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With 12 privately owned daily papers in three languages and more than 1,500 weekly and monthly periodicals, Lebanon accounts for about half of the periodicals produced in the Middle East region. In addition, there are nine television stations and about 40 radio stations. Despite this diversity, many media groups are affiliated with particular religious or political groups and reflect their sectarian interests.
The Lebanese Constitution and several international treaties, to which Lebanon is a signatory, guarantee the freedom of expression and freedom of press. In this regard, article 13 of the Lebanese Constitution states 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.”
Moreover, the Lebanese parliament has adopted and ratified the Universal Declaration of human rights as well as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, both guaranteeing the freedom of expression and opinion without interference.
Media in Lebanon is mainly regulated by the Press Law of 14/9/1962 as amended by legislative decree no. 104 of 30/6/1977 (the latter decree being amended by law no. 330 of 18/5/1994) (the “Press Law”), and by the Audiovisual Media Law no. 382 of 4/11/1994 (the “Audiovisual Media Law”).
Media content and journalism matters are also referred to in certain provisions of the Lebanese Criminal Code issued by virtue of legislative decree no. 340 of 1/3/1943 (the “Criminal Code”), and in the Military Justice Code issued by virtue of law no. 24 of 13/4/1968 (the “Military Code”).
Press Law of 1962
The Press Law provides that “The printing press, the press, the library and the publishing house and distribution are free, and this freedom shall only be restricted within the scope of the general laws and the provisions of this law.” Although the said article guarantees freedom of the press, a number of articles are found in the Press Law that restrict this freedom and impose criminal sentences in certain events. Indeed, according to the Press Law, it is forbidden to issue a press publication without first obtaining a license. In practice, obtaining a new license is often difficult and expensive.
Also, the Press Law prohibits publishing news that “contradict morals and public ethics or is inimical to national or religious feelings or national unity,” and violators face fines if found guilty. Journalists are also prohibited from insulting the head of state or foreign leaders, and those charged with press offences may be prosecuted in a special publications court.
Thus, the license requirement for publications and the strict limitations on the types of news that are allowed to be published, give the Lebanese authorities vast powers which may be controversial with respect to the freedom of expression.
Audiovisual Media Law of 1994
According to the Audiovisual Media Law, “audiovisual media is free. However, the freedom of media shall be exercised in accordance with the constitution and the applicable laws.”
The said Law also requires the licensing of audio-visual media channels, and creates two basic licensing categories for radio or television, namely: Category One licenses for media seeking to broadcast political programming, and Category Two for nonpolitical broadcasting.
Moreover, pursuant to the Audiovisual Media Law, any person or entity is forbidden from owning, directly or indirectly, more than 10 per cent of the total shareholding of a single audio-visual media station. This provision clearly defers from its counterpart in the Press Law where one person can own a newspaper (article 31 of the Press Law).
It is also worth mentioning that legislative decree no. 74 of 13/4/1953 that regulates the licensing of political periodical publications provides that no new license is to be given to a new political publication as long as Lebanon has more than 25 daily publications and 20 weekly publications.
Criminal Code of 1943
The Criminal Code contains provisions related to media and journalism, and prison terms are prescribed for some transgressions. Article 473, for instance, assigns up to a year in prison for blasphemy, though it is rarely invoked.
Another important topic which is commonly used against journalists in Lebanon is defamation. Defamation in the form of slander is defined in the Criminal Code (and not in the Press Law or the Audiovisual Media Law) as the attribution of a certain matter to a person, even in the event of doubt or hesitance, which infringes the other’s person honour or dignity. The Criminal Code further subjects the person committing slander, in one of the forms mentioned in the Criminal Code, to imprisonment and fine, or to either of both sanctions. Among the forms stated in the Criminal Code, are any writings distributed to one or more persons in a publishing form.
Moreover, defamation becomes a crime and is more severely punishable when made public, whether through the act of publication or simply by occurring in public. Truth of the defamatory statement, in contrary to many foreign laws, cannot be used as a defence. Malicious intent is a pre-requisite for establishing the crime of defamation, with malice often presumed by the mere fact that the defendant has made the defamatory statements.
Under specific articles of the Criminal Code and of the Military Legal Code, allegations or affronts against the president or army are considered as criminal offences. Under the said provisions, a young social media activist was sentenced in 2013 to two months of prison for insulting the president on Twitter.
Required licenses and permissions
Many licenses and permissions are required for establishing any kind of media in Lebanon. In this respect, article 232 of legislative decree no. 126 dated 12/6/1959, prohibits the establishment or usage of radio channels without the permission of the ministry of telecommunications.
Regarding television, it is referred to in article 189 of the aforementioned legislative decree, which restricts the right of transmitting images into the hands of the ministry of telecommunications, unless a special permission is granted by virtue of a decree issued by the council of ministers.
Cinema, on the other hand, is regulated by public safety rules as being a public showroom and by the law dated 27/11/1947 which provides that all movie tapes are subject to supervision, and shall not be displayed to the public in cinema showrooms or in private clubs or in any other place, except after obtaining a license from the Directorate of the General Security. Such supervision includes different types of movie tapes, whether imported from abroad or produced locally.
