By Atallah al-Salim
BEIRUT: Lebanon’s media received poor marks on a newly released report on media in the Arab world, receiving an overall grade of just over 2 out of 4 in the Media Sustainability Index for 2010-11.
Surprisingly, its grade for freedom of speech (1.99) was one of its lowest in six different areas related to the media, although the country is often hailed as an oasis of media freedom compared to other countries in the region.
The rankings were announced during a panel discussion organized Thursday by Maharat Foundation, a local media watchdog, on the occasion of World Press Freedom Day.
The index is composed of six “objectives,” or areas in which a country receives a numerical grade on a scale of 4: freedom of speech, professional journalism, plurality of news, business management, supporting institutions and serving public needs.
Representatives of media outlets, NGOs, professional associations and academic institutions served as the primary sources of information in drafting the report.
While most of the scores saw slight increases and decreases since 2005, when the process was launched, Lebanon’s score when it comes to “supporting institutions” for the media significantly dipped from 2.34 in 2005, to only 1.64 in 2011.
Even though the report cited several initiatives undertaken by different universities, newspapers and NGOs to launch training programs for journalists, these efforts have largely failed in terms of sustainability, resulting in the low “supporting institutions score.”
The report highlighted the inactive role of the Journalists Union, which it said has “closed its doors to working media professionals, failed to hold elections for years, and had done little to defend the rights of journalists.”
Other reasons provided by the report were difficulties in the country’s electricity, Internet and infrastructure which negatively affect the performance of media.
The media’s lowest grade (1.28) in “serving public needs,” a newly introduced objective in the index.
According to panelists who contributed to the report, media outlets are not undertaking reform or supporting discussions leading to reform; they only wait to see what politicians say in order to identify their reporting angle.
The media heavily focuses on political topics while disregarding social and economic topics, it added.
“The majority of the programs in prime time are political or entertainment programs,” said Nahla Munir, contributor to the report.
The MSI project is funded by the United States Agency for International Development, and Maharat Foundation was one of the project’s implementing partners.
The project was carried out in 16 Arab countries, the Kurdistan region of Iraq and Iran, but regional data has yet to be become available.
Members of the media who took part in the discussion came in for criticism from the audience, as one journalism student took issue with the long introduction at the beginning of evening news programs.
Karma Khayyat, who serves as the director of news and political programsat Al-Jadeed, said her station expressed its views on different political affairs but “these views – unlike most TV stations – do not originate from sectarian or partisan affiliations.”
When asked why Al-Jadeed changed its political stance toward the Syrian uprising after the killing of cameraman Ali Shaaban on Lebanon’s border last month, Khayyat said: “We only said the truth, which was the responsibility of the Syrian army in targeting Shaaban.”
Khayyat argued that the media was fulfilling its responsibilities, and cited a lack of mass protests by the public after media outlets highlight their legitimate demands.
Pierre Abi Saab, a deputy editor with Al-Akhbar daily, was firmer in identifying the defects of different media institutions.
“It is time for our media to change its classical rhetoric on the political scene; it is unacceptable to have the top news focusing on who the ministers or presidents received this day, and what they said,” said Abi Saab.
Abi Saab stressed the need to re-consider some “agreed-upon assumptions,” complaining that talk of Lebanon’s freedom of expression was exaggerated, questioning the role of money in shaping the orientations of different media outlets.
However, Social Affairs Minister Wael Abu Faour weighed in by saying that his ministry’s recent initiative to help the poorest in society was a positive example to be built upon.
“My experience with the media is very promising, especially lately, when the media shed light on the situation of various vulnerable groups (in society),” said Abu Faour.
For his part, former Interior Minister Ziyad Baroud voiced his opposition to a draft bill by Information Minister Walid Daouk aimed at regulating online media. “I oppose the bill on electronic media since it resembles the old ways of managing media affairs,” said Baroud.
The bill submitted by Daouk incorporates electronic media into the 1994 audiovisual media law, which predates the online media explosion.
Baroud urged the authorities to re-consider outdated media legislation in light of the increasing impact of social media tools, and reiterated a long-standing call to boost the media’s performance by legalizing access to information and whistleblower protection.