Alternative media and democratic dynamics in Lebanon
Long dominated by the traditional news industry, the Lebanese media landscape has been transformed by the establishment of alternative platforms following the October 2019 protests. As the March 2022 general elections in Lebanon approach, this new paradigm composed of independent entities is breathing new life into democracy.
With more than 10 privately owned daily newspapers, nine television channels, and about 40 radio stations, Lebanon boasts a rich media scene suggesting that it would keep its citizens well-informed during election time.
"At least 78% of the Lebanese media are politically affiliated. As such, the Lebanese media landscape is largely shaped by partisan and instrumentalised journalism"
However, a recent study by Media Monitor Ownership showed that at least 78 percent of the Lebanese media are politically affiliated. As such, the Lebanese media landscape is largely shaped by partisan and instrumentalised journalism.
Ayman Mhanna, Executive Director of the Samir Kassir Foundation, explained to The New Arab how journalists simply act as spokespersons for groups or individuals within the political elite.
“Most traditional media outlets are directly owned by politicians or by candidates. There is a culture of complacency when it comes to interviewing politicians where traditional media copy and paste press statements by candidates instead of evaluating what they say.”
In this extremely politicised context, citizens preparing to vote are confronted with biased, partisan, and unverified information that does not encourage democratic elections.
Against this political and instrumentalised journalism, the alternative media experienced an unprecedented boom during the 2019 protests.
Daraj, Raseef 22, The Public Source, and other Lebanese media outlets developed in parallel with the revolution. Breaking away from the influence of political parties and wealthy businessmen, they intend to offer new media narratives.
Ayman Mhnana described how these media outlets, which give voice to marginalised groups, investigate deep-rooted issues and hold established figures to account, are spawning democratic dynamics.
“The nature of the nascent independent scene which by definition is critical towards the establishment is more conducive to a fairer election coverage than historic traditional media. It does not mean they would do a great job but at least they have a greater potential to do a good job given their past behaviour.”
Alternative media as a vehicle for the ideals of the revolution
It is in this spirit, Megaphone was created in 2017, two years after the massive demonstrations linked to the rubbish crisis. Jean Kassir, the co-founder of the online media, explained how the emergence of Megaphone was born out of the desire to provide a counter-power to traditional media affiliated with political parties.
“It was very clear to us that there was a need for alternative platforms that would use formats adapted to the digital age, and new audiences. There was also a desire to have an editorial line that was uncompromisingly critical of the political establishment as a whole and that could highlight the stories of marginalised groups. Finally, there was a necessity of shedding the light on candidates who were critical of the regime and did not have a platform to express themselves.”
As such, in the 2018 elections, Megaphone, and other alternative media outlets provided online spaces for candidates who challenged the establishment and could not afford to appear in the mainstream media due to costs and political red lines.
"One of the main differences between the alternative media and the traditional media in covering elections is that we do not use elections as a business model to monetise ourselves"
They also intended to organise various debates while continuing their role of political accountability by pointing out all forms of fraud and abuse that took place before and after the elections.
“One of the main differences between the alternative media and the traditional media in covering elections is that we do not use elections as a business model to monetise ourselves. We know for a fact that in 2018, many television stations monetised candidate appearance minutes for thousands and thousands of dollars,” said Jean Kassir.
With the 2019 protests, alternative media have obtained more means to integrate into the media landscape bringing a counter-power to traditional voices. Nevertheless, the Lebanese context remains uncertain and it is difficult to foresee a media strategy for the next elections of 2022, added Jean Kassir.
“Until now, we don't know for sure if the elections will take place on time and under what conditions. Two days ago there were scenes of war in the streets of Beirut, which is not a very democratic climate for elections. We are very cautious about what to expect and we are taking it day by day.”
Despite this complicated context, media outlets such as Megaphone affirmed their willingness to continue their work to hold politicians accountable, to give a voice to marginalized groups, and to democratize the complex issues that are at stake during elections.
“Megaphone will act as watchdogs of the electoral process, highlighting frauds, any form of abuse of clientelism. We will continue our work of explaining what is at stake, and analysis of the electoral battles. It will also be a platform to express the different grievances of people, what people think, what matters to them, what they would like to see in electoral programmes. And most importantly we will also maintain our critical take on everything.”
A breath of change in the identity and behaviour of traditional media?
Meanwhile, the October 2019 movements coupled with the entrenchment of alternative entities in the media landscape also impacted traditional media.
Ayman Mhanna confirmed that “People, in general, are fed up with the political class. When it comes to media outlets that are owned by businessmen, they care about their public as they do not want to lose rating, and more audience to social media-based platforms.”
In this context and faced with the new pressure and competition brought about by the arrival of independent media, the Lebanese traditional media have to reflect the new expectation and aspirations of their audience. That is why there is more critical television, more investigative, and accountability journalism in the media landscape.
"People, in general, are fed up with the political class. When it comes to media outlets that are owned by businessmen, they actually care about their public as they do not want to lose rating, and more audience to social media-based platforms"
These new dynamics are promoting one of the preconditions for democratic elections where people have access to plural and verified information about the different candidates, what they stand for, and their political agenda.
Ayman Mhanna added in this regard that the role of media "is to provide equal access to information and failing to do so means failing at doing their fundamental role as media.”
If the upcoming elections are about identity and protection from sectarian presences, Ayman Mhanna described that one can expect “citizens not showing up or voting for traditional political parties”. On the other hand, if the issue is about accountability, particularly those who are responsible for the collapse of the country, Ayman Mhanna mentioned that “there would be a more active role of citizens in the accountable process”.
In either case, the independent or traditional media are at the heart of the electoral process related to communication and the definition of what the upcoming elections will be about.
Clément Gibon is a freelance journalist based in Lebanon.
Follow him on Instagram: @clm_gbn