Foreign media’s ’shallow coverage’ of protests angers Lebanese

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The ‘revolution not only attracted people of all sects, religions and social backgrounds, but also has become a powerful voice for Lebanese women. (AFP)
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Tarek Ali Ahmad reported from central Beirut on the ‘revolution.’ (AN photo by Youssif Itani)
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The ‘revolution not only attracted people of all sects, religions and social backgrounds, but also has become a powerful voice for Lebanese women. (AN photo by Youssif Itani)
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Tarek Ali Ahmad reported from central Beirut on the ‘revolution.’ (AN photo by Youssif Itani)
Updated 03 November 2019

Foreign media’s ’shallow coverage’ of protests angers Lebanese

  • Lebanon's unprecedented cross-community uprising is drawing global media attention
  • Many complain the protests are being unfairly portrayed by foreign media outlets

BEIRUT: Shallow. Superficial. Politically motivated. These are some of the epithets being used by Lebanese men and women to describe the portrayal by the foreign media of the ongoing protests against the country's political elite.

From Sidon in the south to Hermel in the north, Lebanon is witnessing an unprecedented cross-community uprising as public frustration with the country's tottering economy, administrative  paralysis, crumbling infrastructure and chronic corruption boils over.

From the very start, many Lebanese say, the protests have been mischaracterized by Twittering "armchair pundits" and sections of the foreign media as a "Whatsapp Revolution" because of the telcommunications minister's abortive attempt to introduce a daily $0.20 fee for users of Whatsapp and other internet-calling apps. Some Twitter users suggested the Lebanese "are going bonkers in the streets" because of the "Whatsapp tax."

It was not just comments on social media that many Lebanese found deeply objectionable. Time magazine had posted a photo on Instagram of burning tires with a caption that said: “Tension had simmered for months but on Thursday, protesters learned about the government's plan to tax Whatsapp calls. As the streets swelled, the Associated Press adds, that plan was withdrawn.”

The Instagram post spurred many Lebanese abroad into reporting it for playing into media stereotypes of the historic protests. But the attitude of some media outlets closer to home was seen as no less frivolous.

The New York Times carried an opinion piece with the sub-headline "The Middle East could use a decent country. One million Lebanese protestors are demanding one. Hezbollah has other ideas". The reference to “decent country” got heavy flak from Lebanese and Arabs on social media, prompting the newspaper to modify the sub-headline.

A Saudi daily carried a report on the protests decorated with images of what it described as Lebanon's “attractive and revolutionary” women, with the headline: “Lebanese babes: All the beautiful women are revolutionary.”

For a people who were defying deeply entrenched sectarian and political divisions to take part in the protests, such portrayal unsurprisingly struck a raw nerve. “They’re not taking this revolution seriously. They are not covering it as they should be,” Chourouk Kaassamany, a protestor, a protester interviewed by Arab News on the stairs of the Al-Amine mosque in Beirut's Martyrs Square.

“They are only looking at the negative part of the revolution, only those who are here to make jokes, to have fun, to dance. But they're not focusing on the serious people and the real message out of this revolution.”

The “revolution,” which entered its 13th day on Oct. 29, has not only attracted people of all sects, religions and social backgrounds, it has become a powerful outlet for the many concerns and grievances of Lebanese women, who have been participating in the solidarity rallies in very large numbers.

 

In almost all images, social-media posts and videos, Lebanese women have been at the forefront of the campaign, with their voices overtaking those of fellow male protesters.

To many Lebanese, a woman who kicked an armed bodyguard of a minister in the groin summed up the fearless, anti-establishment spirit of the movement.

The video of the incident, which went viral on Lebanese social media on the eve the protests, is credited by many with keeping the momentum of the protests going.

The footage shows an incident that occurred when the convoy of Minister of Education was confronted by demonstrators in central Beirut. When one of the minister's bodyguards got out of the car and fired his assault rifle into the air, it drew an angry reaction from the crowd.

During the scuffle, when another bodyguard held up his gun into the air, the now famous woman leaned back and landed a kick with her left foot on his groin.

