Freedom of Expression and Responsible Media: A New Equilibrium in the Making

Lebanese MP Neemat Frem gave the keynote speech at the annual international conference on "the freedom of media," organized by the Transatlantic Leadership Network Forum at the Capitol Building, headquarters of the United States Legislature, in Washington, DC.

Among the personalities who participated in the deliberations were a wide panel of members of the US General Assembly and Senate, US and international officials including Montenegro Prime Minister and members of the European parliament, officials from Spain, Bosnia and Herzegovina and African countries, who are in charge of foreign relations and national security, and opinion leaders and editors-in-chief of the most prominent American and Canadian media outlets. Several institutions such as “The Telegraph,” “Al-Jazeera,” “Voice of America,” “Middle East Eye,” “NewsWeek” and “Al-Hurra,” in addition to executives from the Washington “National Press Club,” participated in the opinions and researches.

In his speech delivered in English and entitled "Freedom of Expression and Responsible Media: A New Equilibrium in the Making,” Frem referred to Lebanon's experience in the field of freedom of expression and the dear price the country has paid for it. He said:  Long before the appearance of the written media, radio stations, and television, up to the revolution of social media in our time, poets and writers since the dawn of history were the first to lay the foundations for the wide dissemination of information.  These pioneers in free expression derived this passion from the inherent human inclination towards freedom, and from natural law, both of which reside in the very essence of the human DNA.  Subsequently, the many international documents culminating in the United Nations’ 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights built their texts and based their timeless assertions on precisely this natural law.

Exorbitant Costs for Freedom of Expression

            Over time, upholding freedom of expression in many parts of the world has come at a heavy price.  Let me speak here about the experience of my country Lebanon, where the first printing press in the Middle East was established in 1585.  Lebanon historically has served as an exceptional and innovative platform of free media for the entire region.  During periods that witnessed the widespread suppression of freedom of expression by repressive forces and regimes, Lebanon, through its free media, became an open forum for airing the region’s grievances and championing the rights of its peoples.   

As in other places around the world, Lebanon paid a huge price for its precious freedoms. Over the years, hundreds of journalists, thinkers, and opinion shapers were either imprisoned or exiled, while others were exposed to threats and active repression, some even paying the ultimate price with their lives.  Many newspapers and television stations were forced to shut down momentarily, mainly because the local authorities as well as different regimes throughout the region could not tolerate the effects on them of freedom of expression in Lebanon.

All this has led many in Lebanon today to wonder whether their country has been punished for exceeding the tolerated limits in exposing certain phobias and highlighting specific regional causes through the country’s free media.  Were the internal divisions and fragmentation along with wars and invasions on Lebanon the dear price we paid for such freedom?

Elevating the Stakes Poses New Questions

With the revolution of social media, the issue of freedom of expression and where the boundaries, if any, should be drawn became a heated point of debate.  Complicated questions arose as to whether certain limits or controls ought to be placed on such social media, and on media in general, with a view to preventing abuses and maintaining public decency while simultaneously ensuring that free expression is protected. 

As has happened in my country Lebanon, the limits of regulating the right to free expression are being tested worldwide.  This raises a variety of questions of a critical and interpretive nature, as well as from the strictly legal perspective.  All such questions revolve around maintaining a delicate balance between safeguarding freedom of expression and protecting national and communal interests as they relate to national security and communal stability of countries. 

On the personal and social levels, it is asked: what happens when freedom of expression targets openly the very values and basic principles upon which society is founded?  This can often extend to the distortion of reputations and to character assassination including personal slander, libel, and defamation.  What about the spread of hate speech and calls to violence, all done under the umbrella of free discourse?  And, what if the language of incitement and discrimination reaches the point of attacking specific sectarian communities or their religious creeds?  How are such abuses to be redressed and the targeted parties offered justice?

