Censorship and Self-Censorship
Lebanon’s media environment is known to be one the freest in the Arab Near Est. However, the country is plagued by a confessional government system, with most of the leaders supported by foreign countries, which inevitably influences media. Digitisation has not affected the business model Lebanese media rely on and that is fostered by partisan and foreign financial support. Most of the country’s news outlets support and represent public personalities and/or a political party with little room for independent and marginalised voices, or for diversity. And the vast majority of these outlets are owned, managed, or financed by local or regional powers. News media all too often become propagandists for their patrons. Publishers are often politicians themselves linked to religious sects. They exert indirect and direct pressure on journalists. In some cases, reporters transform into political activists who reproduce a narrative, censoring and exaggerating it, without caring about professional ethics.
In 1967, censorship on foreign publications was abolished and three years later the government decided to withdraw censors from TV stations. But formally the Sureté Général (General Security) still maintains power to control and censor the press and media. Between 2008 and 2009 Tariq Mitri, who was then the Information minister, repeatedly expressed his willingness to abolish any form of censorship and on this point he has presented a draft law in Parliament that is still being debated in parliamentary committees. However, it is not difficult to imagine that reporters in fact practise self-censorship so as not to be subjected to various kinds of pressure and in order to protect themselves and their relatives both physically and psychologically.
Nevertheless, in 2016 Lebanon was ranked 98th in the Reporters Without Borders world press freedom index, before Israel (101st) and second among Arab States (after Tunisia, 96th). In the past years, Lebanon has been significantly downgraded, as it was 61th in 2009, 78th in 2010 and 93rd in 2011.
In this period, the government has targeted social media activists and bloggers to reduce online criticism and track down those responsible of it: Low-profile police arrests, interrogations, and intimidations have not been rare in the new media sphere. In June-July 2010, the public prosecutor accused three citizens of defaming President Michel Suleiman on their blogs and Facebook. In the same period, a local blogger was interrogated by military intelligence for posts critical of the armed forces and the president.
As the report entitled Mapping Digital Media by Open Society points out, extra-legal methods have been used to identify people behind anonymous online content, but such episodes are mostly low-profile and little known, partly because they are often not reported due to intimidations and threatens.