While censorship and monitoring seems a rampant practice by authorities in the Middle East, Lebanese blogs and news sites may have a new form of control to deal with.
Lebanon’s National Audiovisual Media Council, an independent body which regulates TV and radio in Lebanon, founded by the government, has requested that all blogs and news sites register with the organization, starting from November 1st.
Abdel-Hadi Mahfouz, the head of the council told NOW Lebanon that the initiative was more protection than censorship, and that it was simply a means of preparing for an updated law to include the new forms of media that have emerged since Lebanon passed its most recent media law in 1994.
However, the fact that little other information is being provided until after the registration period has been completed, is understandably cause for alarm. According to NOW Lebanon, failure to comply could result in the sites being banned.
Mahfouz’s lukewarm reassurances come after the Lebanese blogosphere has been buzzing with the news, expressing concern over what could very well be a new means of clamping down on the bloggers’ freedom of expression. The very use of the world ‘banned’ can only be described in terms of censorship and nothing short of that.
Speaking to Lebanon’s The Daily Star, Ayman Mehanna said, “The council cannot demand the implementation of a law that it thinks will be passed in the near future. It’s as if they want to tax people who they expect will get rich in the future.”
Since registration would automatically subject bloggers and news sites to the existing media laws, written long before the emergence of citizen journalism, it’s hard to see the attempts to apply archaic laws to modern means of expression as anything but problematic, at the very least, if not illegal.
Is there cause for concern?
So the question remains, is there a genuine cause for concern. Is an independent body with governmental roots capable of providing protection to a form of online expression, whose very strength is the fact that it is unregulated?
Citizen media has proven to be an invaluable tool in the Middle East as protests have erupted over the region, and from Bahrain to Egypt to Tunisia, online media has provided an alternative narrative to state media which is run to serve the purpose only of the powers that be.
To place a governmental or regulatory hold on the independent and watchful eye of citizen journalism can only be seen in a sinister light. In fact, China and Iran are probably among the first countries that come to mind when speaking of a regulated Internet, so it’s hard not to express concern over the move, despite Mahfouz’s attempts to allay Lebanese bloggers’ fears.
If anything, the Middle East needs a truly independent body that will genuinely protect the rights of bloggers. The region is not known for its tolerance or leniency when it comes to bloggers and their rights, and while Lebanon has not factored high on this list in comparison to more threatening countries such as Egypt, Syria, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, does this law give us reason to be worried?