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The Lebanese constitution states that Lebanon is a parliamentary democratic republic, founded on the respect of public freedoms. At the forefront of these freedoms are the freedom of opinion and belief, and the respect of social justice and equality of rights and duties among all citizens without discrimination.
Article 13 of the Lebanese Constitution establishes the national basis for the protection of the freedom of expression and press. It 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 are guaranteed within the limits established by law”.
In Lebanon,the freedom of expression and by extension the freedom of the media and its various mediums are regulated under a number of laws and regulations.
On an international level, as apparent in its Constitution, Lebanon prides itself in being a founding and active member of the Arab League abiding by its pacts and covenants (which include the Arab Charter on Human Rights). Lebanon is also a founding member of the United Nations abiding by its covenants and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Among other international treaties and conventions, the ratification by Lebanon of the Arab Charter on Human Rights, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights is a testament to Lebanon’s will to guarantee the freedom of expression and opinion.
The main laws regulating media in Lebanon are, as detailed below, (1) the press law of 14 September 1962 as amended (the Press Law) regulating the printed press and the audio-visual media, (2) law number 382 of 4 November 1994 (the Audio-Visual Media Law) governing television and radio broadcasts in Lebanon and (3) law number 531 of 26 July 1996 (the Satellite Broadcasting Law) regulating satellite broadcasting. Other laws and regulations also apply to the different mediums.
The Press Law
The Press Law provides that the printing press, the press, libraries and the publishing houses and distribution are free, and this freedom is only restricted within the scope of the general laws and the provisions of the Press Law.
The Press Law guarantees the freedom of the press.This freedom is however not absolute and is limited and regulated by a number of provisions of the Press Law. For example, the Press Law regulates who can issue printed press and provides that it is forbidden to issue a printed press publication without first obtaining a license,subject to various sanctions such as discontinuance, or confiscation of the publication issued without a license,and the fine of the owner of the publication.
In practice, obtaining a new license is often difficult for various reasons and is expensive. This may be made more complicated by a decree law issued in 1953, according to which, subject to some exceptions, once 25 daily political publications and 20 periodical political publications are licensed in Lebanon,no additional licenses may be granted to new publications.
The Press Law also regulates what can be published under the printed press and provides for guidelines for “publishable” news by for example prohibiting the publication of news that “contradict morals and public ethics or that are inimical to national or religious feelings or national unity”.
guidelines apply to both national publications and international publications sold on the Lebanese market and the violation of these provisions is punishable by a fine and/or imprisonment. Journalists are also prohibited from insulting the head of state or foreign leaders, and those charged with these offences may be prosecuted in a special publications court and sentenced to imprisonment for a period of between two months to two years and/or a fine of between LBP50,000,000/(around USD33,333) and LBP00,000,000 (around USD66,666), noting that the sentence cannot be less than the minimum imprisonment period and fine amount.
The license requirement for publications and the limitations on the types of news that are allowed to be published give the Lebanese authorities vast powers with respect to the freedom of expression and the enforcement of its limitations.
With numerous privately-owned daily papers published in Arabic, French and English amongst others,and with a large number of weekly and monthly periodicals, Lebanon shows a great diversity in its printed media. Despite this diversity, many media groups are affiliated with particular religious or political groups and reflect their sectarian interests.
Despite these restrictions on freedom of press, during the Lebanese revolution of 17 October 2019 that amassed large civil protests against corruption in the established political status quo, Lebanon witnessed the emergence of a new journal titled 17-Teshreen (17 October), free and accessible to all in printed and digital forms. 17-Teshreen offered the Lebanese protestors the possibility to express their views through a medium with (presumably) limited political editorial policies and censorship.
Although the current legal status of 17-Teshreen is unclear, it has been in mass circulationsince 28 November 2019, the date of publication of its first issue, till around mid-March 2020 without political or judicial takedown.17-Teshreen’s publication was then suspended due to financing complications created by the informal capital controls during the ongoing economic crisis in Lebanon as opposed to political censorship.
Although, in this case, the publication of 17-Teshreen evidences a relative or exceptional application of the freedom of speech and expression in Lebanon,this does not mean that freedom of speech is without limitations in Lebanon as mentioned above and further in this article.
The Audio-Visual Media Law
The scope and purpose of the Audio-visual Media Law is to organize television and radio broadcasts of any method or means or device, whatever their situation or name, and regulating all affairs and rules relating to these broadcasts.
The freedom of the audiovisual media is provided for under Article 3 of the Audio-visual Medial Law that states that “audiovisual media is free. The freedom of media shall be exercised in accordance with the constitution and the applicable laws”.
The limitation to this freedom is addressed in the introductory section of the Audio-visual Media Law according to which, “given the proliferation of media institutions, most of which were established during the war (which we understand is a reference to the Lebanese civil war of 1975), it was necessary to regulate radio and television broadcasts to the extent it does not contradict the principle of the freedom of the media in the same way as all of the basic freedoms that the Lebanese Constitution guarantees.
It was necessary to regulate the freedom of the visual and audio media within the limits of the respect of the human person and the rights of individuals and their personal freedoms,as well as within the limits of public order to the extent it does not contradict the concept of national cohesion and coexistence”.
Regulations concerning who may provide television and radio broadcasts and concerning the type of these broadcasts were therefore put in place on that basis.
In this context, the Audio-visual Media Law requires the prior licensing of audio-visual media channels and creates two basic licensing categories for radio or television divided between (i) media seeking to broadcast political programming and (ii) non-political broadcasting.
