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Press freedom in Lebanon today

A fight on many sides

by Paul Morcos

At the time when it is essential for the press to be independent, when everyone should be investing their efforts into safeguarding the well-being of the press, instead, the world over, there are economic, religious, political, and legal pressures that are controlling the freedom of expression of journalists, media outlets, and even citizens themselves.

Freedom of the press has always been perceived as a trademark of democracy. It is protected by both local law and international convention. In the fundamental provisions of the Lebanese constitution it is stated that “Lebanon is a democratic parliamentary republic based on respect for public liberties especially the freedom of opinion,” while article 13 stipulates that “the freedom to express one’s opinion orally or in writing, the freedom of the press, the freedom of assembly, and the freedom of association shall be guaranteed within the limits established by law.” Internationally, the first principle of the declaration on media freedom in the Arab World—adopted on May 3, 2016 in Morocco—verifies freedom of expression, including media freedom, as being a fundamental human right to seek, receive, and transmit information and ideas of all kinds through any means of communication, even across frontiers.

The fundamentals of a democratic society are the rotation of power, freedom of expression, and independence; if any of these are lacking, the nation or state shall no longer be considered democratic. In Lebanon, the relationship between the media and public opinion remains ambiguous, in the sense that media freedom is juxtaposed with partisanship and hidden or open dependencies. This, unfortunately, results from most media institutions being dependent on the influence of religious communities and funding from the different political parties.

Freedom of the press in Lebanon has always been at risk; many Lebanese journalists have been assassinated for their opinions. In honor of World Press Freedom Day, celebrated on May 3 of every year, the regional office in Beirut of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, organized a conference on May 2, 2019 entitled: “Media for Democracy: Journalism and elections in times of disinformation.” During the event, it was revealed that between 2016 and 2019 around 100 summons of journalists were recorded in Lebanon. The main reason behind these summons were journalists turning to social media to publish their personal point of view on certain subjects. These numbers are shocking and increasing from one year to another. Lebanon’s press freedoms have been regressing since 2015 because of these arrests. 

Can we expect this issue to be resolved when almost every media institution is politicized? Can we safeguard the freedom of the press at a time when social media has—for better and for worse—allowed anyone to disseminate information? Can we preserve freedom of the press when laws are not being respected anymore due to a lack of authority and mal implementation? 

In civil states everyone’s rights are well preserved. The Lebanese political system allows for freedom of expression and of the media; had this been obstructed we could no longer call Lebanon democratic. It is a journalist’s job to report the news impartially and with objectivity, yet the media landscape in Lebanon—with the affiliation of media outlets to certain political forces—makes this difficult, and self-censorship has been common among journalists in the country.

Media is a major leeway for people to communicate their ideas and opinions; it is the window that exposes them to news and information. More importantly, it remains the crucial ombudsman watching over the performance of the ruling bodies. That is why it is essential to support its freedom and safeguard it. 

For us to achieve full press freedom, the government should take legislative actions through, for example, reviewing the current laws pertaining to media and information, passing new laws, enacting the laws relating to detecting corruption and the data protection act, and modernizing the penal code. This, however, will not be enough if we suffer from a lack of commitment to the ethical and professional standards required to realize full freedom of the press. 

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Paul Morcos

Dr. Paul Morcos, Lawyer, Professor of Law, President of JUSTICIA, Compliance advisor, Consultant for parliamentary committees and International Organizations, Author of different legal books and publications.

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