Who will save Lebanese media from the politicians (and from themselves)?

The media in Lebanon are in danger of loosing their identity to political propaganda. Calls to the rescue are multiplying. But how can this be achieved? Through a media honor pact, some say, and an independent council to monitor it.
By Fidel Sbeiti, Menassat.com Contributor
Lebanon, Beirut, live TV show. ©S.M / arabimages.com
Lebanon, Beirut, live TV show. © S.M / arabimages.com

BEIRUT, Nov. 19, 2007 - The Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections, at the beginning of November 2007, held a workshop entitled 'Toward an independent council to monitor the media honor pact.' Financed by the European Union, the workshop was attended by the Lebanese Ministers of Information and Administrative Development and by the head of the European Commission's delegation in Lebanon.
During the workshop, the association's director, Walid Fakhreddin, and his deputy made two speeches in which listed the reasons why the association had organize this particular workshop, and called for the formation of a council to monitor the media honor pact.
Fakhreddin estimated that the Lebanese media, which has offered so many martyrs (and he named each and everyone of them), and which has constituted one of the pillars of Lebanese democracy since the nineteenth century, “was facing, at this moment, a real threat”. The moment he was referring to was that of the acute political division witnessed in Lebanon at this point in its history.
As for the threat, it is the one related to a “full and complete collapse. The threat of going from a state of free speech and free opinion to that of cheap Goebbels-like propaganda, which would entail the loss of the leading role of the media and which would turn it into a cheap tool in the hands of politicians to serve their interests instead of those of the country and the citizens”.  
For the aforementioned reasons, “a cry for help” was needed, according to Fakhreddin, for Lebanese " return to their values, their history and their leading role in building a Lebanon of civilization, plurality and democracy."

What are these threats facing Lebanese media according to Fakhreddin?
First, Lebanese media are either owned by politicians and political parties, or they are supporting a political side. This is no secret. It is well known and in the public domain.

Second, the Lebanese media give priority to local political news over all other news. No speech or statement by a Lebanese politician, no political meeting or activity goes unnoticed by the Lebanese media.
As for opinion articles and columns written by specialized journalists, they too revolve almost exclusively around the local political situation or around regional issues inasmuch as they have repercussions in the local political arena. This applies not only to print media but to television and radio as well.
These two points both amount to the same result: the Lebanese media outlets generally offer savory political meals to their owners while granting as little space as possible to the other side's point of view. This is a matter of principle.
According to Fakhreddin, "the Lebanese media have been turned into a cheap tool in the hands of the politicians."

This does not necessarily mean, however, that the Lebanese media are not serving the citizens of Lebanon. Because it cannot be denied that the Lebanese citizens themselves have to a large extent chosen sides in the political arena, and they have therefore chosen sides in the media arena as well.

In short, many Lebanese get all of their information about the political situation - information upon which they base their political position - from those media outlets that best represent their  own aspirations. At this particular stage, the choice is simple: one is either with the opposition or the government.
As the cliché goes, each country has the politicians it deserves. In the same breath, one might say: each country has the media it deserves.

The Lebanese media are no more than a mirror for the political reality in Lebanon. And if this reality is one of divisions and tensions, then it is only natural that the same divisions and tensions should be mirrored by the Lebanese media.

So what difference could a national media honor pact, or an independent council to monitor that pact, really make?
Yara Nassar, deputy director of the Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections, tried to preempt some of the criticism that will certainly be levied against the proposal.

“Some are asking: why is the association taking interest in such a project?", she said. "Well, simply because the relation between the media and democracy is a controversial one. Democracy in the electoral process cannot be secured without a responsible media. Democracy cannot be achieved without a free media whose primary concern is to know the truth and to convey it to public opinion”.  
The role of the council then would be to monitor whether or not the media are seeking to discover the truth and convey it to public opinion, or if they are simply trying to further a political agenda.
As for the first point, i.e. the democratic electoral process, a law regulating the electoral media process might be would be more efficient than merely demanding that the media outlets (which are in any case mercenary outlets, since the majority of which are owned by politicians) shed equal light on the different candidates. With such a law, the focus would be on making sure that all candidates get equal opportunity to appear in the media outlets, and on setting a ceiling for the expenditures for electoral media campaigns.     
As for the second point, i.e. “seeking to know the truth”, there is an obvious problem with the definition of "the truth”, since every political team (and therefore the media outlets affiliated with it) believes it monopolizes the truth and that what it is delivering to public opinion is, in fact, the only and absolute truth.
This does not mean that a call should not be addressed to journalists asking them to “agree on a minimum level of moral standards.”
However, the call to establish a monitoring council could in and by itself be seen as a limitation of the freedom of the press. (Because if the council claims that its goals are noble, then so do the various media.)

On a side-note, someone should perhaps look into the role of the existing National Audiovisual Media Council, which is now more ineffective than it has ever been. If everybody agrees that, until 2005, it was a mere tool  for carrying out the oppresive political goals of the Syrian occupation, it is today still in place yet completely absent from the debate.

But no matter how complicated the debate, civil society associations such as the Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections might will bring about some much needed change, if only by virtue of publicly exposing the shortcomings that are negatively affecting the media's performance.

Whether they will be able to "save" the Lebanese media from the politicians (and from themselves) remains to be seen.