The bodyguard can be seen staggering forward in a state of shock.

The clip is seen by many Lebanese as an accurate — and inspiring — snapshot of the campaign against political corruption and misrule.

“When they steal your money, corrupt your country, and pull a machine gun at you — you give them a quick kick in the groin!” one Twitter user wrote.

Another said: “Our women don’t just kick ass, they kick men with guns.”

As part of a collective outpouring of anger not seen since the civil war ended in 1990, Lebanese have formed a human chain across the country, joining hands along coastal roads in an attempt to span 171 kilometers from south to north.

The continuing anger against politicians accused of corruption and driving Lebanon towards an economic collapse has compelled the government to announce an emergency reform package among several other steps.

“Eventually, we're here for a reason,” Kaassamany said. "We're not here to dance, we're not here to sing, we're not here to party. We are here to deliver a message on behalf of those who cannot afford to eat, cannot afford to go to hospitals, cannot afford to do many other things.

“We are here especially the people who cannot take part in the protests. The media should not focus on people dancing and enjoying themselves. Instead they should take the developments more seriously.”

Another protester, Josee Arbajian, found the foreign media's fixation on the lighter aspects of the protests  “shameful” because the people of Lebanon are “out here doing their best” but are being portrayed in a frivolous light.

What especially irks Lebanese is the use of words such as “festival” and “rave revolution” in international media reports to describe some of the public rallies' throbbing vibe and ambiance.

For proof, critics say, one need look no farther than the disproportionate media interest generated by the scenes of a DJ playing music for a huge crowd of protesters in Sahet Al-Nour in Tripoli, of elderly people dancing and singing together in Zouk, and a full stage set up in Martyrs Square playing revolutionary chants.

“Lebanese have been known to have this spirit of perseverance, so if this is the way we have to protest, go down on the streets and stay down their all night and protest peacefully in a civil way, if that's portrayed as a rave or whatever the Western media portrays it, then let them portray it this way,” Maya, a protestor in Riad Al-Solh Square in Beirut, told Arab News.

“If you want to add music to it, that's fine. If it keeps people on the streets, then it's fine. It's not easy to protest on the streets day and night.”

Nevertheless, on ABC’s The View host Whoopi Goldberg showed a video of protestors singing the song “Baby Shark” to a frightened child in a car, which went viral around the world as numerous media outlets picked it up.

 

Predictably, Lebanese media personalities have joined the chorus of their compatriots’ criticism, with Ali Jaber, MBC's director of television and an “Arabs Got Talent” judge, taking issue with the way the protests are being covered by prominent international news outlets.

“Foreign coverage of the revolution in Lebanon was shallow and superficial,” Jaber said on Twitter. “CNN rarely mentioned the news in its bulletins, and Time magazine and others have trivially emphasized (Lebanese Foreign Minister) Gebran Bassil through the ‘hela ho’ chants and pictures of our beautiful women. Just think a little …”
 


Lebanon’s journalists suffer abuse, threats covering unrest

Updated 07 December 2019

Lebanon’s journalists suffer abuse, threats covering unrest

  • The deteriorating situation for journalists in Lebanon comes despite its decades-old reputation for being an island of free press in the Arab world

