SKeyes Center for Media and Cultural Freedom - Samir Kassir Foundation

Independent Media in Lebanon: Content Analysis and Public Appeal

Tuesday , 29 December 2020
Lebanon has a diverse media sector with extensive historical roots intertwined with the different social components of the Lebanese society. Its development, however, has been tightly linked to the local and regional political context and to a history of political funding to media outlets.

The country’s sectarian diversity, geographic location, and open political regime turned Beirut into the most vibrant journalism and printing hub in the Levant. It was in Beirut that intellectuals, often political dissidents from across the Middle East, would meet and produce ideas, books, and articles. It was also towards Beirut that Arab – and later other regional – powers sent funds to media outlets to promote their policies and agendas. All these factors contributed to the growth of the Lebanese media in both its print and audiovisual sectors.

During the 1975-1990 civil war, political parties and fighting militias took advantage of the quasi-collapse of law enforcement to launch unregulated private radio and television channels. Following the 1989 Taif Agreement, which expressed the need to dismantle all illegal media outlets that had been established during the years of conflict, the Lebanese Parliament issued a law on audiovisual media in 1994, setting conditions and standards for radio and television broadcasting. Based on this law, the government handed out licenses to some media outlets and shut down others.” In fact, licenses were granted – or denied – on political and sectarian grounds as a way to accommodate the Syrian regime, which was exerting direct military and political control over post-war Lebanese politics.

After the withdrawal of the Syrian troops from Lebanon in 2005, the audiovisual media sector was open again to new political voices, which were previously banned. Yet, the media landscape continued to reflect the political and sectarian divisions, and remained dependent on political funding from local leaders and regional sponsors.

In parallel, Lebanon saw the emergence of a large number of news websites, thanks to the relatively lower operating costs on the one hand, and the wider possible reach of online publications on the other hand. Several key elements of sustainable journalism remained missing from most of these experiences. These ingredients include, among others: editorial independence, adherence to ethical standards of journalism, investigation, fact-checking and in-depth reporting, innovative look-and-feel and user experience, and elaborate institutional sustainability models.

As a response, independent journalists as well as young graduates embarked on the risky adventure of establishing online media platforms that address the many shortcomings of the traditional Lebanese media landscape. Today, while these platforms are the target of several support programs from international donors and media development organizations, demographic and institutional restrictions continue to act as barriers to these platforms achieving their full growth potential. For one, there remains an assumption that the independent online outlets’ content is only consumed by a limited, urban, progressive, young, upper middle-class audience, amid the transformations occurring on the level of how younger readers and viewers are receiving and tracking desired information, whether social, political, or economic. In specific, a shift towards the need for visualizing and animating facts and opinions is becoming increasingly necessary to grab the attention of the user.

This study aims to assess two fundamental factors of sustainability from a sample of these new, independent, online media outlets in Lebanon:

  • Adherence to high standards of quality journalism; and
  • Ability to appeal to a wide audience.

Furthermore, a close examination of the perception of youth and university students of these different sources of information over time was conducted in the pursuit of understanding the implications of the major political events/ruptures that have occurred in Lebanon since 2019. These events include, but are not restricted to, the popular protests that erupted on October 17, 2019, the coronavirus pandemic, and the August 4, 2020 Beirut blast.

In this context, a recurrent assumption is that particularly young social groups have grown increasingly skeptical of traditional media outlets, instead choosing unconventional, alternative online platforms for news, analysis, and commentary. This shifting trend is supposedly rooted in the fresher, more accountable, and daring approach of these outlets echoing the rising anti-establishment sentiment. This is accompanied by the perceived complicity of traditional media, which lack an investigative approach towards most of the country’s woes. Nevertheless, this research also aims to reassess the media consumption patterns of these particular social groups to examine their level of loyalty to a particular news source.

The first section of this study (published with the support of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation) is based on a thorough content monitoring of five online media platforms, which represent five different philosophies and approaches to independent media. The second section reflects the results of a series of focus groups conducted with young people across Lebanon to evaluate their reception and perception of what the new, independent, online outlets have been producing.

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