Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Supreme Media Censor for Lebanon

Saja kindly translated this article of mine which appeared in Al-Akhbar.

Tariq Metri, Lebanon's Supreme Media Censor

As’ad Abu Khalil

Information Minister Tariq Metri's eagerness to announce his media principles occurs in somewhat curious timing. Against the backdrop of political clampdown, there seems to be a dire need to critique all political sides, not to gag speech. So what led to Metri's involvement in an announcement like this? Political partisanship or merely naiveté?

Much can be said about Tariq Metri as an undistinguished phenomenon of an educated politician in Lebanon. You can revisit his leftist history in the Lebanese Nationalist Movement and expediently analyze yet another ex-leftist. You can revisit his ascension to power by nomination and endorsement of Emil Lahoud, only to switch gears in less than two years and somehow turn into a permanent Fouad Seniora nominee. You can impute innocent reasons to the radical shift in his discourse (in less than two years): for instance, you can try believing that he changed his perspective based on conviction. Minister Metri was possibly influenced by Sa'ad or Nader Al-Hariri's power of persuasion. You may remind him of his futile speech before the UN Security Council during the peak of Israeli aggression towards Lebanon. But that is not our topic. We're concerned about the "Statement of Principles" draft Minister Metri presented to media representatives in Lebanon (in spite Saudi ambassador Abdul Aziz Khoja's absence due to extenuating circumstances).

The statement started under the rubric of "concern for the freedom of media outlets." Before proceeding any further, you realize when you read the preamble that it's a prelude for latent intentions of repression that will appear in the rest of the statement. The minister reiterates his emphasis on "the profession's principles and ethics." He didn't explain what he meant by "principles" or ethics or who defines them. Will he take the initiative of recruiting his esteemed ministry for the task of framing those principles and ethics? The minister goes on to reverberate agreeable discussion of "the values of tolerance and dialogue", which is troubling especially since the he belongs to the Saudi axis (which, in fairness, places all Salafi sides in Lebanon on the same footing without bias). Are the values of tolerance and dialogue a prologue for bringing Lebanon to a warm meeting with Shimon Peres, like the Saudi king had done with the excuse of dialogue and tolerance? Furthermore, if the Minister is truly concerned about tolerance, will he join us to condemn beheadings and the stoning of lovers in the Wahhabi kingdom, which represent an extremist example of religious fundamentalists in the world even by the Department of State's standards? This discourse per se contradicts media liberties in democratic countries to which everyone in the miserable homeland claims membership. The Al-Hariri family is preparing to impose restrictions and repression on journalistic liberties in Lebanon using different names, and on behalf of the Saudi Kingdom, which has many outlets in Lebanon (like "misery to the heart" - whoever coined that phrase must have been very depressed) to finally condemn the "media campaign" against it, as if Lebanese media doesn't include vehement criticism of other regimes including Syria and Iran. Criticism of the two axes must continue if Lebanon's journalistic liberties actually mean anything. However, the Hariri group's intentions to repress journalistic freedoms came early, in a memorandum it prepared for the Ta'if conference (this was proven in a book about Ta'if by George Bacasini himself). This approach has become quite clear in the Lebanese ruling family's discourse - that is, almost-ruling family were it not for the objection of at least half of Lebanon. What is this equality between speech (no matter how stern, assertive or vile) and violence? Speech is speech, violence is violence, and they are conflated only in totalitarian regimes. However, this concept has become the ruling elite's official policy in order to gag people, suffocate voices and repress liberties. One senses frustration in Saudi media from one newspaper that dares to criticize Saudi Arabia, albeit the House of Saud's media (and its adherents among Al-Hariri media) freely criticize regimes with which it disagrees, while it is notable that Al-Saud's media (and its adherents among Al-Hariri media) forgives any regime which buries the hatchet with the Saudi government and immediately cease to criticize it.

Equating speech and violence is an Orwellian trick that won’t pass. Allow me to enlighten the ruling elite's Media Minister about freedom of speech in democratic countries, although he has lived for a long time in one of them. For example, in America the jurisprudential interpretation of the First Amendment regarding freedom of speech distinguishes true speech and false speech. The standard for constitutional review of freedom of speech also entertains the standard of protected and unprotected speech. Here freedom of speech guarantees the freedom of opinion even to false speech, while true speech is not subject to censorship. Restriction of speech may expose the government (or the President) to a legislative and judicial lawsuit (for the history of freedom of speech in America, see the new book by Anthony Lewis titled Freedom for the Thought That We Hate: A Biography of the First Amendment, in which he explains the evolution of freedom of expression, which was not always protected since the establishment of the Republic, as the American government criminalized the "defamation" of government officials in the late eighteenth century, similar to Anwar Al-Sadat's "vice" law, the law of "Verbal Transgression" in Jordan, or the law of "Weakening National Spirit" in Syria, etc.) A victim of false defamation cannot sue someone who publishes a lie except in limited situations in which the plaintiff can prove not the falsehood, but the intent of falsification in addition to proving the truth. This is a very high bar in constitutional law which makes proving unprotected defamation nearly impossible. Of course, the standard differs among countries, and Britain for example has a lower bar than that. The law there also distinguishes between the purpose of defamatory speech and writings; the law protects the right to lie about someone in "the public eye", meaning a public official or a celebrity.

