Lebanese Media, a fourth estate?

Historically, media was referred to as the fourth estate because of its power to criticize and question those in power, in other words, to function as watchdog for the government. In a democracy, the media should be a fourth estate, and the government should guarantee enough protection for the media to carry out this task.
Bayan Itani – Sawt el Shabab

Although the elites in Lebanon praise the role of the media as a fourth estate, both Lebanese broadcast and print laws have restrictions that prevent the media from discussing certain topics, and ones that make politicians safe from media’s criticism, neglecting the fact that the evaluation of performance of these political elites is at the heart of media’s responsibility.

For instance, some articles in the law are vague and susceptible to various interpretations Article 25 of the print law is one clear example of such laws. This article states that the distribution of a publication can be banned if it included what may endanger the country’s unity. So are media outlets then supposed not to report racial or sectarian conflicts that erupt in the country, considering that an item about these events may boost racial or sectarian conflicts in other areas of the country? Isn’t it the job of the media to cover and investigate these conflicts in depth, and critically evaluate the performance of defense ministry and security forces in the presence of such conflicts?

Well, even if monitoring the function of the cabinet is the job of the media, the fact that the law prohibits criticism of any official personnel works against the interest of the Lebanese public. It is true that officials should be respected and not be defamed by the media but does not mean that officials will be immune from media criticisms. If a president or a minister or a parliament member is involved in drug transactions or illegal money transfer operations or any other shameful act, the media should inform the public about the reality of this official.

So, the laws do constitute a barrier that prevents media outlets in Lebanon from functioning as government watchdogs. However, another more significant barrier exists, which is that the political elites protected by these laws are themselves the owners of the media outlets that we are counting on to function as a fourth estates.

The Lebanese public and the intellectuals in the country should be aware that the information they are receiving through the media does not construct the complete true picture of what is really happening, but rather a distorted image that different powerful politicians want the public to perceive. Changing the law does not guarantee for the deceived public a better understanding of their country and a fair evaluation of people in power, but rather calling for the formation of alternative independent media could be the answer for a desired fourth estate.

This article is part of the Sawt el Shabab project