Media dialogue goes way of Doha

Some of Lebanon's media players gathered in Beirut on Saturday to discuss media responsibility for the violence which has consumed Lebanon over the last two weeks. But two of the main TV networks, Future and LBC, were conspicuously absent.
Lebanon media Shara Future TV.jpg
Sahar Al-Khatib announces the resumption of Future TV's broadcast on May 13. © Reuters

BEIRUT, May 19, 2008 (MENASSAT) – Just like the leaders from Lebanon's two political camps have so far failed to end an 18-month political crisis in Doha, Qatar over the weekend, so the heads of various Lebanese media organizations also failed to agree on concepts of media responsibility in the wake of street clashes that killed at least 65 people and wounded more than 200.

On Saturday, Abdel Hadi Mahfouz, director of the National Council of Audio-Visual Media invited media directors from a wide range of television and radio outlets to have a dialogue on curbing the "media distortion" that has exacerbated sectarian tensions in the last few months.

"Lebanon is a unique media landscape in the Arab world. It is one with many voices and with a freedom to operate here. But that freedom was attacked recently," he said.

Mahfouz was referring indirectly to the attack by opposition militia members on all of the media operations affiliated with the pro-government MP, Saad Hariri, son of former slain Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri – al- Mustaqbal newspaper, Future TV and News, and Radio Orient.

The attack on the Future media drew widespread condemnation from other Lebanese outlets – even from pro-opposition newspapers such as As-Safir and Al-Akhbar.

But Future TV and the other major Lebanese TV network, the pro-government LBC, failed to send any representatives to Saturday's dialogue despite earlier promises.

"They're not coming," said Sarkis Abu Zeid, editor in chief of the monthly Tahawoulat newspaper, after the attendees had been waiting for an hour for the Future and LBC people to  show up. 

"We took the time to show up to discuss the issues that are tearing our country apart. The media has a big role in this process," said Abu Zeid.

Future TV's news department told MENASSAT that it did not attend the dialogue because the National Council of Audio-Visual Media "failed to condemn what Hezbollah did when they closed down Future's media operations during the fighting. They only issued a statement after five or six days by which point Future employees had already returned to work."

Media analyst Magda Abu Fadil, head of the Journalism Training Program at the American University of Beirut (AUB), told MENASSAT she was not surprised that Future and LBC decided to boycott the dialogue.

"The National Council of Audio-Visual Media is not an organization that I find truly representative of free media, and although all the main sects are represented in the council, it is seen as reflecting partisan concerns," she said.

The National Council of Audio-Visual Media was set up in 1994 after the passage of the current Audio-Visual Law regulating the country's broadcasting guidelines. But according to its critics, the council's reputation is heavily burdened by the fact that it was established when Lebanon was still under Syrian tutelage. 

Abu Fadil said, "Clearly, [Future TV and LBC] did not show up because the head of the council is considered a partisan of parliamentary speaker of Nabih Berri, or at least that's what he's accused of being."

Berri's detractors have accused the opposition leader of being pro-Syrian. 

Another criticism of the Council is that it is a regulatory body without any real influence. 

"Although the principals of the council... are not bad, it has no teeth to enforce them and so it might as well not be there," Abu Fadil said.

For Mariam al Bassam, head of news at New TV, Saturday's dialogue was not about questioning the role of the NCOAVM – it was a chance to ask both correspondents and media managers about their own standards of news coverage, something many in attendance said happens all too infrequently.

"Won't it be hard for the Lebanese to identify with a sense of unity if there's no unity of reporting standards?" she asked, adding, "The viewer is being refused the truth because it's lost in the partisan transmission."

Islamic media council representative Abdul Kader Fakhani said Lebanon's broadcasters have a responsibility to curb the religious statements put on TV and radio.

"Religious people are more dangerous than generals or za'im [traditional family power centers,] and putting them on air so much is the choice of the media managers and editors," Fakhani said.

Mahfouz offered that one of the main problems the NCOAVM has in dealing with overly religious or inflammatory broadcasting is that it cannot carry out its duty because the Audio-Visual Law (1994) and the Audio Law (1996), which regulates such guidelines, has never been taken seriously by any of Lebanon's media players.

"And in this political climate, how can we implement these decisions?" Mahfouz asked.