The introductory section of the Audio-visual Media Law additionally justifies this licensing requirement by providing that“if it is the duty of the State to regulate the freedoms and reconcile them in order to maintain them and ensure that they are not misused, then the provisions of the Audio-visual Media Law are provided within such framework; indeed the prior license to which the media institutions are subject to is not arbitrary or exercised by the executive power without limitations, but rather it is subject to the conditions provided for in the law and the Press Law in particular, and in accordance with the requirements of the public interest and the imperatives of national security and subject to the rule of the respect of the principles of equality, diversity of opinions and diversity of schools of thought.”
In general, and during the Lebanese revolution of 17 October 2019 for example, the application of the freedom of the media within the context of a multitude of conflicting political opinions and thoughts was apparent in the programs of the different national television stations.
As previously mentioned many media groups are affiliated with political groups and their political and sectarian views were clearly reflected in the media. Whereas one news station could highlight the protestors’ movements and requests by giving them a podium to express their demands and opinions, another news station could ignore the revolution or choose to broadcast negative aspects and consequences of the revolution.
The Satellite Broadcasting Law
As opposed to the Press Law and the Audio-visual Media Law that clearly expressed their intent to protect the freedom of the media, the Satellite Broadcasting Law does not expressly set out within its provisions that broadcasting “is free”.
The Satellite Broadcasting Law seems to have placed the burden of self-censorship on satellite broadcasters by giving them the mission of presenting the country in a good light to the rest of the world.
This is apparent in the introductory section of the Satellite Broadcasting Law that provides that the freedoms in Lebanon are guaranteed by virtue of the Constitution, and the Lebanese people may be responsible and be held liable for the good relations of their country with the other states in the course of exercising these freedoms.
Additionally, broadcasting in Lebanon is subject to the lease of a channel, and the lease of the channel is conditioned by the prior approval of the Council of Ministers.
Article 3 of the Satellite Broadcasting Law provides that, among the documents required for submitting an application to rent a broadcasting station, the applicant should present an undertaking attesting that it would abide by the applicable laws and regulations and the lease conditions as well as undertake not to broadcast a number of prohibited items including (i) programs that may disrupt public order or that are harmful to the security of the state or its relations with other countries or affect such other countries’ security and (ii) pornographic programs disrupting public morals and ethics.
The vagueness of the wording of the prohibitions provided for under Article 3 of the Satellite Broadcasting Law could arguably be used to censure a number of programs depending on one’s interpretation as to what could be defined as disrupting public order, morals or ethics.
Additional regulations are provided under the Lebanese criminal code and the military code of justice which prohibit “blasphemy”, “defamation” and “slander”. The practice of how these are used and implemented is contested by some as being abused and in violation of the freedom of expression and human rights in this respect in some cases.
To conclude, the freedom of the media in Lebanon is guaranteed with the same considerations as the basic constitutional freedoms subject to some exceptions and restrictions as set out in the various laws that aim mainly at maintaining public order, ethics and morality.
In practice, the exceptions are drafted in a way that leaves room for interpretation regarding their application, and critics have expressed concern that the application has not always been implemented in respect of the original intention of the law and the basic principle of freedom of expression. A large number of Lebanese groups, activists and professionals within the media industry have been pushing for a better application and protection of their freedom of speech and expression.
The Freedom of Media: An Insight
The information provided in this article is general, generic and high-level only, and is provided "as is", with no guarantee of completeness, accuracy, timeliness or of the results obtained from the use of this information, and without warranty of any kind, express or implied; it is also not intended to be or provide legal advice on any specific matters, facts or circumstances, or a comprehensive survey of the various legal and regulatory issues that may arise regarding the subject matter hereof.
Zouheir El Baba
Zouheir El Baba is an associate at the firm. He joined the firm in August 2017. He works on projects in all aspects of the law including most notably, PPP and project finance, administrative law, oil & gas and renewable energy, mergers and acquisitions, corporate and commercial law, and aviation law. Zouheir holds a Bachelor in Law and Political Science and a Frenchmaitrise in International Law from the University Jean Moulin- Lyon III. He also holds a diploma in Common law and has attended the Red Cross’ International Humanitarian Law courses and the Hague Academy for International Law’sprogram in International Public Law.Zouheir is fluent in English, French and Arabic and has working knowledge in Spanish.
Carine Farran is Deputy Managing Partner and the banking and finance practice group director. She joined the firm in 2012 and is a member of the Quebec Bar since 2008. Carine advises numerous clients in banking and finance, financing instruments and funds, mergers and acquisitions, capital markets, oil and gas, private businesses on commercial and financial matters such as purchase and sale transactions, private financing, shareholders relationships, cross-border transactions, management contracts and any other type of commercial transaction and contracts. Before joining the firm, Carine has worked in leading law firms in Montreal, Canada and has specialized in various civil litigation and professional liability matters. She graduated from the University of Montreal with a Bachelor of Law. She also holds a Bachelor in Business Administration from the American University of Beirut, and a D.E.S.S in e-commerce from HEC Montreal. She is also a co- ecturer at the Lebanese American University, at the LLM programme, in Project Finance and PPP, Corporate Governance and Mergers and Acquisitions, as well as a co-lecturer at the American University of Beirut, at the Energy Studies programme, in Energy Law. Carine is certified as an independent corporate director by the International Financial Corporation Carine is fluent in English, French and Arabic.