Lebanon tries to modernize its chaotic media laws

Current Lebanese media laws exist in the perfect state of chaos. For example, a print journalist who is a member of the Journalists’ Syndicate, according to the Publication Law, is protected from administrative arrest for an opinion piece or an article he writes. However, if the same journalist broadcasts the very same opinion and some find it defamatory, according to the penal code, he can end up in jail. Provisions concerning media and journalists are scattered among numerous pieces of legislation like the penal code, the Publications Law, the Audiovisual Media Law, and the Military Justice Code.

Lebanon, however, now has on the table an ambitious media law proposal that aims to unify, reform, and modernize current legislation. Member of Parliament Ghassan Moukhaiber recently put forward a bill that is a product of his collaboration with the Maharat Foundation, a Beirut-based press freedom group, after intensive consultations with journalists and lawyers. It is part of a larger effort to modernize media legislation in the country. The proposal ensures increased transparency of media ownership in Lebanon, protects journalists from prison terms in connection with their work, and cancels licensing requirements for media outlets.

Article 13 of the Lebanese constitution guarantees freedom of the press. Layal Bahnam from the Maharat Foundation told CPJ that the current licensing of media outlets is inconsistent with the guarantees set out in the constitution. Aline Farah, a journalist for the daily An-Nahar and a board member of Maharat, called Lebanese media laws “out of date,” with some issued as far back as Ottoman rule.

Current legislation prohibits launching a new media outlet without acquiring a license from the Ministry of Information. The new proposal requires fewer hoops to jump through, although there are still a few: A new outlet would need to notify the ministry and give detailed information about the name of the owner, his nationality, and the source of financing (like the start-up capital) and the three largest shareholders. The bill requires that the ministry make this information public and available on a special website, ensuring greater transparency.

Some, like former Information Minister Henry Tarabay, believe that canceling licenses would be harmful to the Lebanese media. Tarabay told the English-language Daily Star that the change would open the market to more than 300 publications, which would result in the deterioration of press standards. Bahnam disagrees, saying that this would be an improvement. “In all democratic countries around the world there are no limitations or licensing for the press,” she said.   

The new legislation would also affect media ownership. It grants any resident of Lebanon, regardless of nationality, the right to own media outlets. Current regulations require that owners be Lebanese nationals.

The bill also contains important provisions that standardize penalties in media-related offenses and provides protection for journalists–striking down prison penalties for journalists in connection to their work. It also includes an important amendment about publishing “confidential” documents. Tony Mikhael, a media lawyer at Maharat, told me that current laws do not allow for the publication of classified documents, which is a slippery delineation anyway. “In Lebanon, we don’t have a system of classifying documents,” he said. “Any administration can put the label ‘classified’ on a document that it wants to hide from the public.”

Some remain skeptical that in a country where political figures and groups dominate media ownership such an initiative can pass. Yazbek Wehbe, an anchor and reporter for the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation, voiced his skepticism, pointing out that Lebanese MPs belong to political parties that often have their own media outlets.

The bill remains in its nascent stage and is expected to be discussed in parliament’s Media Committee and passed along to the parliament floor for a vote.