Responsible Freedom

We have reached a critical crossroad whereby freedoms are to be preserved and protected under the encompassing notion of “responsible freedom”.  In this context, I ask myself rhetorically: Did the freedoms nurtured in Lebanon serve to delay the outbreak of civil war from the fifties to the mid-seventies of last century, or, alternatively, did Lebanon’s near-absolute freedoms serve to fuel latent hatreds and hasten the onset of war in 1975?  I also ask: Was Lebanon’s status as the “Hyde Park” of free expression for the Middle Eastern region the reason behind the undermining of its security and stability by those regimes that felt threatened by an excess of freedom?  Or, on the contrary, did these freedoms constitute a special distinguishing feature for Lebanon that allowed it to maintain communication and continuity with the free world?  Responses to these questions will necessarily be malleable to the same extent that truth regarding freedom of expression depends on where on the scale between constraint and licentiousness the optimal point for that freedom is situated.  The key to determining such a point depends on an enshrined set of values and laws leading towards “responsible freedom”.  This underscores the intimate connection between freedom and responsibility, the latter acting as a safeguard for the former.

The nineteenth-century American novelist and social critic, James Fennimore Cooper, wrote:

“The press, like fire, is an excellent servant, but a terrible master…and if it serves as guardian over society and people’s rights, it itself needs guarding and watching.” 

How then is it possible to protect this sacred freedom?

Solutions and Recommendations

            In the United States, as in my country Lebanon, the media are referred to as the “Fourth Estate,” next to the three other branches of power—the executive, the legislative, and the judicial.  I can assure you that we in Lebanon recently lived through a genuine empirical experience on the ground in which the media played the watchdog role of the “Fourth Estate” at a time when the other three powers were fast collapsing into paralysis.  With the breakdown of the judiciary and all mechanisms of monitoring along with the very concept of accountability, the spread of corruption and mediocrity seemed unstoppable.  Yet Lebanon’s free media emerged as a “strategic reserve” that is acting today as the only remaining power capable of observing and holding accountable in the court of public opinion presidents and ministers and judges and security institutions and all those in positions of responsibility.  Needed, in my view, is a regulating mechanism to offset any possible excesses by this free media power and to keep it responsible. 

            Let me mention here, as an example of this new equilibrium that is being created, the referendum in Switzerland of 9 February 2020 on demarcating the boundaries of freedom of expression.  Let me also recall how social media giants Twitter and Facebook closed the accounts of prominent politicians and persons of influence, which has raised important questions without adequate answers so far.  Did these private companies resort to such drastic measures because of the absence of adequate legislation to limit controversial speech, or were there ulterior and possibly political motives behind their moves?

            In closing, I maintain that the anchoring and preservation of freedom of expression through the attainment of a natural equilibrium between the “Fourth Estate” and the need for reasonable regulations of it will only come through the cultivation of the concept of “responsible freedom”.  In this regard, permit me to offer the following brief recommendations:

  1. Education, education, and education—in families at home, in schools, and in universities. This education should focus on how best to practice this freedom of expression and how to remain responsible to avoid its abuse. This is especially true in the domain of social media, which has given new and tremendous power to every individual user to act as an instantaneous journalist and opinion giver on a global scale.
  2. To put in place the required laws and appropriate regulating mechanisms that derive their inspiration from the finest constitutions, international documents, and universal declarations humanity has produced in order to define the scope of “responsible freedom”.
  3. Encouraging the promotion of a “trend” of confident and constructive media professionals and wider users infused with basic values of responsible free expression. These would act as a positive firepower in cyberspace and in other media outlets. They would constitute a regiment of principled activists, journalists, and opinion shapers, who would serve as the guardians of “responsible freedom” in the media.  They would undertake to confront deviations and correct distortions whether these come from the direction of excess of license, or the opposite direction of repressive restrictions on freedom.

Through this occasion you are celebrating here, I see the emergence of a platform for the defense of freedoms and, at the same time, for shining the spotlight on the urgent need for responsible practice of these freedoms.  I salute all among you here today who are carrying high the banner of “responsible freedom”.  You are indeed an embodiment of the “Fourth Estate” to which you have dedicated your lives in the service of truth and the elevation of human dignity in every time and place.

            I thank you for your kind attention.

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