Lebanon is home to a diverse media landscape - but digital media is still developing. Yet, politicians own most of the media outlets and the number of people arrested for exercising their freedom of speech has spiked.
— Lebanon’s media is very partisan
— The media in Lebanon suffers from a lack of funds
— Media start-ups generally target a pan-Arab audience
— No university degrees in media management or media viability
— The number of detentions related to freedom of expression spiked in 2018
— A law for the protection of freedom of speech online is under discussion in 2019.
Diana Moukalled, Alia Ibrahim and Hazem al-Amine are three Lebanese journalists with many years of experience working for traditional media houses, both on television and in print. But in particular during the Arab uprisings, they became frustrated with how biased the media in Lebanon is, and wanted to draw a line in the sand by promoting independent and critical journalism. In response, they founded Daraj in 2018.
In-depth journalism needed
Daraj - Arabic for stairs - is more than an appropriate name for the website, which has high ambitions. "Everybody was talking about independent media. We saw new media as a new means of information transfer, as technology has become cheaper and more accessible with the use of social media. So, we thought we could do something," says Alia Ibrahim. When the three pitched their project, potential investors were initially very cautious. "We developed the business plan and the project and presented it to investors. But they did not like it because they didn’t think it would be viable. We were proposing independent journalism. They wanted something that focused more on lifestyle."
But they were sure that "strong, independent journalism is in demand and that it could be a good business." Subsequently, they have sold a self-produced documentary, as well as finding international donors to support the project. In addition, over the next five years, they hope to generate enough advertising and marketing revenue to secure their financial sustainability.
According to a study by the Maharat Foundation in Beirut, financing is a major issue for many media start-ups in Lebanon. "In fact, there are not many media start-ups in Lebanon. These companies face major challenges, including the inability to generate revenue, the type of content, and the number of readers, and the innovation in the offer on these media platforms."
Alia Ibrahim (left) and Diana Moukalled are two of the founders of Daraj, a journalistic digital platform
Due to the expansion of digital media worldwide, citizens in Lebanon have access to a variety of news platforms - whether websites, cable channels, or various subscription-based text message services. Although regional broadcasters such as Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya and other international news channels are available, local news channels and their websites remain popular. Lebanon’s media landscape is predominantly under the control of sectarian groups – whether it be TV, radio, print or online. It is important to note that the political system in Lebanon is characterized by religious proportionality: A total of 18 denominations are officially recognized, but three big groups dominate by means of an institutionalized balance of power in parliament. The smaller religious groups are guaranteed certain contingents of parliamentary seats.
Some broadcasters are owned by individual politicians; some are allied with specific political parties or their coalitions. Prime Minister Saad Hariri and his family, for example, own the TV channel Al Mustaqbal, the "The Daily Star" newspaper as well as numerous other online and offline media organizations. Parliamentary President Nabih Berri owns shares in the National Broadcasting Network and its affiliates, while Hezbollah controls a huge media network, which includes Al Manar TV and Al Nour Radio. In addition, the structure of the Lebanese media landscape encourages foreign entities – especially Saudi Arabia and Iran – to invest in these companies in order to expand their influence.
Small country, many media outlets
With 10 private dailies in three languages and over 1,500 weekly or monthly magazines, Lebanon produces almost half of the Middle East’s periodicals, according to a Reporters Without Borders study. In addition, there are also nine TV stations and around 40 radio stations.
Lebanon has a diverse media landscape. More and more media companies are betting on the expansion of digital media but strategy remains unclear. Al-Mustaqbal, for example, recently shut down its daily newspaper - pressure from the online sector had grown too strong, forcing them to put more emphasis on digital media. But the cedar state has repeatedly found itself in difficult political situations. Sometimes, the country lacks a president for an extended period of time, or the formation of a new government drags on for several months - and the economy has remained weak throughout. Journalists in Lebanon might agree that digitalization is positive for their work, but they also complain that their employers have not yet taken advantage of its full potential.
As journalist and journalism teacher Daoud Ibrahim says, "Many media companies have not yet managed to adapt themselves to new developments in technology." Overall, the websites of many media houses do not meet current online journalistic standards, although, according to the expert, certain websites, such as www.naharnet.com, do exist that at least know how to use multimedia tools.
