Lebanese Internet Law Attacks Last Free Space of Expression
By: Khodor Salameh
Published Friday, March 9, 2012
So the new Lebanese Minister of Information Walid al-Daouq, has done it. He has drafted the Internet law that we have long been warning against and which we must continue to protest.
This law allows the government to come down on the electronic media in many ways. It has only nine clauses. But they will likely destroy the achievements of the Lebanese electronic community, which has so far managed to evade the financial and political controls imposed on the conventional media in this land of narrow sectarian and partisan calculations.
It is said that there is a fine line between ignorance and malice. Therefore, we cannot tell whether the new law reflects the aged political class’s ignorance of the nature of social and electronic media, or whether it is a deliberate bid to re-subject those who have escaped the oppression of Lebanese law to censorship and self-censorship.
The law prohibits the publication of “anything that offends public morals and ethics.” Like most laws in Lebanon, it fails to specify what is moral and what is ethical. It leaves it vague, so that one day, a judge can decide how to define a defendant's offense, depending on their political leanings or those of their political or perhaps even security patrons.
Making things worse and compounding the impending calamity is that al-Daouq’s law hearkens back to an obsolete legacy of Ottoman times, the Audio-Visual Media Law, and applies it wholesale to the electronic media too. Whatever applies to the sectarian media (television, radio, and others) will be applied to websites and blogs. With one law, therefore, al-Daouq negates the uniqueness of the Internet, subjecting it to a law whose reform and modernization have long been demanded by those to whom it already applies.
Law is by definition the regulation of repression but the legitimization of repression is also a feature of this law. It seems that al-Daouq is well-skilled at this, as he bypassed the constitutional imperative to put the law to parliament by going straight to the Cabinet – an illegal, unconstitutional, and unethical move.
Moreover, the law makes no distinction between news websites, chat rooms, social media networks, and personal or group blogs. All have been placed in one basket, and will be archived by the ministry of information and the security departments specializing in censorship. A climate of surveillance by intelligence agencies, which is disappearing from much of the world, is being introduced to Lebanon.
This retrograde step stems from ignorance allied with the interests of political forces who feel threatened by the free space provided for young people by the Internet, where they cannot impose their financial or security control. These forces have come together to formulate legislation which will legitimize direct suppression by the state. This is to replace the indirect suppression that has been practiced for years – such as by failing to reform the communications sector, harassing bloggers, and obstructing business ventures by independent sites.
The biggest disaster, however, is that al-Daouq saw no need to consult those affected by the law, in complete disregard of custom when it comes to regulatory laws. The norm is to consult with interested organizations and individuals and take account of their views on legislation relating to them.
This draft law is a fiasco, unmatched in the most politically backward and dictatorial countries in the world, and with clauses more vague than can be found anywhere.
Al-Daouq has not told us how, in an Internet world without borders, a Lebanese law can be applied to a site which may be licensed or carried by an outside server when it concerns a Lebanese matter.
He is also putting the civil and media courts, which are not specialized in the first place, in charge of a virtual world they know nothing about, without bothering to propose special courts or training for judges about the Internet.
The honorable minister has also not told us how this law might overlap with another law currently being studied and constantly postponed: the law governing electronic sites under review in parliament.
This makes the specter of a conspiracy against freedom loom even larger, as the interests of government, parliament, and traditional political forces converge. These forces know that they have lost the battle for the Internet to young people and others, who have renounced their sects, their country’s obsolete laws, and the corruption of their governments. Hence their resort to the deception of “the law,” a loose term in a grey country like Lebanon.
Blogging and other Internet activity promised to provide a free space in a country increasingly being suffocated by sectarian and political considerations. But it seems that the virtual world’s capacity to mobilize has upset many people in Lebanon, where one in three people are now Internet users. It was thus felt necessary to quash this activity so that a young generation which seeks genuine reform is not allowed to grow.
Internet freedom is under threat. It is the only real freedom which the money of the various sects or the encirclement of the judicial authorities did not manage to constrain for long. This has been the case since the first blogger was summoned (myself, more than a year ago). Individuals who insulted the president on Facebook were arrested and later released, and legal cases were brought under the pretense of defamation and slander – another loose term, which will doubtlessly be employed again.
Al-Daouq’s law will suffocate the Internet by being open to different interpretations and applications. The authorities, whose only understanding of freedom is its antonym, oppression, will feign innocence.
Khodor Salameh is a Lebanese political commentator who blogs in Arabic under the name “Jou3an.”
The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect Al-Akhbar's editorial policy.
This article was originally written in Arabic.