The regulations governing the press in the current time have been sharply criticised for promoting a highly conservative conception of journalism, based on a corporatist approach and treating the press as a distinct and insular profession rather than as a general activity that any person may engage in. After the promulgation of the 1994 Media Law, the National Council for Audiovisual Media (al-Majlis al-watani li-l-I‘lam al-mar’y w-al-masmu‘) was created in order to monitor respect of the 1994 Law. But the council continues to be an ineffective institution and its reports of violations perpetrated by politicians, parties and intelligence services against the press go unheeded. Moreover, it is clear that its members are chosen mainly along sectarian lines, as is always the case for Lebanese institutions.
Suspension of the press and confiscation of journalists’ press cards can occur in case of breach of professional ethic, disrespect for national sovereignty, spread of false or confidential information, defamation of heads of states, threat to national integrity and security. In Lebanon, public prosecutors do not possess the power to close any media outlet. They are only entitled to seize the controversial publications and then refer the matter to the competent authorities. This being the general procedure, the minister of information can close any television channel.
The application of these laws has been all too often politically motivated and characterised by arbitrariness. A famous case was the coerced closure in 2002 of MTV channel and Mount Lebanon radio station, owned by Gabriel Murr, which resumed broadcasting only in 2009. The publication court accused the stations of violating the law that prohibits airing on behalf of candidates during elections, but, since also other Lebanese channels did not comply with the elections law, some observers suspected that the closure was due to MTV’s criticism of the Lebanese government and of Syria.
In 2010, the aforementioned Maharat Foundation, together with MP Ghassan Moukhaybar proposed a draft media law (“Maharat Bill”) to modernise the legislation of the media sector. The bill proposes to abolish prison sentences for speech offences committed by journalists (a right to which only journalists registered in the Editors Syndicate are currently entitled ) when communicating their opinion, whether on a print media outlet or online. Moreover, it puts the cancellation of the licensing for newspapers, the Press Union and all the requirements to practice journalism, forward for discussion . Furthermore, it aims to guarantee online freedom of expression without any interference from the government that is not allowed to block or filter online content or to impose any licensing for online media. The Maharat Bill is still under consideration by the information and communication parliamentary committee.
The new digital media environment also necessitates the establishment of new laws and regulations for media and telecommunications. There is currently a great deal of confusion as to which legal framework is applicable to online media outlets, because the Publication Law and the Audiovisual Media Law respectively regulate print and audiovisual broadcasting and are not easily transposed to digital media. Nonetheless, the legislation designed for traditional media has partly been applied to the digital media, and special laws and regulations for the Internet, mobile telephony, and other digital media have yet to be established. In June 2010, a number of groups of the civil society successfully delayed a vote in the Lebanese parliament on a draft for a “New Information Technology Law”. This draft contained a large amount of restrictive measures of the online freedom of expression and would have severely affected privacy rights of citizens and corporations, as well as reduced journalistic freedom in the digital sphere.
In the same year, the Ministry of Information launched consultations with media owners, journalists, advocacy groups and politicians to identify parameters for a new comprehensive legal framework in order to improve the current situation.
The laws and regulations that have been proposed so far, mainly serve the interests of the operators and businessmen and do not try to put a limit to the power of the dominant politicians and sectarian groups. The digital media are in fact firmly in the hands of the same dominant political sectarian groups that control also the traditional media.
The licensing of Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and the operation of mobile phone services are allocated to the dominant political powers that already control the broadcast license.