Blogs want the media to be more critical
Aware of the importance of social media, all media outlets in Lebanon are active on at least one platform, usually Facebook. "For a digital strategy to work, you need money and the awareness that online journalism is more than just repeating a certain program or news segment on a different platform", says the journalist. Thus far, the inclusion of citizen journalism remains the purview of TV programs, although there are a few blogs, such as Blog Baladi or Gino’s Blog, that comment on events occurring in Lebanon. Najib Mitri co-founded Blog Baladi (Arabic for my country's blog) eight years ago with a friend and now has more than 73,000 followers on Facebook. He does not see himself as a competitor to mainstream media outlets: "Most of the blogs are run by passionate writers who write for a cause or for fun; blogs will not take over. But it pushes media to be more objective and more critical than just following what is happening." Although certain blogs have gained in popularity, they are not considered major influencers of social and political life in the country, especially since many Lebanese remain loyal to their sectarian media outlets – including in the digital realm.
Few media start-ups
Digitalization has thus far had little impact on the Lebanese media market – in terms of ownership or content. There is also currently no clear strategy for dealing with the digitalization of media companies, despite the fact that existing tech competencies could be put to good use in digital communication projects. Although the media start-ups scene is rather small, websites such as Raseef 22 or Daraj are a reason to hope that the media start-up scene could expand in Lebanon.
Financing media start-ups
In the past, Lebanon was the frontrunner of Arab journalism. Although it seems that many Lebanese journalists and publishers are interested in trying out new digital ideas, they face a number of obstacles, ranging from old-fashioned thinking to digital knowledge gaps to being unsure about how to create a digitally sustainable website, as Roula Mikhael, director of the Maharat Foundation, confirms. Currently, universities in Lebanon do not offer bachelor’s students any courses on subjects such as media viability or media management, although some are adapting their master’s degree curricula to offer courses on media entrepreneurship. The Maharat Foundation also offers continuing education courses in media entrepreneurship.
Freedom of opinion? Lebanon is ahead of Egypt
Daraj is off to a good start, but until the website is completely self-sustaining, the three founders have several issues to deal with, including the fragile state of digital infrastructure and cybersecurity, and the weak legal protections available to journalists in Lebanon. Due to their critical reporting, they are also regularly the target of online trolls.
Although Daraj's office is located at Antwork, a co-working space in Beirut, its journalists are spread out throughout the region in order to best speak to a pan-Arab target audience. Since Lebanon is a small country with a population of a little over 6 million people, Daraj aims to reach as large an audience as possible – and thus reports on a wide breath of issues. "Many of those who write for us use pen names," says Moukalled. "It's a blessing to be in Beirut, compared to the situation to Egypt, Syria or Turkey." In those countries, journalists often receive long prison sentences for criticizing the government. Daraj’s founders also acknowledge that freedom of expression in Lebanon has deteriorated over the past year – for journalists, activists, and civilians. In December 2018, a colleague, Hazem al-Amine, was arrested in the Daraj editorial office and held for a few hours by security forces over an article he wrote on the son of the speaker. As Diana Moukalled tells it, news of the arrest caused a digital earthquake as it spread through the Internet, and within a few hours he was free.
What experts say:
Diana Moukalled, one of the Daraj founders: "Digital gave us freedom, gave us a profession – and I think this is something really necessary."
"And I think when it comes to the Lebanese media, it’s worth looking at the francophone sector. I think L’Orient du Jour is the most convincing example of a traditional media outlet that is doing well in terms of digitalization", says Alia Ibrahim, Daraj.
Mohamad Najem from SMEX:
"We see digital rights as human rights. So, we want to make sure that human rights are sustained online as much as offline."
— Quality content vs. clickbait:
Journalist Daoud Ibrahim thinks it’s important to emphasize context and analysis. Online journalism is not just about "clickbait." As Maharat Foundation writes, "The quality of media content is the basic criterion for consumption in a symmetrical relationship where demand increases as quality increases and decreases when it is lost.”
— Specialization as a journalist
Ramy Boujawdeh, deputy director of Berytech, a support ecosystem for entrepreneurs, hopes for more journalists who can write about issues such as digitalization, start-ups, and innovation, in order for this sector to also be reflected in the media landscape.
— New media law
In Lebanon, there is no law to protect a journalist’s freedom of expression online. Lebanon needs a new media law that includes the online sector, to keep pace with digital developments.
— Journalistic independence
The legal situation for journalists must be improved in order for digital media in Lebanon to gain a firmer footing. To enable digital media to play their role as a reliable and independent source of information, financing and digitalization within the sector also need to be improved.
The #speakup barometer is a DW Akademie project that examines the connection between digital participation, freedom of expression and access to information. Learn more at www.dw.com/barometer