Lebanese journalism on the rack

Media freedom deserves a robust defense

Lebanese media freedom is under pressure
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A belief in freedom of speech has led many good journalists to adopt as their maxim what French philosopher Voltaire once supposedly said: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

In fact it is accepted today to be one of history’s many misattributions, but the sentiment remains a valid one. In Lebanon, the need to fight for freedom of speech is more important than ever.

The country has long had a reputation for the freest media in the Middle East. This is perhaps not the highest bar in a region where journalists are often brutally suppressed and attacked, but it is something that has helped the country develop into the most open and progressive Arab society.

In recent years this freedom of expression has been threatened as successive governments have failed to properly enforce Article 13 of the constitution – which protects freedom of the press within the framework of the law.

In 2013, according to a new report released by the pro-media freedom organization SKeyes, the deteriorating security situation has led to increasing hostility towards free media. “Media institutions and their employees were victims of multiple violations while covering explosions that rocked more than one region of the country as well as other clashes and protests,” the report said.

The watchdog organization, which is part of the Samir Kassir Foundation, gave numerous examples of journalists being detained by non-state actors, including Hezbollah and Salafist groups. To a certain extent, for investigative journalists and even paparazzi, such occurrences are an occupational hazard. What matters, therefore, is what happens afterwards, with journalists reliant on the police and security authorities to protect them in doing their  work.

It is, therefore, cause for great alarm that the security apparatuses appear to be complicit in the crackdown. Numerous times this year journalists were physically attacked by state forces, while there are other forms of intimidation by which those in power seek to quell inconvenient questions.

In recent weeks, some individuals in government positions have brought lawsuits against critical publications – including this magazine. The fact these cases are held in a criminal court, rather than a civilian one, means those journalists risk jail.

Online, too, the political classes have gone on the attack. One blogger, Jean Assy, is currently facing two months in jail for offending President Michel Sleiman with insulting comments posted on the social networking site Twitter. Clearly Assy’s comments were both crass and undignified, but we should defend to the death his right to say them freely.

Broken pens

Part of the issue is that the relationship between journalists and politicians in this country is deeply flawed. When those in power are asked a challenging question, more often than not they take it as a personal insult.

To a certain extent, this is a logical response. So much of the country’s media is owned by those either directly or indirectly tied to political parties that politicians make the assumption that every media outlet in the country is someone’s battleship, with a difficult question being a broadside. Lebanese journalists should certainly do more to draw a distinction between themselves and their organizations.

But the larger portion of the blame lies with the politicians. By feeding information only to friendly media outlets that fail to ask challenging questions, they dilute the debate in the country and allow all sides to continue to mislead the public.

If they do not trust that journalists will use information in a fair and honest way, perhaps they could go directly to the public. In 2009, MP Ghassan Moukheiber proposed a draft law on access to information that would allow citizens to request documents and data held by public bodies. It was debated in parliament in October 2012, but never passed.

Pushing this law through parliament would level the playing field for all – empowering citizens to get information about their political classes and making them genuinely accountable. Furthermore, it would contribute to a better media culture – giving no sides unfair advantages.

This must go alongside a recognition by politicians that there are journalists who want to treat them fairly. Responsible media simply seek to hold to account all those in power, irrespective of political positions. This magazine prides itself on having equal skepticism of all in positions of power – a healthy attitude in a democracy.

Lebanon’s free and independent media is deeply challenged right now. We must fight to maintain our liberty.