BEIRUT: Representatives from some of the 34 media organizations, including The Daily Star, that have signed onto a media pact promoting peace gathered at the Phoenicia Hotel Tuesday for a special signing ceremony. The Journalists’ Pact for Strengthening Civil Peace in Lebanon, sponsored by the European Union and the United National Development Program, is intended to curb incitement by promoting responsible journalism standards. The code was drawn up based on input from editors and includes 18 principles, including respect for all religions and races, verifying information before broadcast or publication, and respecting the existing media laws.
Ambassador Angelina Eichhorst, head of the EU delegation to Lebanon, started by extending condolences to the victims of Sidon’s violence and their families.
At least 17 soldiers have been killed since Sunday when supporters of the Salafi preacher Ahmad al-Assir clashed with the Lebanese Army.
“Saida is one example but there are many examples in Lebanon where we need to shake hands and say no to violence, no to arms, and no to nonstate arms,” Eichhorst told the audience, adding that the pact, which aims to contain civil strife, was “very timely.”
“We love bridging,” she said of the EU’s support for the project. “We don’t like to build walls.”
Caretaker Information Minister Walid Daouk also expressed his condolences for the fallen soldiers before speaking of the importance of committing to the principles laid out in the honor code.
“We are living through difficult times, and division is close at hand for all of us; we must try to tone down the heated rhetoric that irritates and respect as much as possible the feelings of others,” Daouk urged. “More important than the text is the commitment to upholding that which has been agreed upon.”
Daouk went on to lament the fact that some television stations serve as platforms for “verbal duels that are not free of obscenities, swears and insults, where charges of treason are exchanged.”
“The country will fall into sectarian and religious strife if these repercussionsare not remedied by sensible people who care about the country, general stability and peace,” he warned.
Daouk’s comments echoed past accusations by government officials who blame the media for inciting civil strife, a charge journalists tend to throw back on the political class.
Earlier this year, Public Prosecutor Hatem Madi held a series of meetings with representatives from broadcast news media to chastise them for what he described as inflammatory coverage.
Speaking to The Daily Star after the signing, Eichhorst admitted that the media has a duty to cover the news, and that every party must take responsibility for their own words.
“It’s [the media’s] job to report what is being said, and no one is trying to infringe on the media’s freedom,” she emphasized. “Those who start by giving the statements should be really careful about how they phrase things ... it’s a joint responsibility.”
Not everyone was optimistic that the pact would lead to concrete results.
Abdel-Hadi Mahfouz, the head of the Audiovisual Media Council, pointed out that there have been some 46 media codes of conduct and pacts since Independence, all of which failed to have a significant impact on the media culture.
“They all had more or less the same principles – respect for religion, rejecting sectarianism – but the problem is they have no legal power, only a moral power,” said Mahfouz.
Mahfouz said this latest pact failed to take into account the “uniqueness” of the Lebanese media landscape in which most outlets are funded directly by political interests.
“The problem is with the application of the law,” he said.
“Each organization enjoys political cover,” he added.