From journalism to the Parliament, Lebanese merge media and politics

In a country driven by the intersection of media and politics, MENASSAT's Saseen Kawzally takes a closer look at three journalists who recently won seats in Lebanon's June 7 parliamentary elections. Is there such thing as a journalist-politician?
okab sakr.jpg
Journalist and newly elected MP Oqab Sakr R.R.

BEIRUT, Monday June 22, 2009 (MENASSAT) - The relationship between politics and journalism can be described as umbilical – interdependent, yet each with a different goal. In Lebanon media and politics are often intertwined, and the lines blurred.  

In the recent parliamentary election on June 7, where the pro-Western March 14 coalition declared victory over the March 8 opposition, three journalists were elected as members of parliament - Nayla Tueni (pictured at right) 27-year-old journalist and heiress to a renowned media family, Nohad al-Machouq a veteran political columnist and former political advisor to a number of prime ministers, and Oqab Sakr a young, some would argue, suspiciously over-ambitious journalist.

While the three Lebanese figures differ significantly in regards to their political work, they do share a commonality – a background in media before venturing into an elections in which votes are bought, some charge that candidates are up for grabs as well.

Journalist/politician Oqab Sakr

Journalist and newly elected MP Oqab Sakr has described a reporter's role as “the person who holds the red pen to correct what the politician says with the blue pen.” 

With his recent election win, he has said publicly that he “broke up” with the red pen for the sake of the blue.

Ideally, journalists build their credibility by practicing the media ethic of impartiality, where personal interest is absent in a journalist’s work, or so the reader assumes.
But as media workers shift from writing about politics to being a participant in the political machine, questions about journalistic credibility and conflicts of interest become legitimate.

He told MENASSAT that his decision to run for parliament was influenced by ideas he had picked up as a journalist, but he said he stopped his media work after he was nominated for a seat in parliament.

Sakr admits that his experience in media and his capacity to deal with the television were helpful during the electoral campaign.

“A journalist can influence public opinion but cannot turn ideas into projects, laws or political pressure. My role as an MP is to support these ideas through my post, without letting go of my opinions as a journalist.”

He adds, “I still consider myself a journalist, but one shouldn’t mix politics and media, for the journalist’s role is to criticize politics. I can’t play two contradictory roles,” he said.

On the national level, Sakr says “My main mission is to support the judicial system and enhance it, support the roles of youth and women, and push for the proper laws to do so.”

As for the region he now represents, "We are preparing to establish five committees specifically for the Bekaa and Zahle regions as a means to increase citizens rights. There is no independence without development."

"Sustainable development on the social, cultural and economic levels, leads to political development.”

Journalistic and political legacies

Veteran journalist Talal Salman, editor-in-chief of the Lebanese newspaper As-Safir, said that he never considered in the past, and will never consider, being nominated for a parliamentary seat in the future.

“I belong to my profession and I’m proud of it. But at the end of the day, everyone has his own opinion.”

When a journalist dives into the political scene, he loses his identity as a journalist, Salman contends.

"Journalism is in no way what gets people into parliament, rather it has more to do with specific political alliances, circumstances and  drives. When a journalist succeeds, it is not because of their journalistic work but due to their political relations and affiliations, and often end up part of a whole political combination, which they have no control over."

Regarding the credibility of the journalist-politician, Salman said it would be unfair to assume that they are not credible because they have entered politics.

"They could be fiercer in defending human rights and social issues – because a person with a conscience is normally conscientious."

Salman mentioned a number of Lebanese figures who have served as both journalists and politicians, including minister Marwan Hamadeh, Kazem al-Solh, Takiedine al-Solh and Ghassan Tueni, who has never left journalism despite his political work.

And the tradition was passed on to Tueni's granddaughter - 27-year-old Nayla Tueni who was elected as a representative for the Christian seat in the east Beirut area of Ashrafieh.

Until her father, newspaper publisher and journalist Gebran Tueni, was assassinated by a car bomb in 2005, Nayla Tueni never expressed any political interests or ambitions.

It may seem a little hard to believe given the Tueni family has been involved in both politics and media since the founding of the Lebanese newspaper An-Nahar in 1933.

Still, Tueni definitely benefitted from the pervasive media influence of An-Nahar's media empire - which now includes several print outlets, magazines and printing presses.

Out of contact

Nouhad al-Machouq (pictured below left), writer and former political consultant for the slain prime minister Rafiq Hariri, ran and won a seat representing Hariri's pro-western Future Movement party. 

Al-Machouq had left the Future Movement after Hariri’s 2005 assassination and spent four years writing a weekly column for opposition paper As-Safir.

Describing the relationship between journalism and politics, As-Safir's editor Salman wrote on the eve of the June 7 parliamentary election, “Tomorrow, the MP Nohad al-Machouq will compete with Nohad al-Machouq the writer and the everlasting consultant. As I wish my (former) colleague success, I hope As-Safir doesn’t lose him as it has lost many of those writers who entered into politics before him.”

Unlike the three journalists who gained parliamentary seats, other journalist-politicians were not as lucky.

Controversial editor-in-chief of Ad-Diyar newspaper, Charles Ayoub, was the talk of the town during the election campaigns, turning his newspaper into a mouthpiece for his electoral campaign.

Ayoub had adopted a highly sectarian campaign approach in the Christian Kesserwan region - with billboards (below) stating, "We want the real Maronite" an obvious dig at Christian representatives aligned with the opposition Shia Hezbollah party. 

Head of the Beirut-based International Center for Media Studies, Rafiq Nasrallah joined a political list that stood in direct opposition to Al-Machouq's Future Movement, and lost, as expected.

What he wrote after losing the elections explains his stance, “to lose an election battle in a sectarian country means you will never win. To recognize you are fighting a battle where you are one of a flock of fish facing the open jaw of a blue whale means you have already lost.”

But perhaps the journalist who leaves their profession and steps into the political field, in which they know, more than others, it is a domain they cannot control, they have already lost.