Sunday, 18 January 2015

Lebanon - Media in a polarised country

Talking with students from various universities in Beirut

I wonder how my Lebanese colleagues manage to do any meaningful work.  How do you cover the news in such a polarised country? How do you report on other views, on other religious and political convictions – especially when you work for media which are themselves so polarised? 

I went to Beirut recently with the wonderful Milica Pesic, executive director of the Media Diversity Institute (MDI), a London-based international organisation promoting and researching media diversity.  During our weeklong visit, we discussed with top Lebanese journalists, as well as journalism faculty and students from five universities, how their media could try to ease tensions rather than fuelling hostility and violence.  Our visit was part of a two-year project called “Toward an Inclusive and Responsible Media in Lebanon” run by MDI and its Lebanese partner the Maharat Foundation, an organisation working on building a more democratic society through freedom of expression.

Byblos/credit: Veronique Mistiaen

The first thing Milica and I did when arriving in Lebanon was to visit the ancient city of Byblos, one of the oldest continuously inhabited city is the world. Created 7,000 years ago, this UNESCO World Heritage Site, some 40 km north of Beirut is a true microcosm of the various civilizations which have populated Lebanon over the centuries.   We thought that regular visits to Byblos should be mandatory for students, political and religious leaders, journalists and anyone in danger of forgetting the rich, diverse past of their country.
Walking through the coastal city, you can see layers upon layers of ruins from previous civilisations. Here are walls built by the Phoenicians, there a tower erected by the crusaders and everywhere are traces of the various cultures, ethnic groups and languages that have made the richness of this small country.

Sadly, because of its geographical location and the brutal civil war, which was fought along religious fault lines, Lebanon’s pluralism has long been replaced by ferocious polarisation.
The influx of more than one million refugees from Syria is further threatening this fragile country, where one out of every four people is now a Syrian refugee. 

And over the past few years, the media have exacerbated the sectarianism and have become more polarised themselves.  Journalists we spoke with explained that newspapers and TV stations – even universities – are increasingly in the hands of political, religious and business leaders who use them as their mouthpieces and instruments of control. 

Not surprisingly, the polarisation between media has in turn reinforced Lebanon’s social and political polarisation.

In that context, the work of Maharat Foundation and partner organizations like MDI is crucial. The Foundation has designed a Reporting Diversity module to help journalists, students and academics improve their skills in reporting on religious intolerance, sectarianism and extremism. Maharat is also trying to make the media industry acknowledge their part of responsibility for this polarisation and offering guidelines for a more inclusive, ethical and responsible coverage. 

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