Packaging fear, broadcasting rage

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    “Have you heard the news,” a passenger asked the driver last night after he boarded a shared taxi in East Beirut. 

    As a cheap way of getting around that packs strangers together in a tight space, the shared taxi or service (pronounced in French) has always been a window on the nation’s conversation.

    “A young saint was going to pray and she was killed by a Syrian,” the passenger announced, answering his own question.

    “Those beasts,” he continued. “Lebanon is full of them–foreigners. There is no more room for Lebanese anymore,” he said, shaking his head.

    The driver protested the generalization, but the passenger persisted, saying ominously: “The Syrians are everywhere.”

    The killing he spoke of was that of 28-year-old Myriam Al Achkar, who was brutally murderd last week near a monastery in Mount Lebanon, reportedly by its watchman, a long-time Syrian resident.

    The taxi passenger’s account of her death was a near verbatim parroting of the script read by an LBC television news reporter the previous night during a prime time news show.

    The clip, which has since been removed from LBC’s website, opens to the sound of violins as the camera drifts up the monastery steps in slow motion:

    The reporter begins:
    Myriam Al Ackhar– in her ascent to the heavens– never knew a savage beast was waiting for her, waiting to steal her dreams in life and its beauty. 
    She was too young to become a saint. She was martyred as she went to pray–like she did every afternoon, at the village church… That day, she was praying to find a job.

    The reporter concludes vaguely:
    Sweet Lebanon has become an arena for strangers (read migrant workers), pleasuring themselves as they please without hindrance.   

    Violins continue, then soundbites with the victim’s family, grouped together and shrouded in black.

    One begins in a somber voice:

    “She was killed in our village, a safe place with the finest of residents. Now there are many foreigners… they are living among us. Look near your home, maybe you will find one.

    Quickly the tone shifts to rage and a cacophony of screaming ensues as other family members take to the camera, their eyes piercing with rage, fingers pointing in vengeance. In summary:

    The Christians are being targeted because “we are too forgiving.” We hear the culprit may escape to Syria. The family are good people, they pray. But we will not take it anymore.

    (Now rising trumpet sounds heard in the background, growing louder as soundbites get more angry.)

    We will not let some “fatherless Syrian” do this to us. We will shut down the streets. We will mobilize all the Christians of Mount Lebanon and the Bekaa Valley. We will butcher the killer as he butchered Myriam. We are not afraid of anyone. “We know how take care of ourselves!” one woman shouts to cheers and clapping from the crowd of mourners. 

    “The girl was not in Gemazye out having a good time. She was praying in the village!” the woman adds in reference to Beirut’s trendy bar district.

    Fade out and cue opera music with wavering falesttoo as the casket is carried and women wail, all in slow motion:

    “Mariam was innocent. She was a virgin,” another mourner says. “She went to heaven as a virgin.” A priest adds: “Mariam is a martyr of the church.”

    Again the reporter speaks, this time questioning Lebanon’s ban against the death penalty:

    What does a mother do… when a beast deflowers* such a butterfly of beauty and love, only because she resisted him… 
    Is Lebanon’s international commitment to ban the death penalty more important than a family’s loss of the ones it loves most? How long will crimes go without severe punishment?

    Perhaps the reporter set out to do journalism, but the script he has read– packed with unchecked adjectives, metaphors and assumptions– is nothing short of fairy tale: In this case, Little Red Ridding Hood is the Virgin Mary, and the wolf lurking in the woods is the beastly Syrian, who hails from a pack of unruly “strangers” unleashed to wreak havoc on the land of milk and honey that is Lebanon.

    How this fantastical script was approved by LBC’s editors, particularly the show’s executive producer, Lebanon’s most famous talk show host, Marcel Ghanem, speaks volumes about the type of television being produced by so-called news organizations in Lebanon.

    Rather than creating powerful content that educates and informs audiences, such organizations cynically mirror and amplify the latent fear and loathing that lives in minds of many Lebanese. Local TV stations substitute research and good old-fashioned reporting for unbalanced, shoddily constructed pieces masked in special effects and springing from visceral, misinformed xenophobic stereotypes.

    LBC competitor MTV Lebanon has also produced a similarly superficial, one-sided, unsubstantiated report, painting the migrant worker “outsiders” as a menace to Beirut neighborhood without interviewing a single one of “them”:

    The tragic killing of Al Achkar was an opportunity to dig deeper and shed light on serious questions, for example, the state of violence against women in Lebanon as activist Nadine Moawad articulates in her recent post “Rest in Peace Myriam Achkar”

    The thoughtful post examines the myriad of obstacles women face in reporting rape in Lebanon today and the danger of evading discussion of the issue by suggesting, as a family member did, that rape at nightspots was more plausible.

    “In our country, we tell women not to get raped,” Moawad writes. “We don’t tell men to not rape.”

    At the same time, medical reports now suggest Al Achkar was not raped as previously reported–again underscoring the lack of fact-checking in TV reports.

    If there is actual evidence suggesting the culprit may escape, as family members say, then that evidence should be checked and presented to the audience– otherwise it is pure here-say and has no place in the report without strong qualification. If indeed evidence of suspect flight does exists, questions and reporting should be focused and specific. What do security sources have to say? Have individual foreign nationals escaped prosecution from similar crimes in the past? If so, when, where, how–and what are the analyses?

    To balance the criticism of migrant workers, some are asking questions about migrant labor demand in Lebanon (particularly from the Church) regulation and related vigilante violence as Elie and Mustapha have done in their respective posts.

    As expected, the online conversation by bloggers and citizen journalists has been richer and more probing than the often reactionary, thoughtless fare being peddled as news programming by Lebanese broadcasters.

    But social media is also a mirror for the many Lebanese who have absorbed the fear-mongering work of LBC and others. Myriam has already been beatified by a Facebook page devoted to her:

    It would be unfortunate if her tragic death becomes yet another tool to stoke rage and intolerance. But thanks to the efforts of irresponsible Lebanese television editors, it may already have, as the passenger’s rant in the service taxi would indicate.

    *Translations of some words is approximate. Please suggest better translation where appropriate.

    UPDATE 27/11/11: Incredibly, LBC has issued a reaction statement, claiming its script was “neutral” and pinning  the backlash on the “distraught” emotions of the family. A shame that such a major news organization either cannot see or admit the role it has played in packaging this story. Equally strange, LBC has re-posted the video on its youtube page:

    1 COMMENT

    1. Another great response from Lebanese online community, with a lot of common sense and maturity. Thanks for the post. I am going to link to it in my post too, after I linked to your tweet :)

      No one disputes that justice needs to be served with this animal, but I am proud of everyone who noticed how agitating the LBC reportage was. This is part of a global problem in the Lebanese media, which continuously fuel existing tensions with their bad reporting. We see it everyday.

      What’s worse was that Kalam Elnass issued a clarification ‘understanding’ the anti-racist reaction, but claimed their report was neutral, but aired the family angry opinions. Just another lie – that they were neutral. 

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