on political groups].”
“But this is the country,” argued Mahfouz. “What can you do to get rid of the fact that public sector posts are shared [between political groups]? All institutions in the country are vulnerable to this condition. What is important is that council members will be selected based on competence and qualifications,” he added.
Media analyst Sarah Richani said that it would be difficult to fully implement the draft law as long as most media outlets are affiliated with political groups in Lebanon:
“Many will in fact tell you that the problem in Lebanon is with the implementation of the laws rather than the laws themselves. ... particularly in periods of deep division, the media [outlets] will be able to evade sanctions for violations such as hateful speech because the media in Lebanon is ultimately owned and/or mortgaged to political and sectarian elites.”
Echoing Mekhayel, Richani said it would be difficult to implement restrictions on media revenue from what is deemed illegitimate sources.
While saying that abolishing the punishment of jail sentence for journalists is a good step, Abboud argued that abolishing the license system for newspaper is too late: “Newspapers are closing these days; it is no longer the era of print media, but [a new era] for electronic media.”