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EVENT REPORT | Lebanon at a Crossroads: Is Real Reform Possible?

3 July 2020

EED co-organised this online event with Carnegie Middle-East Centre to discuss the prospects for a real reform and the role of independent media in Lebanon, on June 17th 2020.

Lebanon is at a crossroads politically and economically. Today, the country is experiencing its worst economic crisis in decades, with a collapsing currency, closure of many businesses and sky-high inflation rates. This economic crisis compounds already volatile socio-political and economic challenges, with increased tension among political and sectarian factions as well as an ongoing nationwide protest movement. The country also counts large numbers of Syrian and Palestinian refugees in its population, which is another significant source of tension.

Lebanese civil society and independent media have always played a leading role in pushing for reform to address the significant threats facing the country, and in today’s crisis, this role is more important than ever.

Maha Yahya, Director of the Carnegie Middle East Center, described Lebanon as living through an unprecedented crisis, one she termed a ‘quadruple crisis’ with the collapse of the banking system, the economy, the currency and increased political polarisation. She noted that the security pillar remains standing although it too has also been affected by the crisis. The middle class has been particularly badly affected by this crisis, with many choosing to emigrate. The situation has deteriorated further during the Covid-19 pandemic, as this crisis has highlighted the structural challenges faced in the country. Society remains fragmented and the protest movement that began in October 2019 continues, with protestors demanding an independent judiciary, accountability of elected representatives, early parliamentary elections, and financial reform. She noted increased police violence against the protestors in recent weeks.

Lebanese journalists speaking up for civil rights

Lara Bitar is the founding editor of The Public Source, an in-depth journalism resource for Lebanese nationals. She stated that the chaos in the country shows how citizens are pushing for public accountability. The Public Source pinpoint those who are benefitting from the current crisis.

We don’t want to talk in general terms about issues like corruption but we want to name the individuals responsible for the catastrophic state of the country

She explained how her organisation has nurtured a culture of whistle-blowers and created a secured platform where citizens can exchange information. They adapted their activities following the breakout of demonstrations in October 2019, and with the lockdown imposed during Covid-19, they have launched diary comics to show life in lockdown.

Jean Kassir is co-founder and managing editor of Megaphone, founded in 2015 as a media project by university students and young activists. He stated that the media landscape in Lebanon is polarized by political and financial interests, with the biggest advertiser the central bank. Megaphone helps to amplify the voices of the most marginalized people in the country. Following October 2019, Kassir and his colleagues began documenting actions on the streets in an effort to trigger civic interest in events. They also run pieces that analyse and dissect long speeches from political figures.

Alia Ibrahim is founding partner and chair of Daraj. The digital news platform was launched as a pan-Arabic initiative in 2017, spurred on by Ibrahim and her colleagues’ experiences of reporting during the Arab Spring and their recognition that the Arab speaking world lacks quality independent media outlets. Daraj means ‘step’ in Arabic and this naming was deliberate as it was envisaged as a ‘step out of a huge hole’ in Arab media.

The platform’s business model means that it carries commercially-driven content that funds their signature reporting: impact driven-pieces including investigative reporting and reports on themes that are typically under-reported in the region such as gender, LGBT+ issues and the situation of minorities in the region.

One of our main features is financial independence. Unlike most media in the region, we are not funded by political powers.”

Ibrahim shared a video-report showing how the regime is affecting citizens’ daily life, providing the example of Badia Fahs, a journalist who has extensively covered recent developments in the Shia community for Daraj, who has not been permitted to see her children for 9 years. Ibrahim noted the, “the personal is political.” Politics is not just the high politics of regimes but also the way people live out their lives is political, and that such personal stories can become a symbol of the systematic injustices of Lebanese society.

The media role in addressing the political and economic challenges in Lebanon

Kassir stated that the popular protest movement needs to reinvent itself. The Covid-19 crisis has intensified the needs for structural changes within political institutions and for a long-term institutional creation strategy. With no real institutions, it is hard to develop a roadmap for reform.

He noted that reform needs to be led by grassroots movements, as the Lebanese regime is no longer able to reinvent itself but it is just reinjecting fear into the society. Political parties are using increasing militarisation and fear-mongering to stay in power. The authorities are also threatening journalists with ongoing intimidation campaigns against media workers and activists.

Ibrahim noted that over 200,000 people have lost their jobs since January and levels of food poverty now stand at 35 per cent. She stated that the judicial system is not acting for the people, and noted that the overall Lebanese governance system is now 30 years old and is inherently problematic and corrupt, as well as lacking any financial resources.

She stated it is the media’s role to ensure a culture of accountability. She noted the formation of the Alternative Journalists Union in 2017, which is providing for a sense of solidarity among journalists. She noted that the independent media is now clearly part of the media eco-system in the country, and that they regularly expose the lies of the mainstream media and they also act as a brake on mainstream media, who might think twice about featuring controversial figures in their coverage.

Bitar stated that the mood has changed since the initial 2019 October demonstrations. Numbers of evictions have increased significantly and people are experiencing shortages of power, food, medicine and petrol. “Everything feels insecure.” Many domestic workers are being abandoned on the street, and 50-60% of the population now live under the poverty line. She argued that today, society is more split on class than sectarian lines, with 1 per cent of the country owning 50 percent of the wealth.

She stated that independent media has a more important role to play than ever. A large number of the volunteer initiatives set up since October 2019 were set up by media workers. They are not just documenting violations against the population; they are also disseminating ideas and giving visibility to untold stories, and helping to create a real conversation about the challenges Lebanon faces.

Watch the event here.

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