Metri would say there are instances when governments may restrict freedoms if the written or verbal speech constitutes, according to the interpretation of the Supreme Court, which does not answer to the authority of the President or Congress, "clear and present danger" to public safety. The point of the text of the statement to reserve the responsibility of defining what constitutes danger in the hands of the government itself. Hence, criticizing the situation of women in Saudi Arabia, for example, constitutes a "threat" to public safety in Lebanon. This doesn't pass legal or constitutional muster, Mr. Minister of Information.

The minister appeals to "the spirit of the Doha agreement" when he announces his authoritative intents. First, let's note that nobody notices absence of a "spirit". What in the world is a spirit? Do you know what a spirit is, Minister Metri? Are you trying to call on spirits today? You’re akin to someone who tries to put out flames with fire. As for the Doha agreement, like many agreements and kisses between politicians in Lebanon, it has no constitutional or legal legitimacy. Who decides the "spirit" of the Doha agreement (besides fortune tellers)? Pierre Al-Gemayyel led the country to civil war and collaborated with the Israeli enemy in the name of the National [Pact]’s spirit. Keep us away from spirits, Minister. Metri then repeatedly speaks about "prohibiting declaring others traitors, and political and sectarian instigation." This is certainly hypocritical and cannot be negated by affirmations. Again, who besides your excellency decides the standard for declaring someone a traitor. There is obscurity here because this description is easily used in Lebanon to silence dissident voices. And where were you, Minister Metri, when your partner Ahmad Fatfat (who else?) of the previous government accused me personally of treason on the pages of this newspaper for no other reason than that I had criticized (or "trespassed upon" per Fatfat's expression) Rafiq Al-Hariri. Did you, as someone who discourages resorting to a judgment of treason, rush to condemn Fatfat's speech? Did you utter a single word at the time? Because it is not easy to agree upon a clear definition of treason, especially since Solanj Al-Gemayyil, who prepared dishes of appetizers for Ariel Sharon (as he wrote in his memoirs), sits under the Parliament's dome and since the Maronites’ patriarch does not cease to apologize for the murderers, collaborators and butchers in the South Lebanon Army, the definition of treason has become obscure, and this is bad. When there is no agreement among the Lebanese people, not even on that Israel is an enemy, then all vulgar polemics are merely hogwash and part of political bickering.

There are more dangerous matters, Tariq Metri. When the ruling elite denounces declaring others as traitors (even though it practices it towards its adversaries), does it prepare Lebanon for a phase in which deeming others as treason is entirely excluded from Lebanese law? What about treason itself? What about dealing, communicating and collaborating with the Israeli enemy, which current Lebanese law penalizes? Is this what the Patriarch meant when he highlighted in a recent sermon the importance of overruling laws and concepts that pertain to the era of occupation (he uses occupation to refer only to Syrian reign in Lebanon. We can't say here that the Patriarch spoke against the Israeli occupation, because he wants Lebanon to get along with "all its neighbors"). Deeming one guilty of treason is part of criticism in all democratic countries. It is widespread in this country. Right-wing author Ann Coulter has written an entire book titled Treason in which she deemed Liberals in America traitors. The danger here does not lie in parties' use of the treasonous label or the ease of using names and descriptions in organizations, but rather when it is used by governments (and all Arab governments use the definitions and laws for political reasons, which makes true pursuit of the treasonous virtually impossible. How can you pursue Israel's agents in Lebanon if Rustum Ghazala imprisons Tahseen Khayyat under charges of agency for Israel if he doesn't succumb to him, for example?). Governments may repress under both treason laws and prohibition thereof. Tariq Metri's team plans to limit liberties in Lebanon under the rubric of disallowing media outlets to deem individuals traitors. Considering others traitors is a part of free speech in a country, exactly like the freedom to exchange insults and name-calling between political rivals.

