By: Dr. Jessica R. El-Khoury and Dr. Maria Bou Zeid
This article is based on remarks in a panel organized by Security in Context on April 4th, 2023 titled “Shooting The Messenger: Journalism and Warfare in the MENA Region.”
Independent journalists in the MENA region risk their livelihoods and freedom, and sometimes their lives, reporting on high-profile or sensitive stories. Despite these difficulties, journalists continue to perform a crucial civil society function that is often not performed by governmental or judicial institutions: holding powerful actors accountable, or advancing knowledge on secretive topics, key elements in the societal struggle for freedom and democracy. For those reasons journalists in MENA have an additional responsibility to abide by the journalistic codes of conduct.
“Honest journalism in the face of authoritarian regimes and police states is the highest form of courage, and the most dangerous, in the Middle East” (Rami Khouri, Neiman Reports).
Journalists around the world share the core norms of the profession, yet their lived experience varies significantly depending on their political, economic, and cultural contexts. Good journalism is the core of a more democratic and rights-based future – a core that should not be suppressed. Journalists archive our day-to-day events, detailing what will become our countries’ history. Journalists offer warnings. They interpret what is otherwise hard to understand. They contribute to the socialization of societies by linking people together and impacting their attitudes and behaviors. This is the essence of the profession. Many journalists risk death simply for doing their job, from reporting on drug lords to covering wars or daring to criticize powerful politicians. For those reasons, journalism is one of the most dangerous professions in the world.
Against the odds many journalists continue in their pursuit of reporting the truth, holding a mirror up to society. Given their role in potentially shaping attitudes and beliefs, journalists must abide by ethical standards of the profession. Failure to do so has the additionally negative impact of undermining the public’s trust in journalism while keeping a failed political system intact. Some journalists taint the profession when they commit “crimes” against professional codes of conduct such as defamation or slander, or use unethical practices of deception, or fall into conflict of interest and/or economic pressures.
However, in the context of increased societal polarization, attempts to cover all sides automatically puts the journalist under suspicion. Ideally, journalists aim to be accurate, fair, and balanced in their reporting. However attempts at fair representation of multiple points of view often renders journalists as the enemy by one group or another.
In line with the mission of Security in Context, the public interest lies in the need to be able to redefine security. Should “security” be based on political power, war, supremacism, ideas of hegemony and hierarchies, weapons, and fear? Or should it be as Security in Context defines it, as based on human well-being, global solidarity, and a livable planet? The choice is not difficult.
This is especially so when considering the spectrum of risks that journalists face all over the world, and specifically in the Middle East. Oftentimes journalists are battling political corruption and seemingly never ending crises. Viewed through the alternative framing of Security in Context, journalistic inquiry itself enhances societal security through challenging dominant paradigms, producing alternative knowledge on (in)security-related topics, and consolidating and expanding networks of individuals and institutions. We need to focus on the new definition of security to achieve a paradigm shift.
In doing so, there is a need for journalists to be equipped with skills in how to protect themselves in different environments and even their own newsroom. This is significant so they can continue to give a voice to the voiceless, untangle uncertainties in society, and restore a sense of balance.
Journalists’ safety in Lebanon
The looming threats of surveillance, harassment, and legal actions can undoubtedly trouble journalists in their pursuit of reporting the truth, especially in unstable countries like Lebanon. Journalists in Lebanon must overcome the challenges of job security and personal safety.
According to Reporters without Borders, despite significant freedom of expression in Lebanon's media landscape, the majority of the country's media outlets are controlled by political parties and local dynasties. However, Lebanese journalists have not hesitated to criticize politicians through editorial columns, aggressive talk shows, or by featuring diverse opinions. Nevertheless, the combination of political polarization, media control, and the exercise of freedom of expression has resulted in extreme harassment, reaching the level of targeted assassinations of journalists, particularly in the post-civil war period and after the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005. The latest unresolved case was the murder of journalist Lokman Slim in February 2021. Another well known case is the assassination of An-Nahar journalists Samir Kassir and Gebran Tueini in the aftermath of the mass protests known as the Cedar Revolution in 2005. The state of the journalism profession in Lebanon is set in reverse due to the aforementioned notions.
In 2019, when mass demonstrations once again broke out journalists were on the ground, tirelessly reporting the cries of the public. There was a chance for the expansion of a space for civil society, including journalists, to do its job. However, this revival was dealt a severe blow once again due to the trauma of the August 4th 2020 Beirut Port Explosion and the ensuing attempts at cover up of responsible parties.
According to Ian Hutchby, “The news is partly talked into being” which indicates that news is brought into life by journalists. Journalism is not simply a story but a mix of interactions among different stakeholders in society – and can be considered by far one of the greatest weapons wielded by civil society. Journalists will always remain the frontliners in actual warfare as well as in their battle towards more democratic societies.