A quasi-government Lebanese body, which is desperate for regulation and review itself, is planning to regulate the ‘electronic websites’. The National Council for Audio-Visual Media (NCAVM) announced this week its intention to create a register for websites. They didn’t specify for what type of websites and what are the criteria, though I can only speculate the initiative is targeted at the main sites that deals with news and politics, which became in the recent years as close as they can be to the ‘Main Stream Media’.
These websites would be the likes of Lebanonfiles.com, beiruobserver.com, cedarnews.net, elnashra.com, nowlebanon.com, Naharnet.com, 14march.org, Lebanonfiles.com, and many others including the websites of the main TV channels, newspapers and political parties. Saying that, media is not just ‘politics; it’s advertisement, films, entertainment, documentaries, social and cultural shows – all published or broadcasted. This move by the NCAVM to create a register has a lot of problems and unwanted consequences:
The National Council for Audia-Visual Media – The Great:
The council, which has only consultative power rather than an executive power (left to the Ministry of Information), was created in 1994 to monitor the media and ensure their compliance with the law. As time passed by, the council became a toothless and ineffective observer of the pandemic sectarian chaos that characterizes most of the media scene in Lebanon especially TV channels. If we are to judge this council by the results…what results?!
In practical terms, we ended up having a main TV channel for each of the ‘main’ religious sects in Lebanon; A Christian Orthodox (MTV), Maronites (OTV and LBC), Sunnis (Future TV), Shia (NBN and AlManar channel) and others channels transmit a lot of sectarian and racist news on a daily basis. Level of weirdness reached an extent where AlManar for example hosted doctors in its prime news programme to medically analyse Jumblatt’s ‘disease’, in other words to participate in their propaganda against Jumblatt’s political position (at 2008). Were these doctors acting inline with Hippocratic Oath, and were the medical practise and their syndicate happy about it? Yes, it was a ‘professional advise’.
The council lacks the political independence, resources and executive powers to monitor these channels. It lacks the right mentality of treating the audience as its customers who receive a service, and have the right to complain about it. Customers can complain about what they see and read in other countries (UK for example with the likes of Ofcom).
Moreover, the Lebanese Ministry of Information should cease to exist. Apart from acting as a cabinet spokesman after its meetings telling us that the stormy meeting was ‘fine, constructive and friendly’, I don’t see the need for a minister for information. Let the civil servants do the job; it is not and should not be a political one.
What about Social Media:
Although the council confirmed that even text mobile SMS providers are included, the definition of the ‘electronic websites’ was not clear in Abdel-Hadi Mahfouz statement, the president of National Council for Audio-Visual Media. I am assuming in good faith that the requirements will not cover all active social media outlets. I mean here political (or otherwise) blogs who usually act – at different levels – as moderators between the Main Stream Media and the street-talk. Trying to avoid using the cliché of how important Social Media was in the Arab Spring, Lebanese government should be fully up-to-date with how the global scene of communications has changed (is changing) the world. Censorship doesn’t work anymore, and should be kept to the bare minimum. Wikileaks is the best proof how technology illiterate governments are, it’s simply beyond their comprehension.
With presence of social media tools like facebook and twitter, every citizen is reporter these days. I can seriously imagine how this new regulation proposal can be abused in future on the back of ‘regulating the online world’ in Lebanon: hey, what about seeking a permit to create a facebook page or posting a status on facebook!? President Michel Sleiman didn’t need any regulation in the past to target facebookers for their statuses! Some Arab Gulf states, who haven’t faced pro-democracy (yet), are cracking down on bloggers who speak out. So, judging by the current signs, it’s not an unreasonable outcome in future.
The proposed new register is for protection:
The proposal is supposed to be interim until a new media law is passed. The council had a lame justification for its proposal. It said it wants to ‘protect’ these websites. Interesting. Protect from whom, and against what? If I want to be extreme, I can only remember the repressive regime cracking down on their people, because they want to protect them (against some imaginary armed gangs). If there is any protection required, it is needed against the online threats and spam messages that writers and bloggers receive on a continuous basis.
This proposal is infuriating. Lebanon prides itself of being a leader of liberties in the region. With the Arab Spring underway, Arab countries are getting more liberal than our previous assumption. Very soon, Lebanon will find itself really behind, if we don’t catch up with the freedom convoy.
Update: As usual, a hillarious post on this matter by Trella on 01/11/11. Recommended for Arabic readers.