BEIRUT: A new draft media law unveiled Friday would abolish the distinction between “political and non-political publications,” putting an end to the country’s print media monopolies if approved when presented to Parliament.
The draft law proposed by Metn MP Ghassan Moukheiber, in cooperation with the Maharat Association, said Lebanon’s Publication Law concerning periodicals largely violated the Constitution, UN charters and freedom of speech.
“The law contains articles that exceptionally define political publications, which the law distinguishes from non-political ones despite the fact that such a distinction is impossible by law and case-law, leading to several types of injustice,” a statement released by Maharat said.
“Magazines issued by municipalities: are they political or non-political?” Moukheiber asked during a phone conversation with The Daily Star, highlighting the problems inherent in distinguishing between a political and non-political publication.
Maharat, which elaborated on the motives behind the draft law, said Decree 74, issued in 1953, and Article 27 of the Publications Law, issued in 1962, violated prominent case-laws by several constitutional and administrative courts.
Decree 74 restricted the number of “political publications” in Lebanon to 25 dailies and another “20 temporary political ones,” while Article 27 prohibited the issuing of any publication before acquiring a license from the Information Ministry after consultation with the Press Federation, which represents owners of publications.
Prior to Lebanon’s independence and during the Ottoman era, no law required publications in Lebanon to obtain a license. Nevertheless, several Lebanese intellectuals fled to Egypt to issue their publications after the Ottoman authorities monitored and censored periodicals.
At the time, the press censor in Beirut was the maktoubji, or letter-writer for the governor.
The draft law suggests that Article 27’s licensing requirements be replaced by merely notifying the Information Ministry of the issuance of a new periodical, without the need to obtain prior licensing or deposit any fees or financial guarantees with the authorities.
Critics of the current law say a restricted number of licenses to issue “political publications” led to a monopoly in the print media market. Would-be publishers are obliged to purchase an already-existing license, which has become a hugely expensive proposition.
“The monopoly rendered the exchange of licenses a black market,” according to a booklet released by Maharat, which is a team of young journalists with the aim of promoting free journalism and regulating media activities without self-censorship or government-imposed constraints on expression.
The booklet contains excerpts of laws regulating the publication of periodicals in France and Germany, where notification rather than licensing is the norm, and in Sweden, where publishers must obtain a certificate of publication from the patent and registration office.
But former Information Minister Henry Tarabay told The Daily Star that the draft law proposed would open the market to more than 300 publications, which would result in the deterioration of press standards.
Tarabay said the draft legislation was unfair vis-à-vis existing “political publications,” which he said should be compensated in the event that licenses are no longer required to be purchased.
According to Article 10 of the draft law, the ownership and the identity of the responsible director of any publication, his nationality and address should be notified to the Information Ministry, along with the sources of financing.
The draft law also grants any resident in Lebanon or institution, irrespective of its nationality, the right to own a publication, contrary to the current law, which restricts the right to Lebanese individuals or corporations.
Moukheiber said allowing non-Lebanese to own publications would lead to transparent investments in the media sector, as Articles 10 and 11 of the draft law allow the ministry to monitor the financial activities of publications.
But the draft denies any national of an “enemy state” partial or full ownership of a publication and “denies any media outlet the right to benefit from any illegitimate benefits to serve the interest of foreign organizations or states.”
“Any individual holding the nationality of an enemy state cannot partially or fully operate or own a media outlet,” according to Article 6.
Moukheiber said the draft law would boost transparency, particularly with regard to the ownership and funding of publications, instead of allowing political parties to wield covert control, under the umbrella of corporations.
Article 10 stipulates that all media outlets should notify the Information Ministry of their start-up capital and three largest shareholders, while Article 11 states that media outlets should submit a disclosure of their investment accounts and any other private funding sources that aren’t derived from media activities.
The information provided to the ministry under Articles 10 and 11 should be published on its website and made available to the public, according to Article 9.
The draft law also suggests the unification of laws governing crimes related to media activities, which are currently regulated by the Penal Code, the Publications Law, Audiovisual Media Law, as well as the Military Justice Code.
It would scrap jail sentences for journalists and restrict penalties to fines and the possibility of the closure of the media outlet, in the event of repeated violations.
The draft also introduces a new chapter to regulate electronic media which requires identifying the website’s owner and its responsible director, who would assume responsibility for content.