As 2015 comes to a close, it’s important to look back at the ways the Lebanese press behaved unexpectedly this year, confronting state power like never before, and at times, almost giving an equal voice to those who challenge it. I look at these developments in detail and ask if this trend will continue in my column last month for Bold Magazine. Photo: Activists hold an impromptu press conference in downtown Beirut on Sept. 16, 2015.
A New Era For Lebanese Journalism?
// Bold Magazine, November 2015
The myth of press freedom in Lebanon is often hailed by Middle East analysts, but ask locals and many will answer with a cynical shrug, pointing out that much of the media is owned by politicians. Of course this is largely accurate as dozens of publications, websites and television stations are indeed managed by self-appointed sectarian chieftains, militias-turned political parties or the powerful businessmen that bankroll them, often literally with their own banks.
For years I have written and lectured on the topic of Lebanese journalism or the lack thereof, chronicling the nauseating pandering to politicians and business that dominates our airwaves. In many cases, what is broadcast is utter propaganda– music and sound effects included. And in the newspapers it is often sourceless material with few quotations, expert sources or analysts interviewed. Some Lebanese papers even publish what can only be described as political horoscope sections, where all names are anonymous–identified only as a “high-ranking official” or “foreign envoy”–allowing readers to fill in the blanks with whatever their imaginations can conjure.
But even more dangerous than the outright lies sold to the public, is the subtle manipulation of storytelling and abdication of reporting responsibilities in favor of the practice of near-constant political stenography. This means our media largely acts as a virtual audio and sound recorders simply attending all of the pseudo events (i.e. press conferences and speeches) created by politicians and serving their purpose entirely by reporting strictly what has been said without question. As a result, newscasts and newspaper pages are filled with the voices of the powerful, leaving little room for exploring citizen concerns, or any time for research to hold elite chiefs and warlords accountable for the bombastic, contradictory and patronizing things they are usually saying.
Evidence of this utter Lebanese press failure can be found in the litany of dysfunctional, basic state services, such as the daily shortages of water and electricity which are virtually never investigated in any depth. The same is true of unregulated public works contracting and private real estate development, with corruption and illegal seizure of public properties rampantly destroying the coast, heritage sites and the few remaining public spaces in the city with near zero accountability in the press.
But with so much damage done during the first two decades of postwar Lebanon, could this negligence possibly continue in the years ahead? Or will the current atmosphere of political revolt and technological change make business as usual no longer tenable both for Lebanese elites and their sycophantic media organizations?
In a rather sudden departure from their previously tepid reporting, a handful of media outlets have begun to challenge Lebanese state power simply by devoting more time to those who protest it than to the armed elites who sustain it. Leading local broadcaster LBC for example has for years has been known for a flagship talk show where war-criminals-turned-politicians are given a platform to speak at length with few questions asked about their bloody track record. And despite the fact that such men should be tried before the courts, the host frequently visits their mansions and makes jokes with them with his trademark outlandish laughing bouts, thus humanizing authoritarian figures and reinforcing a system of vague respectability despite their failed leadership. Yet since the anti-corruption #youstink protests began this summer, LBC has virtually thrown its hat into the battle by sending reporters to cover the demonstrations live for hours on end. Not only were reporters interviewing protesters denouncing politicians, they were literally living the experience of police brutality by physically being subjected to tear gas and baton violence themselves, live on camera, and sharing the trauma with audiences nationwide, instantaneously.
LBC reporter Foutan Raad displayed particular boldness when police demanded she cease reporting at the environment ministry, where several activists had staged a 9 hour sit-in in September. But even after her cameraman’s broadcast was forcefully ended, Raad continued reporting live to the LBC studio over her cell phone. She refused to give in and riot police eventually physically picked her up by her arms and legs, removing her from the building. Raad’s dogged reporting continued nonetheless in the weeks that followed as she has been a near constant presence at demonstrations, keeping a watchful eye on police action and propaganda efforts. During the major demonstration in October, Raad debunked an ominously-sounding police tweet that accused activists of setting a fire near the Martyr’s Square statue, making it clear that the protestors were merely drying their clothes after police had fired water cannons at them all night.
In addition to Raad and LBC, Al Jadeed TV, which over recent years has become one of the rare local news organizations to conduct investigative and hidden camera work, has also provided near constant coverage giving voice to the protesters outspoken critiques of ministers and powerful institutions. Last month Al Jadeed aired an impromptu press conference where a recently freed female activist gave a long and detailed testimony of being beaten and threatened with rape while in police custody. In fact both Al Jadeed and LBC have repeatedly aired compilation promo pieces showcasing police brutality, even using an on-screen graphic with the hashtag #youstink. The mere fact that these networks are live from the protests, often with the lens trained on riot police, is significant in itself. One wonders what may have happened had the cameras not been rolling? Would the police have calmly stood aside in between violent crackdowns as protesters took over streets in front of important ministries and courts for hours at a time? Would they have released so many activists so quickly if the faces of the detained and protests demanding their release were not in the media every day?
Students of journalism are taught a quintessential parable about the trade early on: “News is what people don’t want you to know. The rest is advertising.” In Lebanon however, the uncharacteristically brave work of those reporters confronting power has been vilified by several establishment Lebanese media organizations who are virtually stumbling over themselves to support the state.
Despite her uncompromising reporting, the popular newsite “Lebanon Debate” dubbed Ms. Raad as “lacking any experience” in an unsourced three paragraph article. Meanwhile the news station, NBN, dismissed Al Jadeed TV as “spreading sectarianism” and headed by a “shady businessman” after it aired an interview with a protestor that criticized NBN’s backer, the speaker of Parliament. Meanwhile both OTV and Al Anbaa newspaper have called the protesters “an international conspiracy” in shoddily contrived reports that offer no evidence to back their fantastical claims. Finally, Al Joumhouria newspaper, which has also peddled sourceless conspiracy articles, printed a front page image of a protester giving the finger to the police with a large font headline that screams “Thugs occupy Beirut.” Yet the paper paid little attention to the actual armed party operatives that have attacked journalists and activists in plain sight of security forces. At the same time, the Hariri’s family’s Future Television or Hezbollah’s Al Manar have simply ignored protests or attacks on them and often aired soap operas as activists held press conferences covered live by sympathetic channels.
It may come as no surprise that nearly all of the news organizations attacking those journalists willing to confront power are either owned or closely tied to incumbent politicians. Will those few reporters and outlets be able continue their defiant subversion in the face of such delegitimization? Will the public see through the smear campaigns or have they also be conditioned by the ruling powers in Lebanon, and the conspiratorial fear mongering they employ to draw supporters closer?
What is clear in the short term is that many citizens are increasingly creating their own press: online comedians such as Pierre Hachach, who was arrested for 11 days, or the many Facebook and Youtube pages of activist movements now have hundreds of thousands of followers, exceeding the audience of many mainstream media programs. With their increasingly sophisticated videos, parodies and corruption reports, these citizens and grassroots groups are providing regular updates on the situation even before the mainstream media shows up. The question is thus increasingly shifting from concern over the Lebanese press doing a better job for the public to concerns over their ability to simply catch up.