On the occasion of World Press Freedom Day, marked every year on 3 May, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization Regional Office in Beirut (UNESCO Beirut) organized today a conference entitled, “Media for Democracy: Journalism and Elections in Times of Disinformation”. The event was held in partnership with the Ministry of Information and in collaboration with the United Nations Information Center in Beirut (UNIC Beirut), the Media Association for Peace (MAP) and JUSTICIA. The gathering, hosted by UNESCO Beirut Office, was held under the auspices of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri and in the presence of the Minister of Information Jamal Al Jarrah.
Journalists, media professionals, academics, activists, judges and prosecutors attended the event, as well as ambassadors and representatives of UN agencies in Lebanon. The opening ceremony featured statements by Minister Al Jarrah, UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for Lebanon Philippe Lazzarini and UNESCO Beirut Director Hamad Al Hammami.
In his statement, Al Jarrah said that freedom of expression is nowadays a right to everyone with the proliferation of social media, unlike traditional media that still maintains its specificities, expressing reservations on the fact that social media platforms do not comply with self-censorship. The minister emphasized the need for a healthy competition between rivals in elections because this will undeniably lead to practicing democracy in its proper forms and to the rotation of power. According to Al Jarrah, freedom of expression may conflict with other rights, and this requires dealing with the facts wisely and rationally to maintain balance between this freedom and other values within a democratic society. On the role of media in times of disinformation, Al Jarrah added, “we must galvanize our efforts to prevent misguided people on social media platforms from achieving their goals. This can only be achieved through our strengthened internal unity, which remains the true guarantee for Lebanon.”
Lazzarini, for his part, referred to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, highlighting the right of everyone to freedom of opinion and expression “without any outside interference”. He emphasized the relevance of these rights and that of free and fair elections to the achievement of real and stable democracies. “An essential role in the organization of a free and fair election is ensuring an open and unrestricted access to information,” he stressed. Lazzarini went on to say that the UN devotes high importance to the relation between the media and the fulfillment of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), specifically Goal 16 aiming to ensure public access to information and protect fundamental freedoms, in accordance with national legislations and international agreements. Lazzarini concluded by reiterating UN Lebanon’s long-standing commitment to press freedom through continued support to legislation, education, research, and trainings across the country.
For his part, UNESCO Beirut Director Hamed Al Hammami said that freedom of expression is a fundamental human right that is the basis of all other civil rights. Al Hammami emphasized the role of UNESCO in protecting and promoting freedom of expression online and offline. “The recent political, technological and economic changes, especially in the Arab region, have put new pressure on press freedom, and some regions have seen efforts by government actors to curb freedom of expression by introducing legislations and imposing restrictions on freedom of expression,” he added. Al Hammami went on to say, “in such circumstances, it is necessary to call for the provision of free, independent and pluralistic media, which enjoys professional journalism practiced without any fear of aggression, and which can participate effectively in shaping a functioning democracy.”
The opening ceremony was followed by working sessions focusing on this year’s thematic area. The first session tackled “the limits of freedom of speech” and included the contributions of Member of Parliament and Judge George Okeis, Secretary of the Syndicate of Journalists and Rapporteur of the Freedoms Committee of the General Federation of Arab journalists Ali Youssef, and journalist Bassam Abu Zeid. The session was facilitated by Najat Sharafeddin.
The second session revolved around the “potential of the media to contribute to a culture of sustainable peace and democracy”. The session was facilitated by Vanessa Bassil and included journalist Abbas Daher, professor Ibrahim Daoud, and journalist Ghida Jbeili.
The third session dealt with “Media, Internet and Social Media” and was facilitated by Nada Hamzeh. It included statements by the Head of Office of Combating Cybercrime and Intellectual Property Lieutenant Colonel Albert Khoury, Lawyer and Vice President of the Information Technology Committee of the Bar Association Diana Rhayem, and member of SMEX Organization Abd Kataya.
The closing session addressed the way forward and included contributions from president of ‘Justicia’ Paul Morcos, and Programme Specialist of Communication and Information at UNESCO Beirut George Awad.