BEIRUT: Lebanese journalists are facing threats and wide-ranging harassment in their work — including verbal insults and physical attacks, even death threats — while reporting on nearly 50 days of anti-government protests, despite Lebanon’s reputation as a haven for free speech in a troubled region.
Nationwide demonstrations erupted on Oct. 17 over a plunging economy. They quickly grew into calls for sweeping aside Lebanon’s entire ruling elite. Local media outlets — some of which represent the sectarian interests protesters are looking to overthrow — are now largely seen as pro- or anti-protests, with some journalists feeling pressured to leave their workplaces over disagreements about media coverage.
The deteriorating situation for journalists in Lebanon comes despite its decades-old reputation for being an island of free press in the Arab world. Amid Lebanon’s divided politics, media staff have usually had wide range to freely express their opinions, unlike in other countries in the region where the state stifles the media.
The acts of harassment began early in the protests. MTV television reporter Nawal Berry was attacked in central Beirut in the first days of the demonstrations by supporters of the militant group Hezbollah and its allies. They smashed the camera, robbed the microphone she was holding, spat on her and kicked her in the leg.
“How is it possible that a journalist today goes to report and gets subjected to beating and humiliation? Where are we? Lebanon is the country of freedoms and democracy,” Berry said.
Outlets like MTV are widely seen as backing protesters’ demands that Lebanon’s sectarian political system be completely overturned to end decades of corruption and mismanagement.
Rival TV stations and newspapers portray the unrest — which led to the Cabinet’s resignation over a month ago — as playing into the hands of alleged plots to undermine Hezbollah and its allies. Many of those outlets are run by Hezbollah, President Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement and the Amal Movement of Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri. These media regularly blast protesters for closing roads and using other civil disobedience tactics, describing them as “bandits.”
For Berry, the media environment worsened as the unrest continued. On the night of Nov. 24, while she was covering clashes between protesters and Hezbollah and Amal supporters on a central road in Beirut, supporters of the Shiite groups chased her into a building. She hid there until police came and escorted her out.
“I was doing my job and will continue to do so. I have passed through worse periods and was able to overcome them,” said Berry, who added she is taking a short break from working because of what she passed through recently.
Hezbollah supporters also targeted Dima Sadek, who resigned last month as an anchorwoman at LBC TV. She blamed Hezbollah supporters for robbing her smartphone while she was filming protests, and said the harassment was followed by insulting and threatening phone calls to her mother, who suffered a stroke as a result of the stress.
“I have taken a decision (to be part of the protests) and I am following it. I have been waiting for this moment all my life and I have always been against the political, sectarian and corrupt system in Lebanon,” said Sadek, a harsh critic of Hezbollah, adding that she has been subjected to cyberbullying for the past four years.
“I know very well that this will have repercussions on my personal and professional life. I will go to the end no matter what the price is,” Sadek said shortly after taking part in a demonstration in central Beirut.
Protesters have also targeted journalists reporting with what are seen as pro-government outlets. OTV station workers briefly removed their logos from equipment while covering on the demonstrations to avoid verbal and physical abuse. The station is run by supporters of Aoun’s FPM.
“The protest movement has turned our lives upside down,” said OTV journalist Rima Hamdan, who during one of her reports slapped a man on his hand after he pointed his middle finger at her. She said the station’s logo “is our identity even though sometimes we had to remove it for our own safety.”
Television reporters with Hezbollah’s Al-Manar and Amal’s NBN channels were also attacked in a town near Beirut, when they were covering the closure of the highway linking the capital city with southern Lebanon by protesters. In a video, an NBN correspondent is seen being attacked, while troops and policemen stand nearby without intervening.
“This happens a lot in Lebanon because some media organizations are politicized. No one sees media organizations as they are but sees them as representing the political group that owns them,” said Ayman Mhanna, director of the Beirut-based media watchdog group SKeyes.
“The biggest problem regarding these violations is that there is no punishment,” Mhanna said. Authorities usually fail to act even when they identify those behind attacks on journalists, he added.
Coverage of the protests also led to several journalists resigning from one of Lebanon’s most prominent newspapers, Al-Akhbar, which is seen as close to Hezbollah, and the pan-Arab TV station Al-Mayadeen, which aligns closely with the policies of Iran, Syria and Venezuela.
Joy Slim, who quit as culture writer at Al-Akhbar after more than five years, said she did so after being “disappointed” with the daily’s coverage of the demonstrations. She released a video widely circulated on social media that ridiculed those who accuse the protesters of being American agents.
Sami Kleib, a prominent Lebanese journalist with a wide following around the Middle East, resigned from Al-Mayadeen last month. He said the reason behind his move was that he was “closer to the people than the authorities.”
“The Lebanese media is similar to politics in Lebanon where there is division between two axes: One that supports the idea of conspiracy theory, and another that fully backs the protest movement with its advantages and disadvantages,” Kleib said.