BEIRUT: Information Minister Walid Daouk is hoping that deliberations over a new and modern media law will not drag any longer so as to catch up with the unceasing progress witnessed in the media sector worldwide.
“Lagging behind is no longer permissible, otherwise the new media law will be as defunct as its antecedent,” he told The Daily Star Friday at his office, overlooking the country’s Central Bank in the bustling Beirut district of Hamra.
Daouk, a lawyer, realizes the immensity of the mission he was tasked with and the multitude of challenges awaiting him as the new head of the Information Ministry.
The minister cited modernizing the audiovisual media law, rewriting bylaws for the Journalists Union, and revamping the state-run television station in addition to the National News Agency as the main projects he is currently mulling over.
“We are working on those projects in parallel and I personally believe that all of these are top priorities,” he said, adding that “speed” and “dialogue” were two key elements capable of making all the sought reforms possible.
Daouk, who has over 20 years of experience in property, commercial and civil law but who has also worked as the attorney for several media outlets, said he was tackling projects his predecessor at the Information Ministry Tarek Mitri had already began working on.
With the modernization of the country’s media-related legislation topping the list of priorities at the ministry, Daouk explained he has been holding regular meetings with all those involved in drafting a new media law.
The ministry now has on the table a draft media law put forward by Metn MP Ghassan Moukheiber in close cooperation with the Maharat Foundation, a media watchdog.
The bill essentially guarantees increased transparency of media ownership, protects journalists from prison terms connected with their work and scraps severe licensing requirements for media outlets.
Daouk said he was trying to generate a consensus concerning the new media law, adding that his reading of the draft media law as well as Lebanon’s political dynamics pushed him to raise a series of questions that he was presently discussing with those concerned.
“In principle, I am asking myself questions and those involved whether to treat the draft law as an all-encompassing package or address its many components separately,” he said, adding that he was finding it hard to reach a consensus over the existing draft law.
“Maybe we should treat the components of the draft law separately as in coming up with a new Publications Law, and another one that would regulate the work of online media outlets and so on and so forth,” said Daouk, who admits that the ratification of an all-inclusive media law would be the optimal solution.
“We saw in the past couple of weeks how strenuous debates in Parliament can turn. I don’t think an all-inclusive law can be smoothly or easily ratified in Parliament; it needs time, it needs examination,” said the minister. “It would be better to treat each component separately and maybe at a later stage they can all be joined into a unified media law.”
As for calls to abolish the Information Ministry, Daouk said the ministry would no longer be necessary once the National Audiovisual Media Council is given the powers to become a regulatory authority.
“If I want to be a demagogue, I would tell you that the Information Ministry should cease to exist, but let’s be realistic, before a competent authority is created to regulate media-related issues this ministry will continue to exist,” he said.
“The National Audiovisual Media Council in its present shape is merely a consultative body. It has no powers or authority, whereas we should work for it to become an institution capable of monitoring media outlets, holding those accountable in case of violations of the law and being itself subject to accountability,” added Daouk.
Another project the information minister enthusiastically addresses is his plan to revive the long-neglected state-run television station, Tele-Liban.
While Daouk acknowledged that funding was the main obstacle standing in the way of his plans for TL, the minister said that once the Cabinet “senses a genuine and sincere change in the work of the television station, it will be encouraged to spend more money.”
“Only 4 percent of the Lebanese television audience watches Tele-Liban and this is definitely not permissible … this is not acceptable for the television station most of the Lebanese grew up watching,” he said.
Daouk said that while he rolled his sleeves up to salvage the public television, he admits that TL will not be able to compete with private channels.
“First and foremost,” he added, “a new and dynamic board of directors for Tele-Liban should be appointed.”
The “new” Tele-Liban, according to Daouk, should act as a national forum that moves away from outdated formats and attracts the Lebanese youth whether as employees or viewers.
“We will create a share in the market by addressing issues that other outlets tend to overlook such as sports or news related to various regions in Lebanon,” he said.
Daouk said TL should be able to attract an audience which is “sick of watching partisan television stations.”
He added that the revamped state-run television will be a haven for all the “centrists” in the country who believe in the Lebanese state.
“By centrist I do not mean flavorless, by centrist I mean an open-minded mentality willing to absorb and adopt all the positive ideas that fall in the interest of the country,” said Daouk.