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Balance between free speech and security discussed at the May Chidiac Foundation conference
December 4, 2012
Author: Eric Reidy
Source: BEIRUT - SKEYES

The May Chidiac Foundation-Media Institute and the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung organized the Foundation’s first annual “Free Speech and Social Media” conference in Beirut on Saturday, December 1 at the Phoenicia Hotel. The goal of the conference was to discuss the impact of technology on social, economic and political behavior, open communication, and transparency, according to the conference description.

Alec Ross, Hillary Clinton’s Senior Advisor for Innovation at the United States Department of State, delivered a keynote address. Ross’ address was followed by five panel discussions with executives from the media and communications industry in Lebanon as well as experts and practitioners in the fields of traditional and social media from the Middle East and Europe. The panel discussions covered topics including the impact of social media on politics and electoral campaigns, social media and the future of communication and business, the tension between new media and traditional media, online activism, and traditional media in the era of citizen journalism.

Ross’ keynote speech addressed the role of social media in geopolitics, and its relevance to the Middle East and the Arab Spring. Ross said a shift is taking place in geopolitical power. Many analysts say the shift is a movement of economic and political power from the West, represented by the United States and European Union, to the East, represented by China, India, and other emerging economic powers. Ross prefers to view the shift in power as a movement from “hierarchies to citizens and networks of citizens,” he said.

Ross illustrated the shift using examples from the Arab Spring. Social media did not cause the revolutions taking place across the Arab world, he said, but it plays an important role in accelerating movement making, enriching the information environment, and facilitating “leaderless-ness.” These three factors combine to make it difficult for regimes to control what information is accessible and to crack down on opposition movements utilizing social media. “The 21st century is an awful time to be a control freak,” Ross said.

The new media environment favors governments that do not try to restrict their citizens’ freedom of communication, Ross said.  However, there is a need to achieve a balance between security and liberty. “Security without liberty is oppressive; liberty without security is dangerous,” he said.

The correct balance between security and free speech was a central question addressed in the conference. In his opening statement, Conference Chairperson Ghassan Hasbani asked, “should we abandon absolute media freedom to build responsible societies?”

In a speech delivered to the audience by a representative, Lebanese Minister of Information Walid Al-Daouk spoke about the need to balance responsibility and freedom when using social media. Social media can be used to spread rumors and false information and people can misuse social media for unethical behavior or to create crises like the controversy surrounding the film “The Innocence of Muslims,” he said. “Free speech in social media requires maintaining high standards of respect,” he said.

Panelists discussed the question of free speech and security both in terms of personal security and societal security. In the first panel Benoît Thieulin, founder and CEO of a French online political communications company, said that social media does not need an official regulatory structure because individuals tend to self-regulate in order to maintain their reputations. Panelist Jonas Westphal, a founding member of the German Social Democratic Party’s forum on Internet policy, said that it is important for governments to deregulate the Internet even if it means a certain degree of insecurity because regulation blocks access to the online economy.

Currently, online content in Lebanon is not subject to censorship by the Directorate General of General Security, unlike other forms of media such as films, theatre, and television media outlets, according to a report by the Censorship Observatory, (Marsad Al- Raqaba in Arabic). Live television programs such as news are also not subject to censorship, the report states.

“Any kind of limitation of social media by authorities should not happen the same way it happened to the traditional media,” said Hasbani. Conference participant and computer security researcher Nadim Kobeissi said, “In Lebanon I don’t think there is a particular government benefit to censoring the Internet so far, but I think there might be one day, especially regarding the unpredictable political nature of the country.”

Al-Daouk introduced a draft law, dubbed by activists the “Lebanese Internet Regulation Act” (LIRA), in April 2012 to regulate online media content in Lebanon. The law, according to a Huffington Post article, would have imposed numerous restrictions including requiring news outlets and bloggers to register their sites with the Ministry of Information. Online activists organized a successful social media campaign to prevent the draft legislation from becoming a law, the article said. LIRA and the online campaign against the law were not mentioned during the conference.

“We didn’t see a lot of concrete examples of things that are actually happening in this country; actual regulations we are facing,” said Habib Battah, a journalist and author of the blog beirutreport.com. Maya Kreidieh, a conference participant and activist at the hackerspace Lamba Labs, said, “this conference was very elitist. We should be giving workshops teaching people to use social media. It’s not really promoting free speech.”

Self-censorship is also an impediment to free speech in social media that was not brought up in the conference, Battah said. “There is a fear to speak about specific events and specific persons. There is this tendency to be general and vague to be safe,” he said. Independent journalists sometimes avoid criticizing individual government ministers or political figures because if they criticize a particular individual people will assume they are affiliated with the political opposition to that individual, Battah said. “The politicization of the media space really hinders independent voices,” he added.

Internet infrastructure and cost are also much more basic impediments to free speech in social media that were not addressed in the conference, Battah deplored. Currently Internet speed in Lebanon ranks 155th out of 180 countries in the world, according to a report by netindex.com. Although the government has recently taken steps to increase speed and reduce costs, Internet access in Lebanon is among the most expensive in the world, according to an article in Businessweek. “It remains kind of an elite institution in Lebanon,” Battah said.

The conference concluded with a summary of the discussions that took place during the course of the day. When asked about whose role it is to determine if social media is being used responsibly Hasbani said, “freedom should not be regulated and should not be controlled except by the people using social media exercising self-discipline on how to responsibly use it in a good, positive way that does not cause unnecessary harm to others.” How to determine where the line between responsible use of social media and self-censorship exists in a country like Lebanon is still an open question.