Seeking a fourth estate

Seven ways to improve Lebanon’s media

Whether the Parliamentary elections do take place on time or in several months, we are most certainly entering “election season”. This will mean an even bigger flurry of political programming with politicians vying for airtime and media exposure. After all, it is through media that they can reach out to their constituencies and state their case.

This would normally mean that politicians would revere journalists or at least show them some respect, as media figures and reporters can play a huge role in helping these politicians come across in a favorable light, convey their messages, showcase their actions and appeal to voters.

Instead, it is has now become common in the Lebanese political landscape to see an MP insulting accredited journalists on live TV when asking for a clarification, or a political leader to hold a press conference without allocating time for reporters to ask questions. We can go on forever lambasting politicians for their blatant disregard not only for media’s important role but also for the public who looks to the media to get the answers they need to judge those who represent them.

All of their conduct is reproachable, be it the propaganda, attempts at influencing and bribing the media, lack of transparency, flip-flopping, etcetera However, the sad part is that these politicians would have never been able to get away with any of that had the media been properly fulfilling its role as a true fourth estate.

How it’s supposed to be…

Through freedom of expression, the media should be serving as the guarantee to the sound performance of democracy, whereby its role is to observe, question, report and demand accountability from government, thus exposing misdeeds against the people or democracy.

A recent illustration of the media as the fourth estate is the Cahuzac scandal which made the headlines last month in France and beyond. The French Minister of Budget Jérôme Cahuzac was accused of tax fraud over a secret bank account in Switzerland. However, the interesting part of the story is that a minister fell following a journalistic investigation, whereby Mediapart, a left-wing media outlet, attacked a personality from the same political affiliation and revealed the fraud. For many, this story echoes at its best the authentic mission of the media to investigate, to reveal and to denounce injustices.  

And how it actually is…

Going back to Lebanon, any objective observer would spot the abnormalities and irregularities that are affecting the media profession. Historically the country’s press has served as the benchmark and role model in the region, largely thanks to the quality of its media professionals and the relative freedom of expression they enjoyed, which meant Lebanon was a regional platform for media.

Though a lot can be said about the factors that have led to the current dire situation and who or what is to blame, many would agree that the most prominent among them remains the lack of independent and transparent media revenues that could preserve the media’s integrity and objectivity.
Turning matters around thus requires transforming the media to fulfill its original and intended noble cause. This can only happen with the creation of the media’s own compass, a professional code of ethics that consists of regulations and restrictions that provide orientation, prevent misdeeds and punish transgressors. For this, we list seven elements that can go a long way in developing such a code and helping Lebanese media become a true fourth estate.

1. Empowering professional regulatory bodies: Their importance lies in their self-regulatory role — in their capacity to keep a check on the performance of media professionals and enhance the sense of responsibility inherent to belonging to the profession.

2. Widely disseminating the Media Code of Ethics: Advancing citizen knowledge of the ethical dimensions and professional rules that regulate the role of every journalist will in turn heighten the journalist’s sense of professional responsibility and limit any urge to exploit society’s ignorance of the requirements and standards of the profession.

3. Fostering institutionalization in media organizations and among professionals: This can be done through increasing training sessions and workshops and infusing the workplace with rules and rituals that serve as institutional reminders that media professionals’ mission is similar to other vocations that are entrusted with people’s lives, safety and well-being.

4. Developing “media education” at elementary and university levels: This aims at habilitating every citizen in the same way we approach civic education. When social media and networks have evolved and spread to such a degree, one cannot deny the need to prepare citizens to write and publish information and photos responsibly and within a culture of ethical restraint.

5. Imposing a professional oath: An oath to be taken by all media professionals in public, before an authoritative body by which they swear to abide by the profession’s regulations and adhere to its code of ethics. This would serve as a deterrent and an incentive at once: it places journalists under the spotlight of accountability and compels them to exercise discipline, inasmuch as it elevates their sense of responsibility and pride in belonging to a noble profession with such values and requirements.

6. Creating a new position of “ethics officer” within every media organization: The officer would be tasked with ensuring that the media complies with the code of ethics. Very far from a censoring role, he or she would have more of a consultative one tied to the media regulatory authority and the legal department to address any violation within the appropriate legal framework.

7. Strict enforcement of transparency in media performance and ownership: Every media outlet should be obligated to declare the identity of its owners and boardmembers. Here the state’s role as arbitrator would be entrusted to the media professional authority, a “Higher Media Council”, which would act as an auto-regulator, exclusively empowered to examine any infractions and administer the appropriate penalty, thus ensuring full respect of freedom of expression.

Although these seven factors surely do not constitute the  definitive list of catalysts for attaining optimal media practice, they represent the ideal prelude for the empowerment of media and its development into the fourth estate, the only assurer of democracy.

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