Foreign journalists in Beirut constitute a niche of the professional media landscape in Lebanon yet there can be no generalizations about their diverse experiences with domestic or foreign media. Much of foreign journalists’ experiences are determined upon the media outlet they are employed by, which determines the audience, as well as the subject of their reporting. They also often experience the same issues and challenges that are common to their profession and not unique to Lebanon. One certainty they do share is location, and location can arguably carry as much weight to the journalist as their relationship with their editors. While Beirut provides a unique media environment in relation to the surrounding region, several factors determine the ability of foreign journalists to utilize their right of freedom of expression. Lebanon’s reputation for being a more tolerant society and allowing for a higher level of freedom of expression in the region has continued to attract many foreign journalists and media outlets, yet criteria for measuring freedom of expression is not universal.
For Joseph Dyke, a British journalist working for the Lebanese news outlet Al-Akhbar, the English version, Beirut stood apart from other Middle Eastern cities as far as the journalism coming out from the region. “I always wanted to do journalism in the Middle East and I figured Beirut is a great city to do it. It is not like anywhere else, you don’t have to worry to a certain extent about what you are writing and I think Beirut is just this hub of creativity”, he described as his initial expectations. With his first experiences as a foreign journalist in Beirut, and within the Middle East, behind him he reflected, “it is a double edged sword…I can’t speak the language but then at the same time there is almost, it is not how I would like it to be, but there is almost a slight deference towards western journalists”. However, this perception of deference is not automatic. “People would be willing to help you and they will treat you seriously, if you can prove your credentials”, Dyke stated. For Paul Wood, a seasoned journalist for the BBC tasked to cover Syrian opposition, Beirut offers different advantages. “It is the most porous border, you get refugees coming across, you have got activists here, it is both geographically and politically very close to Syria, there are a lot of dissidents here, and pro-government people here. It is not a bad place to be”, he stated. As part of the BBC team that has unofficially entered Syria, the use of Beirut as a base to report from has exposed Wood to the political climate in Lebanon in relation to the neighboring Syrian conflict. He shared his impressions of a potential for the conflict to spread, “you can see that the fault lines that exist in Syria are the fault lines that exist here”, and that this contributes to “a kind of ferment under the surface here”. Covering what is happening in Syria from Beirut is symbolic of a clear restriction of access as well as media freedom. It is also representative of the relative freedom of expression in Lebanon for journalists, but other factors in Lebanon contribute to the utilization of freedom of expression.
For a domestic news source such as NowLebanon, which is not subject to laws and regulations that apply to printed media, there is an element of self-censorship as the defamation law applies even to things said in public. Matt Nash, an American writer for NowLebanon for almost four years, points out that in Lebanon, “even the truth is never a defense”. Dana Moukhallati, the Head of the English News Desk at NowLebanon, and herself Lebanese, points to the media outlets being “always censored to their benefit” due to political affiliations within the media landscape in Lebanon. While daily media operations involve reporting news, meaning a short turn around time, feature reporting and opinion articles are clearly where the issue of freedom of expression affects all news sources. “In our feature reporting we are a lot freer than most… I can’t think of a time when I have been told ‘you can’t say this or that’ and especially in the features we just try to be reporters”, Nash commented for NowLebanon. Leah Caldwell, a culture and arts writer for Al-Akhbar English echoes a similar sentiment. “The editorial structure of Al-Akhbar English I guess you can say is very free… that sounds cliché but it is very open, there is a lot of discussion about things but never once have I been told not to write about something, if anything they push me to say more”, she expressed. Yet, Moukhallati noted that limitations still exist, “we will criticize and we will say whatever we want, the only time when we feel that we have been censored is when we have been under threat of being sued. I can’t sit here and say we have never censored ourselves… no, we have had to”. Nash added, “Defamation is the biggest form of censorship”, in relation to the “minimal amount of investigative journalism” he has read in Lebanon that he noted is vague when it comes to including names and certain details.
