The declining standards of Lebanese media
Beirut - Lebanese media, long considered the Arab world’s most vocal and professional, have declined tremendously in terms of freedom and balanced coverage, journalists here say.
The consequences of war, economic and financial hardships, political rivalries and antagonism have left their marks on the standard of journalists’ professionalism, objective reporting and critical analysis for which the Lebanese media had been acclaimed.
“It is definitely no longer in its golden age,” veteran journalist Amin Kammourieh said. “We have entered a phase of the provocative media, one that fuelled hatred and animosity at the expense of credibility and authenticity.”
“Loyalties (of journalists) are being purchased, media is sponsored by political money to represent views of sponsors and journalists are now more than ever restricted by editorial lines at the cost of professionalism,” added Kammourieh, a senior writer at Lebanon’s leading An Nahar newspaper.
Lebanon’s long history of a professional and vibrant media was largely linked to political changes in the region, according to former managing director and senior columnist at the main As Safir newspaper, Sateh Noureddine. He is now director of al-Modon online newspaper.
“Lebanon’s was not the only liberal and free media in the region. In the ‘50s, the media in Egypt and Iraq, and even in Syria, were quite outspoken and professional,” he said. “But with the revolutions that brought the Nasserites in Egypt and the Ba’ath regimes in Iraq and Syria muzzling the press, Lebanon became the hub for regional media and was enriched by the influx of Arab journalists from these countries.”
Lebanon had provided an oasis of freedom of expression for the region, where journalists had leeway to engage in critical and investigative reporting about regional and Arab issues essentially without being threatened.
Still, Lebanon never had a “totally independent” media, according to Noureddine. He said political money has always been in the arena and local newspapers have always had some sort of foreign sponsorship and funding from Arab regimes but this did not stop them from being critical and outspoken even about their sponsors.
Kammourieh acknowledged the existence of “a fair degree of media independence” in the past. “The media knew how to impose their own terms… A newspaper that received funding from Libya, for example, did not exactly polish Libya’s image but used to tackle sensitive issues that did not necessarily serve its sponsor’s interests… This margin of freedom no longer exists.”
“In general, there was a leeway of freedom in Lebanon more than in neighbouring countries. It was in fact a playground for the media, a mouthpiece for lot of regional political systems and regimes, exposing whatever ideas they had,” journalist and director of Media Unlimited Magda Abu-Fadil observed.
Finding consistent examples of professional journalism in mainstream media today is much more difficult, as extreme polarisation and politicisation of the media landscape in Lebanon since the start of the 1975-90 civil war has heavily affected professional standards and quality of Lebanese media, Abu- Fadil said.
“The media is being used as a weapon to get at opposite factions and whoever was on the wrong side,” she said.
With the “explosion” in the number of media outlets sponsored by political parties, professional journalism is increasingly marginalised and lost in a sea of biased and sensational reporting, Abu-Fadil noted.
Poorer teaching of media studies and skills, which suffered immensely during the war, is also blamed for declining standards.
“We haven’t had any properly equipped schools of journalism or faculty members who came from good media background with field experiences to share with their students… what we have is people holding PhDs in media studies, who never worked in a newsroom or in the field… Eventually they are graduating functional illiterates,” Abu-Fadil said.
Economic hardship, in addition to war and insecurity, were among other factors leading to the slide in professional journalism in Lebanon. “The middle cadre of competent journalists who used to transmit their knowledge and experience to newcomers to the profession gradually left the country swelling the ranks of emerging Gulf media, which offered attractive financial incentives,” Kammourieh said.
“The media in Lebanon were practically left in the hands of inexperienced young journalists and the old veterans at the top of the pyramid… and with time the veterans passed away. Also, the social and financial conditions of journalists have worsened a lot, which made them vulnerable to bribe and political money.”
For Noureddine, today’s media in Lebanon are more of “advanced fronts and missile launching platforms” in political battles pitting rival political camps than anything else.
Despite the existence of some “good examples of ethical and professional journalists,” Abu-Fadil is as pessimistic.
“I would like to see a glimmer of hope but with the way the country is heading, I am not terribly optimistic. We definitely had people in the past who took their jobs seriously, for whom it was more than a job, but a mission and dedication.”