Walid Daouk, Lebanon’s minister of Information, was given a baptism of fire upon taking his post in June 2011 when his pet piece of draft legislation, The Lebanese Internet Regulation Act (LIRA), caused a storm of opposition and vitriolic denunciations, leading it to being put on the back burner. Executive met with the minister to discuss life after the LIRA and the promise and perils within Lebanon’s media sector.
What was your incentive to develop the LIRA legislation?
I have not seen any legislation related to electronic media. What I had in mind was to protect the [news] websites. There are so many of them and they are of great importance. In the coming couple of years they will become more important than the newspapers. I said let’s not try to regulate, but fix it in some way. I had two ideas. The first was to put a label that will let us know where the website is domiciled. This would make it more credible.
The second part of the law was to help the websites get better services. What can you do if another website is able to steal your content as soon as you post it? So to protect the intellectual property rights of a website, I would say the registered website would benefit from the legal intellectual property rights in Lebanon.
Were you surprised by the backlash to your proposed law?
Unfortunately I didn’t lobby with the community because it didn’t occur to [me]. I saw there was a loophole in the law and I wanted a law that would benefit the owners of the websites. In my mind it was great, but unfortunately some people were against it and said that I am against freedom of speech. This is not true, in the second article of the draft law I said freedom of speech was fully respected.
Do you still think new websites, news or otherwise, should have to register with the government?
No, they don’t have to. The law is for those that want to. It is not obligatory.
Would Lebanese libel law also apply to the registered websites?
Yes, if a website is registered I would know where it is domiciled and therefore if people are illegally harmed by these sites they could take them to a Lebanese court.
Would content on social media websites be subject to these regulations?
No, absolutely not. This has nothing to do with it and you cannot control this.
Is LIRA dead in the water now?
It is put aside for now as there is a draft law that concerns all of the media and it is being studied within a media commission at the parliament. Definitely it is better to have everything within a greater code, but my idea was to address this loophole quickly. In any case it is optional. A media code in parliament in my opinion will take many years to pass, during which time we will still have the loophole.
With so many media barons represented in parliament, will this law pass?
It will but the questions are ‘if’ and ‘how’. It is so political. This is why I prepared my draft law to be quick.
On Twitter recently, you said you believed in “absolute freedom of speech in any blog or any media” but later tweeted “bloggers in some circumstances should refrain from telling the whole truth for the sake of the public and the community.” There seems to be an inherent contradiction here.
It is not a contradiction. I believe fully in freedom of speech. However, in some professions, such as lawyers or doctors, there is a ‘code of ontology’.
But doctors and lawyers are responsible to their patient and client. Who are journalists responsible to protect?
You can say whatever you want as long as what you say does not harm the public interest.
Who determines that?
There must be a code of conduct for journalists and the media sector but in Lebanon this does not exist. I am pushing for such a code.
Enforceable by law?
Definitely not. It should be by the media’s own adherence.
Most journalists don’t have access to the editor’s syndicate and there is no union or syndicate for broadcast journalists. What are you doing to formalize this profession and to ensure journalists can enjoy proper professional support and protection?
The syndicate was presided over by the same chairman for the past 50 years [Melhem Karam]. To join the syndicate was something pending his will. These days, however, we should not only leave the syndicate open for the ones who benefited from the time of Melhem Karam. Now we should open the syndicate for all journalists.
Does the ministry have a role to play in that process?
The ministry has a moral role and I am trying to push it. I am going further, to have the syndicate become a federation, because now it does not include the broadcast journalists. We want everyone in the media profession included, such as the photographers and the sound engineers… I want to have a federation that is one body that is united and therefore stronger.
This is what you would like to see but have you seen any movement in that direction?
It is too early to say but the new syndicate was voted three weeks ago and I am pushing very hard in this direction.
Chapter 10 of the Audio Visual Law aims to limit political and corporate control of the media but is patently not enforced. Can the ministry do anything to curb the increasingly partisan and sectarian tone of the Lebanese media?
Unfortunately not, for political reasons I can’t even impose penalties against any defaulting media — that is to say media that is not in line with their conditions of contract, and unfortunately they are all breaching the law. However, I can re-equilibrate by improving the public media.
Previous cabinets wanted to protect their own [political] and religious media. No cabinet dared to strengthen the public media. They neglected it. I am saying it is now time to reinforce Tele and Radio Liban to give them their federative role.
This takes money. Where is this going to come from?
The government could get the money even if it will take a lot. I don’t have today the intention to be in competition with the private media, especially in television. But Tele Liban could have a niche where it could succeed, for example in education or local output. Commercial stations would not go there because it would not generate much advertising. Tele Liban’s news gets good audiences. We are around 4 percent, which in my opinion is good. We also have the national news agency, which has correspondents all over Lebanon. We are the first to broadcast the news but the majority of the media takes the news from the NNA and then do not credit it.
Lebanon’s predominance in Arab media has dwindled in the face of huge budgets and assertive media coming from the Gulf and other areas of the region. On a policy level can anything be done to ensure Lebanon maintains a prime position within the regional media?
Yes. I hope to have a Beirut media center. At the Dubai media center the majority of the workers there are Lebanese. The idea is to have a media city, or cities, in Lebanon where you can incorporate the studios and the newspaper buildings. I am confident we can attract these Lebanese ex-pats back to Lebanon.
Many of the TV licenses expire this year. Can we expect new terms of contract or will the status quo continue?
Unfortunately the status quo will remain.
Because everyone knows there is a breach in the conditions of contract, and unfortunately for political reasons nobody is being penalized for these breaches.