Theatre is also regulated by public safety rules as being a public showroom, and by legislative decree no. 2/1977 which provides that all theatre plays are subject to the supervision of the Directorate of the General Security which has the right to refuse its showing or to accept entirely or partly the showing of the play.
In addition to movies and plays, the Directorate of General Security is authorised to censor all foreign magazines and books before they are distributed, as well as political or religious material that is deemed a threat to the national security of either Lebanon or Syria.
Lebanon does not have any express legislation related to social media, despite the fact that such channel has become widespread in Lebanon and is being used not only by a vast majority of the youth, but also by many politicians, artists and other public figures, therefore affecting citizens in many aspects of their daily lives.
As such, political activists and bloggers are using social media as a ground for spreading their ideas and calling for political reforms and protests, which in many instances are being prosecuted by Lebanese authorities on the grounds of violation of public order and violation of certain laws, notably the aforementioned provisions of the Press Law.
Following the recent protests against the government in Beirut, many civil society activists consider that the problem today is not merely in the text of the Press Law, but rather in its interpretation and application by the judiciary.
A draft law was proposed in 2009 that introduces necessary amendments to the current Press Law that the foundation views as a violation to the Lebanese Constitution.
The draft law seeks to eliminate vague stipulations that are being used against the freedom of the press, and prohibit criticism of the government under the name of defamation.
The draft law removes jail sentences and restricts penalties to fines only, even if the alleged defamation was of the president or any other official institution.
In a recent case which gained much attention in Lebanon, the Arab Satellite Communications Organization (“Arabsat”) which is a leading communications satellite operator in the Arab World headquartered in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, abruptly stopped broadcasting Al-Manar TV and Al Mayadeen TV, over apparent political disagreements with the two channels.
Regardless of the political considerations behind this case, it is well established that media channels in Lebanon could be better protected by local laws and regulations, and satellite providers do not have clear duties and obligations stipulated by local laws, which gives such providers a strong and uneven position with local televsion that are exposed to arbitrary and often unfair measures.
Media law in Lebanon has not observed any major developments or legislative changes in the past 20 years. The only developments are reflected through the efforts of civil society groups in order to raise awareness in society on the freedom of expression, and its importance on building transparency and democracy in the political system.
Many journalists, bloggers, lawyers and activists are lobbying to demand serious changes to the country’s media laws, in the hope of bringing these laws in line with the latest media development and international standards of freedom of expression.
Badri and Salim El Meouchi Law Firm
Chadia El Meouchi
Lebanon has long been considered to be one
of the most liberal and “laissez-faire” countries in the region. Freedom of expression has deep roots in Lebanon, often reflected through the active role of the media, known as the “fourth branch of government”. According to Press Freedom’s Reporters without Borders, "the media have more freedom in Lebanon than in any other Arab country".
Chadia El Meouchi is the firm’s managing partner, and manages the Lebanon and Qatar offices. She has been a member of the New York Bar since 2000. Ms El Meouchi has practiced law in North America, the Middle East (including Lebanon and Qatar) for over 15 years. She advises clients in a large number of fields, most particularly in the areas of corporate, mergers and acquisitions, banking and finance (both Islamic and conventional), establishment of funds, capital markets and financial instruments, structuring and restructuring, insurance, project finance and environmental law, throughout the MENA region, Europe, the GCC and North America. Ms El Meouchi has a Bachelor of Commerce, majoring in international business, from Concordia University in Montreal, a Bachelor of Civil Law at the University of Montreal, a Master of Laws (LLM) from Georgetown University in Washington, DC, an Islamic Finance Qualification from the UK Securities and Investment Institute and ESA, a Certificate in arbitration and ADR from the Canadian International Arbitration Centre (McGill University), and a post-graduate diploma in Oil & Gas law from Robert Gordon University (Aberdeen). She has been consistently recognised as a leading corporate and commercial lawyer in a number of law directories and guides, including Chambers Global Guide for Leading Lawyers every year since 2004 (Lebanon and Qatar) and the International Financial Legal Review, European Legal 500, Asia Law and Practical Lawyer – PLC Which Lawyer (Lebanon and Qatar). Ms El Meouchi is fluent in Arabic, English and French.
Marc Dib joined Badri and Salim El Meouchi Law Firm in 2014 and has been a member of the Beirut Bar since 2014. He has also been a member of the New York Bar since 2015. Prior to joining the firm, Mr Dib completed internships in reputable local law firms, as well as at the United Nations Development Program and at the Lebanese Central Bank. He has also worked at international organisations in Washington, DC and in Beirut. He works primarily in corporate and commercial law, litigation, IP, competition and human rights laws. Mr Dib has written a paper on the “roots and cures of Lebanon’s corruption” and is socially involved in the fight against corruption. He obtained a Bachelor of Economics and a minor in Business Administration, from the American University of Beirut. He then obtained a Bachelor of Law at the Lebanese University before obtaining a Master of Laws (LL.M.) from Georgetown University in Washington, DC. Mr Dib is fluent in Arabic, French and English.