Politics or press? The role of journalist-politicians comes into question

Lebanese journalists are eying the parliament, having caught the elections virus. Ghassan Saoud takes a look at five candidates who have merged media and politics.
journalists elections.jpg

BEIRUT, May 14, 2009 (MENASSAT) - As Lebanon's elections approach, the ethics of journalists-cum-politicians begin to be questioned, as they try to balance their status as participants in the electoral scene and their duty as unbiased media observers

But ignoring professional media standards, journalists at Lebanese newspapers have, yet again, been using the media in an attempt to sway public opinion and gain votes for the party they are involved with.

It only takes a quick scan of the Lebanese media today to notice that behind every political party leader is an eminent journalist, who analyzes public opinion in order to choose the right words when writing the leader’s speeches.

At the same time, through their journalistic writing, media workers play an important role in shaping public opinion.

Amid the political chaos, some journalists show more enthusiasm than others to merge media and politics.

Among the March 14 alliance, the late MP Gebran Tueni, the late Samir Kassir, Fares Khashana, Ali Hamadeh, and Nayla Tueni have played such a role.

As for March 8 opposition, mouthpieces have included Jean Aziz, Ibrahim al-Amin, and Habibi Younes.

There are currently five journalists running in four electoral constituencies: Nayla Tueni in Beirut's first constituency, Charles Ayoub, editor-in-chief of ad-Diyar, and Nawfal Daw, both in Qesserwan, Ouqab Saqr in Zahle, and Rafiq Nasrallah in Beirut's third constituency.

The real question here is what is left of the journalism when the two worlds collide?

The power of a journalist

Rafiq Nasrallah heads the International Center for Media and Studies. But few in Lebanon know him as a journalist, associating him more with his role as a political analyst and expert on defending Hezbollah, a mostly Shia Party of the March 8 alliance.

In his letter of candidature, Nasrallah didn’t mention the media once, and said that he entered the political battlefield with “the opposition's theories and thoughts,” speaking of “the historic role of Beirut in supporting the resistance, the rules of supremacy, economic regulations, elderly rights and social security."

Later on, at one of his electoral tours on April 26, Nasrallah spoke of the Arab media which, he said, "fell victim of fact twisting, whether on purpose or just by chance, despite the advanced technologies.”

On May 2, 2009 Nasrallah did not question the journalist-politician merger, but in fact used his status to try and gain votes.

“The first thing that made me declare my candidacy was my desire for change, especially since journalists are closer to parliamentary life than others, they have an ability to do a comprehensive reading of any cultural or political subject from all of its aspects.”

"I would definitely choose journalism"

Nawfal Daw writes for the al-Moustaqbal newspaper. He declared his candidacy in the Ashrafieh neighborhood on March 4 with the March 14 movement.

Daw says that his decision to run is independent and personal, and is based on a clear vision of the political and electoral reality in Qesserwan-Ftouh, and its social, political and partisan constitution.

His electoral plan is modeled on the Cedars Revolution Plan, which he says is based on respecting the rules of the political Maronite church, that calls for the state as the sole decision-maker in all Lebanese issues, mainly regarding arms and Lebanon's role in regional wars, without forgetting social issues and ending corruption.

However, his role in the elections has not stopped the young journalist-politician from believing that if he gains a seat in parliament, he will be able to fulfill his duties as a journalist in transmitting the news with subjectivity.

Daw stressed that his status as a citizen and a journalist gives him the right to express his political opinion without disrespecting the press and the media. But if he had to choose?

“If I was to choose between journalism and politics, I would definitely choose journalism.”

Not about winning a title

Nayla Tueni, vice editor-in-chief of An-Nahar newspaper, is following in the footsteps of her late father, grandfather, and great-grandfather, who founded and ran the paper, while working in politics.

Tueni, part of March 14, says that if she wins the elections, she will work for the city and for Lebanon - not for the interests of any external country. Her campaign calls for including the concerns of the youth and the diaspora into Parliament.

Tueni says that her role in Parliament will be a continuation to her journalistic role, remaining “the strong voice in the name of justice and rights.”

Before her candidacy, on December 12, 2008, Tueni said that she wants to voice the concerns of the youth and of the Lebanese in general.

It is not the position she is after, she says, which doesn't hold as much importance for her as being a journalist. 

“Journalism is more important than all titles and positions.”

Newspapers are part of the battle

Charles Ayoub, general editor-in-chief of Ad-Diyar newspaper, is straight forward his newpaper's role in the electoral scene.

He says, with all honesty, that the profession is about creating the general public opinion, not simply following it.

It is enough to take a quick glance at the headlines in his newspaper to see how Ad-Diyar has become a daily report on his candidacy - distributed free in his constituency.

Ayoub is very open about what he does, saying that this is the basis of journalism.

Similar to Ayoub, Ouqab Saqr, running in Zahle, reiterates that the journalist who doesn’t tell the truth is a traitor to his profession. He says that taking sides with "the truth" doesn’t mean less subjectivity.

The chances of Ayoub, Daw and Nasrallah winning is almost impossible, while Tueni and Sakr have quite the battle ahead of them. Yet what remains clear is the merger of the press and politics in Lebanon, as journalists have joined the electoral battle rather than simply reporting on it.