Beirut, Asharq Al Awsat – Has the Lebanese media gone back to serving political and factional interests of ideological institutions disregarding professionalism and objectivity? Have parts of the media become “trenches” for political and factional divisions to hide behind? For those who do not have the background information, such methods came about as a result of the civil war that broke out in 1975. Without attaining a legal formula to regulate and indicate the presence of such media, it was used by political forces during their struggles, until the Taif Accord was signed and peace was restored in 1990. The laws that followed to regulate media and that imposed “superficial” multiplicity did not prevent these forms of media from maintaining a sectarian identity.
The phenomenon of “media trenches” proves that the freedom pioneered and enjoyed by Lebanese media in the Arab world where media is generally submissive to the political regime, has not led to the establishing of a professional media that that would allow political and factional parties to deliver their message and achieve their political and sectarian goals without impeding upon the professional integrity of the media.
Academic and media figure, Amjad Iskandar looks at the Lebanese situation and says, “It is true that the media is thriving in Lebanon, however, not within the correct framework. The public media is supposed to express different opinions of different parts of society in an impartial manner. However, certain television channels were granted licenses on the basis of doctrinal and political considerations and these were the reason behind their establishment. During periods of political stability, these forms of media showed a degree of compassion only to return to siding with certain outlets in times of heat and tension”.
The editor-in-chief of the news section of the Voice of Lebanon radio, Shirbil Marone agrees that radio and television stations have relatively become “media trenches”, adding that “objectivity in the current Lebanese political atmosphere is a difficult matter”. Nevertheless, there are “some forms of media that seek to adhere to a degree of balance. The problem lies in the law regarding this matter that stipulates multiplicity however the application of which remains very much sectarian”.
The director of the Institute for Professional Journalists in the Lebanese American University considers that “sectarian siding in the media is not a new phenomenon. However, it may have gotten worse or more complicated following the Israeli assault on Lebanon, as the “media arena” is loaded with media battles which do not add to the credibility of those who use these channels as platforms. Ultimately, this leads to a decline in media standards”.
Public relations director at Al-Manar TV, Ibrahim Farhat, considers the “situation of the political and media arenas in Lebanon sensitive” after the Israeli attack on the country. One of the main responsibilities of the media is to report and analyze events taking place in the political arena. The existing intensity of the media is a result and reflection of what happens within the political arena. Therefore, no matter how balanced the media is, it will always reflect the condition of politics. The role of media is to reflect reality without causing provocation.”
Media figures do not want to be seen as provoking the audience. Shirbil Marone says, “On a number of occasions, politicians have spoken in a dangerous way on the news and in the media. The reality of our situation is bad enough let alone exaggerating the role of the media. However, not all forms of media use this style of charging. Some use direct methods of delivering messages in a similar way that was used in the 1950’s, considering themselves a guardian over undeveloped public opinion. He indicates that the informational policy of the Voice of Lebanon adheres to the expressing of its opinions in an intelligent and ingressive manner”.
Majda Abu Fadel believes that the deteriorating state of some networks poses a significant danger and those responsible are negligent and unprofessional. Amjad Iskander believes that “there is some form of collusion between tools of the mass media and its politicized public that sticks to those forms of media that share their opinions, in exchange for a small percentage of the Lebanese public that seeks neutrality”. He adds, “The audiences are always ready to boycott a network that does not share the same political or sectarian trend as them. Realistically, we cannot demand neutral channels. Perhaps representatives of certain forms of media and from various networks should adhere to a certain criterion and have a defined scope for media coverage regardless of political tension”.
Majda Abu Fadel however considers that “collusion is attributed to the ambiguous nature of the Lebanese networks”. She adds, “the sad state of the media corresponds with the formula: this is what the audience wants, disregarding any of the media’s shortfalls”.
Farhat regards that “media has a bigger role than simply covering events. It has intellectual and cultural dimensions and has a responsibility in raising generations”.
Iskandar calls for reform of the media’s role in Lebanon and calls for addressing the issue of standards, morals and expressions. He states however, “the role of media is not to correct reality but rather to report on reality according to professional standards that Lebanese media is currently lacking.” He emphasizes that the current situation of siding with certain outlets is a result of cultural accumulations.”
Majda Abu Fadel says: “there is a fine line between morals, restraints and self censorship. We do not want mass media to have to employ self-censorship to the extent that it would withhold information that the public has the right to know. This issue gives the media more responsibility. Sometimes knowledge is required even if it is harmful in order to portray a clear and accurate picture. However, when public opinion is inflamed, matters spiral out of control. Nevertheless, it is always best to broadcast news even if there is an underlying danger. Here we go back to the importance of establishing the journalistic character through development and training on professional ethics which enables an editor to evaluate whether or not an item is news worthy. Unfortunately, matters are very much politicized that it produces a phobia with regards to the smallest of details.”
Majda Abu Fadel agrees that professionalism means that news should not be outweighed by opinions and analysis, which is the case at the beginning of most news programs on most channels. She says, “There are complaints that newscasts politicize the content through opinion and analysis at the expense of the particular news item. In the civilized world, only news is presented during a news broadcast and opinions are given by an expert guest and in a clear and separate manner. [In the civilized world] they do not mix issues because everything has its limits”. In this regard, Farhat says, “the more journalism is focused on facts, the healthier it is. This does not diminish the role of opinion or analysis.”
Maryam Al Bassam states that there is no fault in exposing certain viewpoints, saying, “When the British Prime Minister Tony Blair visited Beirut whilst his role in the recent Israeli assault on Lebanon is well known, one cannot remain objective. I would not even try to hide my opinion. Furthermore, I do not believe that the international media is more objective than we are. They conceal certain news in the interest of their own positions”.
Shirbil Marone does not agree on imposing opinions whilst reporting the news and states that many networks follow this method. He says, “We try to present all opinions, however, some politicians do not consider news bulletins objective if it does not contain their news”. Farhat argues that Lebanese media is used in a similar way to international media, pointing to the western “free” media which facilitated for the invasion of Iraq under the pretence of the existence of weapons of mass destruction, and so on, only to find in the end that such news was false. At the same time he does not deny the impact that media has on its audiences. He says, “Any events that we do not see or hear about, does not affect us even though it could change the map of the world.”