Tariq Metri shouldn't try passing legislation that gives politicians more freedoms than those afforded (or reserved) to the media. Politicians are exchanging treasonous labels and insults in Parliament, which is their right a universal right. However, placing violence and verbal speech on the same footing is a petty trick that lacks constitutional muster. It's as ironic as Fouad Seniora's talk about "merits democracy" while he's a part of a group headed by Sa'd Al-Hariri, as if the latter had gained his position due to merit. Democracies, not the Wahhabi regimes that embrace you, Tariq Metri, do not limit free speech and do not deem speech as violent unless it involves threat of bodily harm. Otherwise, you're attempting to erode free speech regardless of your use of words that equate speech and violence. It is rather funny (or sad) that the Seniora government considers criticism of a particular political tract violent speech (or verbal violence) while one of its leaders called for the assassination of the president of a neighboring country (not Israel) and called on the US to send booby-trapped cars to Damascus. This does not constitute violent speech in your definition but you do object to naming someone "an ex-leftist" and consider it a threat to his safety. From where do you get these standards, Minister Metri?

Tariq Metri resorts in another section of his emergency draft (which is similar to emergency proclamations in Arab countries that claimed to work on the liberation of Palestine and restricted freedoms in the name of the liberation of Palestine) to stating he intends to "secure balanced coverage". Balanced? Again, who decides? Has nobody brought to your attention the fact that balanced coverage has become an international joke because right-wing Fox News, which is the most biased here, presents itself as "fair and balanced"? Will the balance you're calling for be similar to that of Fox News'? Minister Metri expresses naiveté, or deception, when he calls for the separation of news and opinion. How will that happen, Minister Metri? It is possible to separate the two? See Pierre Bourdieu's book About Television which describes a reality created by the media, not reflected by it, even without intervention by the state elite. He warns of a new kind of indirect censorship. There are limitations and restrictions on speech under capitalism that follow from capital's tyranny, especially since expensive television dwarves other media outlets. Media independent of the Saud and Hariri families' monopoly can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

In his discussion of "the common good", Metri reminds us of the Baath Party's statements in the 1960's. Which common good is this, Information Minister, when blood has become as cheap as water (as Amal Danqul says) on the streets of Beirut and Tripoli? If the Lebanese can't agree on the identity of the enemy, do you want them to agree on the common good? You're detached in your ivory tower. Metri reaches the peak of orwellianism in the fifth section of his ominous draft when he shamelessly addresses the "purification" of media of "assault" and "mockery". What's wrong with mockery, esteemed Minister? Mockery and satire are literary devices. If you really want to purify media and school curricula, you might as well omit the books of Al-Jahiz, Ahmad Faris Al-Shidiaq and Maroon Abood for consistency with your information philosophy. Will this article be subject to your purification process? What happened to you, Minister Metri? How can an educated person, or a citizen, call for the purification of speech of mockery? Do you have any idea what the repercussions of your proposal are? Will you prohibit the satire of Al-Hutai'a and Al-Mutanabbi too? What will you leave for us? What will happen to our liberties if we allow you the freedom of repression? Whether you know it or not, you've become an enemy to culture and liberties, and moreover you discourage "excess" of criticism. Are you kidding, Mr. Minister? Did you import this legislation from a repressive Arab regime? Are you going to prescribe for us doses of criticism like a physician prescribes medicine? Have you become a pharmacist, Mr. Minister? Is this like Fakhri Karim's thesis about "permitted speech"? You've gone so far in your statement as to prohibit agitation and political discourse. How can there be politics without agitation? This is part of the political process without which democracy can't survive in this miserable homeland.

No, Mr. Minister. Your project is very dangerous and hints of destroying the last venues of free expression in Lebanon. We don't know why one independent newspaper that has no connection to your abundant wealth disturbed you, agents and allies of Al-Hariri. Your intentions were clear when Sa'd Al-Hariri entered the political arena: he didn't only accept and legislate Syrian restriction of Lebanese liberties, but he went farther than Ghazi Kan'an and Rustum Ghazala. There are numerous stations and newspapers that were sued, shut down or threatened with closing by the "Salafi Future" current. This flows with Saudi official disapproval of criticism in Lebanon. Ibrahim Salama discusses this in his valuable book "Tomorrow We Will Enter The City"; voices can be silenced, opinions may be sold out, consciences may be rented, biographies may be transformed, but absolute rule is not possible.

You've changed dramatically, Minister Metri. Those who knew you in college say you're now an entirely different person. We won't discuss your choices; those are your business. However, you're subject to democratic accountability by any citizen. You're free to change, and that's up to you, but you have no right to change us or to change public opinion.