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Media Law Proposal Further Limits Freedom of Speech in Lebanon

Lebanon’s Parliament has been far from functional during the last few months, with several sociopolitical files running into political deadlock during 2023. 

The country has had an empty presidential seat for more than a year since ex-president Michel Aoun left office, the debate on extending the term of the Lebanese Army Commander-in-Chief General Joseph Aoun remains unresolved, and legislative functions have been crippled with no active breakthroughs noted.

On November 23, Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri announced that he plans on convening a parliamentary session in the first half of December, covering a “full agenda” including the Lebanese Forces’ bill to extend the term of General Aoun, who retires on the 10th of January.

A Media Law Behind Closed Doors

What’s not on the public agenda however is a draft media law that would significantly curtail freedom of expression and press freedom in Lebanon. According to Amnesty International, the law is being discussed behind closed doors by the Lebanese Parliament’s Administration and Justice Committee and is on the verge of conclusion.

The draft law upholds and even increases the scope for authorities to abuse the country’s infamous defamation laws, which political figures have historically used to silence oppositional voices and human rights activists. In addition, the draft law retains prison terms of up to three years for insulting “recognized religions” and protects certain public figures, such as the president, from criticism.

Moreover, the draft law dictates that there can only be one media syndicate, thus restricting the ability of journalists and media workers to organize in, join and create associations and conduct syndicate work.

The Coalition to Defend Freedom of Expression in Lebanon (which includes Amnesty International, Daraj, Human Rights Watch, the Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections, the Lebanese Centre for Human Rights, Maharat Foundation, MENA Rights Group, Media Association for Peace, Raseef22, Samir Kassir Foundation, SEEDs for Legal Initiatives, SMEX, The Alternative Press Syndicate and the Legal Agenda and potential others) signed a petition calling on the Lebanese Parliament to “make legislative discussions in the parliamentary committees public, allow meaningful input from civil society specifically, on the draft media law, and to ensure that the new media law meets international standards.”

This includes addressing provisions related to criminalizing insults directed at certain public figures, sanctions on defamation and its defense and the exclusivity of the official media syndicate.

Importantly, the draft law comes in the context of increasing crackdowns on freedoms in the country. Hate speech and violent campaigns targeting journalists, refugees and LGBTQIA+ groups have proliferated before and during the current conflict in the south. 

Such a law risks exasperating the state of freedoms in Lebanon, which have historically been somewhat more liberal than surrounding contexts, albeit decreasingly so during the last few years. 

Wide Discretion in Parliament Deliberations

It’s important to contextualize these developments within the governance framework of the Lebanese Parliament. During parliament sessions, Berri holds wide discretion over the issues discussed in parliament. 

Setting up the agenda is a process that frequently lacks transparency and outside observers would get the impression that legislative suggestions are discussed in an arbitrary order. In addition, the governance of the sessions has developed to become increasingly chaotic throughout the last few years, with recurrent violations taking place during processes such as hand voting and turn-taking.

The historical reliance on behind-closed-doors negotiations and informal agreements has stripped the Lebanese parliament of its legitimacy, limited the potential influence that pro-change lawmakers have and crippled progress on various politico-legal files that have considerable ramifications on the population’s wellbeing.

The only files that get their fair share of mainstreaming are those in congruence with bankers and affiliated politicians’ interests, in favor of maintaining the status quo and in opposition to marginalized groups’ interests.