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 2020, Lebanon was ranked 102nd in the Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index, second among Arab States (after Tunisia, 72nd). However, if compared with previous years’ ranking, Lebanon has increasingly worsened its position, as it was 61st in 2009, 93rd in 2011 and 98th in 2016.
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.
The Lebanese jurisprudence considers the Internet as one of the means of publication, meaning that any shared content or expressed opinion is under the responsibility of the user. The absence of a precise regulation on the matter, created to an ambiguous situation regarding censorship, where the penal code’s provisions apply to the internet, especially regarding slander and libel crimes, concerning offense or defamation of mostly political and religious entities and figures. The prosecution of the mentioned crimes is under the Cybercrime and Intellectual Property Bureau, which has the power issue legal notices and arrest warrants. Nevertheless, the main entity in charge for the official Media censorship is the General Security, which has the power of approve of dismiss of any audio-visual content in Lebanon. The first reasons of censorship concern political and religious matters (60% according to MARCH reports), other contents related to homosexuality and Israel are strongly censored as well.
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.
The debate around press freedom ignited again during the protests started in October 2019. Since the outbreak, an increasing number of journalists and media operators were reportedly harassed and eventually brutalized, not only by the security forces but also from the protesters. However, the received threats are not only physical, but concerns disrespect of individual privacy and arbitrary detention.