Lebanese State Actions Trigger Concerns over Internet Censorship

Several industry players issued statements denouncing the move, accusing the council of attempting to control the Lebanese internet sector. Information Minister Walid al-Daouk believes there are no reasons for concern. (Photo: REUTERS - Jamal Saidi)

By: Layal Haddad

Published Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Recommendations by Lebanon’s media council to register websites has raised concerns of mounting censorship less than two months after measures to speed up internet access were hailed as ushering in a new era of surfing in the country.

As expected, the latest session of the Lebanese National Audiovisual Media Council did not go smoothly. Once again, the council was accused of attempting to impose indirect censorship on Lebanese media outlets. This time, electronic website owners expressed concern over the council’s latest recommendations that websites should be officially registered.

Several industry players issued statements denouncing the move, accusing the council of attempting to control the Lebanese internet sector. Information Minister Walid al-Daouk believes there are no reasons for concern. He views the council’s role as mainly advisory, affirming that the ministry has sole authority over electronic media. But does this signal possible tensions between the ministry and the council?

The question seems legitimate following Daouk’s statement. However, Daouk said in a recent interview with al-Akhbar: “There is no dispute. There is merely an overlapping of prerogatives.” He added, "The electronic media sector can only be handled through the law. I will submit a related draft law soon for parliamentary committees to study."

The minister further asserted that, in the absence of any clear legal precedent, he is the de facto arbitrator for any change in policy. He rejected the national council’s latest recommendation and confirmed the imminent announcement of a new law. “The law will be independent of the media’s comprehensive information law which has not yet been issued.”

Head of the national council, Abdel Hadi Mahfouz, in turn, denied any dispute with the minister. He said, “It is true that the council has an advisory role, but our recommendations should still be binding for the government.” He then stressed the importance of the registration: “We are hoping to preserve the rights of electronic websites through the registration process.”

Mahfouz pointed out that visual media outlets not registered prior to the issuance of a 1994 audiovisual media law were later shut down. "We are trying to spare the electronic media a similar fate.” Thus, according to Mahfouz, website owners must register their sites before the new bill passes, in order to avoid suspension.

In a direct response to the minister, Mahfouz said that the council works only in accordance with the law. “The law gives us authority over the electronic sector...The council will supervise the media sector until another party is assigned to replace it.”

But the council may be interested in expanding its authority from an advisory role to an executive one. Mahfouz reflected on the possibility: “Information ministries do not exist in all countries of the world. Councils are often charged with monitoring the performance of media outlets.”

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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