Despite limitations, Lebanon provides a freer environment for media and freedom of expression when compared to its neighbor Syria. Caldwell relayed her previous writing and research experiences in Syria with the media there, “I would say it does not compare…it is obviously tightly controlled by the government. I mean there are red lines everywhere but I think in Syria the red lines are very clearly defined and you know exactly what will happen to you if you overstep them”. Lebanon may provide a freer media environment yet the issue of editorial line is not unique to its media. Caldwell’s insight on her experiences working for a domestic news outlet in comparison to her experience in Syria also serves to illustrate that all media has certain editorial lines, a fact that must be taken into consideration. “Privately owned is not always the gauge of successful media at all… I think even in the United States there are problems with the press, so I can’t discount that”, she said. When asked about the perception of editorial interference in work that is produced, Ruth Sherlock, a British journalist for The Daily Telegraph, commented, “the news is pretty straight…and the experience I have is no…and that is the same experience for most of my friends who are covering for all the major American and British papers. I don’t think any of them are coming up to me with any complaints about the editorial line being changed or anything like that, [but] that is probably different from domestic news as well”. Caldwell and Sherlock’s comments offer the insight that media’s editorial lines coincide with subject matter and an environment for freedom of expression.
Wood’s presence in Beirut confirms the fact that the environment for media is freer in Lebanon, and his experience as a foreign journalist in the region speak to Caldwell’s comment on the caveat of privately owned media and speak to it in a broader way. “There is a way that the American or British press or media do journalism, which even if we fall short a lot of the time you kind of vaguely know that stories have to be a certain way which [is different to what we see from] a lot of the local media and the state media which is having a line dictated to it or people who are cheerleading”, Wood stated. He pointed to the example of post-invasion Iraq and the environment for media freedom as having developed exponentially despite the fact that the people behind the plethora of new media sources would report “according to their interests or their beliefs”, underscoring that media is often not impartial. The contributing factors to the making of a story are only part of the story, the reception of reporting is equally telling of freedom of expression. “A problem we kept running into in Syria was people being offended by the coverage”, he stated, specifically referring to showing the movement of weapons across borders. He attributed this to a restricted environment for media, “I think after forty years of living in a country with no free media people don’t quite get it yet”.
A ‘mouthpiece’ for whom?
The issue of reception is directly related to editorial lines that take into consideration their target audience. This can prove to be a challenge for foreign journalists writing for domestic sources. Dyke’s previous experience writing for a different audience enabled him to reflect about writing for domestic media. “I think personally it is harder to be a foreign journalist in Lebanon doing Lebanese reporting than it is to be a foreign journalist in Lebanon doing journalism for the niche”, he said. He pointed to the differences between a western audience and a domestic audience for this reason. “If you do your writing for western media they don’t really want you to get into the intricacies of the Lebanese system, they want to know the simple story, they want it simplified, but if you are writing for the Lebanese media you have to have that depth”, Dyke commented. “You know everybody who is reading Al-Akhbar knows the difference between political parties, you don’t have to explain that, and so if you are going to have something new you have to have something beyond that”, Dyke explained about writing for a domestic audience. Caldwell shared similar sentiments, “I feel like I have to go above and beyond to find topics to write about because so much has been done”, and, “you have to start from a certain point”. Apart from the issue of language, Nash described “the less than straightforward talk of politicians” as a challenge for him as a journalist to always being able to provide that depth for a domestic audience. Writing for a western or domestic audience certainly shapes the content of reporting as well as its reception.
For foreign journalists, the reception of their work can be linked to perception. Perception in this sense takes into consideration factors such as having access to different opinions, impartiality, and certainly editorial lines-factors found virtually in all media. As a foreigner working for a domestic media outlet Nash has encountered this issue. “I have run into the ‘you are a mouthpiece’ perception from people and I stand by my reporting”, he commented. He also spoke to the point of having access to people and opinions and said he makes it a point to talk to a wide variety of people and not just those whom he may be perceived to be that ‘mouthpiece’ for. Caldwell described related impressions of perception as a foreigner working for a domestic news source. “Even though you see yourself as an independent writer you are writing for a publication that can have a lot of preconceived notions attached to it so…some of them make people less inclined to talk to you, but no one has denied speaking to me because I am with a certain publication at all”, she said. But perception goes both ways as journalists can often have preconceived notions as well. “Taking everybody and not taking anybody at their word [because] to a certain extent all politicians, all political figures, they don’t talk to you unless they want to portray something…. you have to keep that in mind every time you report on something”, Dyke pointed out in describing as what he sees his role as a journalist is. When asked what he feels are the advantages or disadvantages of being a foreign journalist in Beirut Nash replied, “I feel it is a mixed bag and maybe people will tell me more because ‘he is an outsider what does he know’ and I don’t have any of that baggage of ‘where you are from and what your family name is’”. Moukhallati concurs when it comes to politicians, “politicians are more comfortable talking to foreigners… because they have this mentality that if you are a foreigner you are more professional because they think they are not going to be affiliated with anyone and they don’t come with premeditated thought, they think they just want to learn something”. She added that, as a Lebanese, her sincerity would be questioned if put in the same context, raising the issue of impartiality when discussing perception. While balanced reporting may be an attainable goal, biased media is dominant. When asked if he was able to be impartial in his reporting in Lebanon Dyke replied, “I don’t think journalists have to strive for impartiality”. This statement applies to the profession itself but it is important to remember that balanced reporting is a professional standard of practice.
