The day before the Arab Internet Governance Forum (Arab IGF) held this year in Lebanon, 26-27 November 2014, Hivos, in cooperation with the UNESCO and the Maharat Foundation organized a workshop at the American University of Science & Technology (AUST) in Beirut. The event entitled, “Internet Freedom: Rights and Responsibilities” was an opportunity to pinpoint some of the Internet policy challenges and practices in Lebanon specifically, and the Arab region in general.
During the event, the Internet was recognized as an important tool to achieve sustainable development and therefore the right to Internet access should be secured through providing reliable infrastructure and safeguarding the freedom of expression. In the same vein, local legislation should be enforced to uphold the Internet as an open global network.
Existence of Laws Protecting the Internet
The first session focused on the Lebanese experience where speakers debated with the participants as to whether Lebanon has a better situation in the region compared to other Arab countries. While some argued that Lebanon has relatively more Internet freedoms, others noted that any country that prosecutes people for publishing their opinions on the Internet is quite far from having a free Internet environment.
In Lebanon, the law of publication regulates the Internet, however this law was drafted in 1994, long before the wide-spread use of the Internet in the country. Despite that a new law for online publications was recently drafted, it was recommended that there should be a media law that encompasses online publication law as well as all media, including Internet-related laws.
MP Ammar Houri, Secretary of Information and Communication Parliamentarian Committee, went on to support online activism and civil society, advocating for freedom of expression and digital rights in Lebanon. He emphasized the rights and responsibilities of the government as well as those of Internet users. According to Mr Houri, self-regulation and self-censorship are the responsibilities of netizens where they should hold themselves accountable to their online activities. At the same time, protecting rights on the Internet is the responsibility of the government.
Mr Houri explained that there is a two-fold strand. The first part is the right dimension, which includes safeguarding Internet freedoms through regulation and the execution of policies. In this regard, it is important to note that while some regulations might be good, they are not being enforced properly. Regulations alone do not protect online freedoms when there is no enforcement. Meanwhile, there are responsibilities that counter these rights; how general freedoms are also protected in a way that respect individual freedoms.
Tony Mikhael, legal expert at the Maharat Foundation, talked about the conformity between different policies. For example, when looking at print journalism vs online journalism, we find that print journalists are not questioned for their publications while online journalists are questioned not in front of court or by certain law; sometimes they are sent to military courts, other times they are prosecuted by criminal courts.
Among the participants was a Lebanese activist and university student, who has been summoned by the authority for merely sharing an article on Facebook. He is the victim of the absence of Internet policies since his case currently falls under (print) publication law.
Online activism recently became a problem for activists and bloggers in Lebanon. There was a consensus among participants and speakers that freedom of expression lawsuits should be addressed in a different way in which defendants should not be summoned by the police and should in fact go directly to the court with an attorney.
The Status and Challenges of Internet Freedom in the Arab World
Salim Alawzi, blogger and journalist, spoke of Internet censorship which began in Lebanon in 2012. There are no policies protecting bloggers and activists, which hinders their mission of voicing the community’s concerns. Self-censorship always stems from these situations. According to Mr Alawzi, it is important to raise the awareness of the bloggers and activists about their rights and how they should respond and react when summoned by the authority. Mr Alawzi also noted that Lebanon has signed a number of international human rights protocols and declarations which should be respected and reflected in local legislation.
Hanane Boujemi, Manager of Internet Governance Programme MENA Region—HIVOS, accentuated some of the regional issues and concerns. Most of the policies and regulations in the region stifle online freedoms and constrain digital rights rather than safeguarding them. Ambiguities of local legislation are also a key constraint; using already existing laws to regulate Internet presents another challenge. Boujemi shed further light on net neutrality and privacy as other vital issues that should be considered when talking about online freedoms.
Ms Boujemi concluded by pinpointing the exact purpose of the Arab IGF. Governance is mainly about engaging different stakeholders in the policy dialogue on the Internet. Internet policies should be drafted following a multistakeholder approach in which civil society could have a voice and represent all stakeholders concerned, including activists and bloggers.
Gamal Eid, President of the Arab Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI), underscored that protecting rights is the main objective of any legislation; therefore this should not actually be debated. According to Mr Eid, infringements and violations of human rights are what should be regulated by laws and regulations. He further stressed the independence of judiciary and political will as two key factors to protect freedom of expression.
Mr Eid also endorsed the Charter of Human Rights and Principles for the Internet
being a well-tailored framework to be embraced when drafting local legislation. He also called attention to the booklet that was published by the ANHRI with guidelines to activists.
With the presence of government, civil society, academia, and international organizations, the event was an opportunity for different stakeholders to discuss Internet related issues, converge various standpoints, and consequently reach a common understanding on key issues.
Internet policies, online activism, and digital freedoms were identified as major concerns to Arab netizens. Rights of citizens versus responsibilities of government represented a key challenge where more efforts and negotiations are still required to reach an agreement on how governments should safeguard their citizens’ rights, draft and enforce legislations, regulate remedies, and manage infringements. Raising awareness of all concerned stakeholders was also emphasized as a prerequisite for their engagement in the genuine Internet Governance process.