The declining standards of Lebanese media

Friday 04/12/2015
Beirut newspapers bearing the headlines of the deadly Paris attacks.

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.”