‘The problem is trust’
Editorial lines and issues of impartiality are not unique to Lebanon and this demonstrates that the subject matter, and access or restriction to the subject matter, is often determinant of perception as well. Wood explained, “the BBC is a public corporation so its charter [says that news coverage] has to be impartial which is: two sides to everything”, when asked if it is always possible to get a balanced opinion in his reporting. Wood reflected that he had limited access to people because some areas in Syria are government controlled. Therefore, while only portraying a portion of the full scale of what is happening in Syria it is a true picture and representative of limited access. “We can’t do one-sided propaganda, although I personally am covering one side of the view the BBC as a whole has to balance my reports with other opinions”, he stated. Wood highlighted that when covering Syria the issue of impartiality is brought to the fore because “trying to tell the truth” is the main concern despite facing the issues of “access versus veracity” and “a competent audience”. The subject matter of reporting does affect perception, in the above case through access and impartiality, but it also raises a broader issue of credibility and trust of journalists and media.
Sherlock offered up her insight on what the role of the media is and should be, specifically in the coverage of conflict. “It is a big question for me… the problem is trust”, she said. She elaborated and commented that credibility is also an integral factor by raising the issue of a foreigner covering a conflict versus a local covering a conflict. “I’d like to think that in these kinds of areas it is about giving your voice to different people in situations… highlighting horrendous atrocities that maybe in the future will prevent or influence future dictators, but I sometimes wonder if in reality if media is much a part of the war machine as anything else”, Sherlock relayed. Wood agreed with her view and noted that this view is the same criticism as with the coverage of Iraq, suggested this could be the case with Syria, and they both agreed that it might possibly be the case with Libya. Being a foreigner covering a conflict is an advantage and disadvantage to prove credibility in Sherlock’s experience as she explained the presence of “the western paradigm”. “I don’t think there is such a thing as objective reporting because everybody views things in a different way”, in her case, through a western paradigm. She relayed that this paradigm can be beneficial. “I always try to leave myself out of the piece, I try to kind of just be a pair of hands essentially, but the way that you view things, or the way that you perceive things when you describe something, is your interpretation of what is happening and in a way it can have a really powerful impact”, Sherlock said. She pointed to Wood’s coverage with the BBC as an example. Wood acknowledged that the number of people “engaged in the Syria story” increased substantially after his coverage on Homs came out. Sherlock commented that in comparison to the Youtube clips coming from Homs that were circulated by mass media outlets around the world Wood’s coverage had more of an impact having “effectively filmed a lot of the same stuff”. The difference she pointed to was that the reporting was by professionals in a way that people would understand.
The experiences of foreign journalists in Beirut are vast and varied. Some experiences can be common to the profession yet location is an integral factor of many that set the parameters for journalists to utilize their right of freedom of expression. While measuring a level of freedom of expression is not universal, a clear restriction of access to Lebanon’s neighbor Syria demonstrates the relative freedom of expression in Lebanon. Foreign journalists working for both domestic and western media outlets have to work with certain editorial lines which coincide with other factors such as subject matter and audience. Those working for domestic media are working within a politically affiliated media landscape and have to work hard to start from a certain point for their audience. A common issue for the profession is one of perception that is linked to impartiality as well. Perception, impartiality, editorial lines, access to subject matter, and location all are factors in freedom of expression for journalists. Trust and credibility of journalists and media sources are the end goal but for foreign journalists in Beirut editorial line, audience, and subject dictate the utility of freedom of expression.