REPORTING FROM BEIRUT -- Lebanon has long been a haven for press freedom in a region where censorship and state-controlled viewpoints often predominate. Now, some fear that proposed new regulations could pose a challenge to the country's free-wheeling online media culture.
The National Audiovisual Media Council, which regulates TV and radio, has asked all Lebanese news websites and blogs to register with the agency starting this month, according to local media reports.
The news has set the Lebanese blogosphere abuzz and raised suspicions of an effort to muzzle online media.
Abdel-Hadi Mahfouz, who heads the media council, told the Lebanese news website Now Lebanon that sites that fail to register could be subject to a ban, and that news websites will be asked to write an ethics code and help draft new legislation that will regulate news sites, according to the report.
The aim of the initiative, Mahfouz said, is to get a rough understanding of what types of online media are operating, in preparation for the new legislation.
He insisted that the council wanted to protect digital media -- not to restrict free speech.
"Our recent decision to organize the online media will only protect websites from a future government ruling against them. … If they are not registered or within our database, the government could easily ban them,” Mahfouz told the Lebanese English-language newspaper the Daily Star.
Little detailed information about the media council's plan was available, a fact that troubles press-freedom advocates. It was not immediately clear what the council defines as a news website or a blog, whether all types of blogs need to register and whether blogs will be put in the same category as news websites.
A quick browse through the Lebanese blogosphere and social media sites finds a torrent of criticism against the registration plan. Many are far from convinced that the council’s intentions are benevolent.
"Protect from what? Critique, free thinking, inquiry?" asked a posting on the Karl reMarks blog titled "Online Regulation? No, Thanks, I like my Freedom."
The media council’s proposal has also caused concern among press-freedom activists who fear the move could be a veiled excuse to impose control, and ultimately censorship.
Ayman Mehanna, executive director of the Beirut-based media watchdog Samir Kassir Eyes Foundation, said the proposed website regulation is worryingly vague.
“It can be everything and it can be nothing," he said. "This makes us even more suspicious of their aims and motives."
Mehanna charged that the media council has no power to implement decisions because it's solely a consultative and regulatory body. He went on to say that the council has "never been a real defender of media freedom and freedom of expression.”
The council recently warned a number of local TV stations not to broadcast certain episodes reporting about social issues because of concerns from religious figures and civil society groups, according to Lebanese media reports.
-- Alexandra Sandels
Image: Lebanese news website Now Lebanon reported on planned website regulations.