BEIRUT: Media outlets are once again shrugging their shoulders after being served Wednesday with a “final warning” about reining in inflammatory rhetoric on television screens. Several fiery exchanges and cases of objectionable content over the past week prompted caretaker Information Minister Walid Daouk to issue the warning to radio and television stations, demanding that they take responsibility for the repercussions of their broadcast choices.
Daouk and members of the National Audiovisual Media Council sat down with representatives of various outlets to discuss the “worsening situation of broadcast media in Lebanon,” and especially talk shows that incite sectarian tension.
“Each news outlet has an individual responsibility to control both its anchors and the guests they host,” Daouk said. “Their responsibility should be toward the benefit of the country, and not revolve around ratings and viewership.”
One such case that is believed to have prompted the warning is last Sunday’s heated exchange of insults between a pro-Syrian regime political analyst and a colonel from the rebel Free Syrian Army on Al-Jadeed’s weekly talk show.
While the host of the show, George Salibi, repeatedly threatened to stop the episode, the discussion – insults and all – continued and was rerun the following day and posted on the show’s official Facebook page.
“A media professional cannot foresee what a guest will say or how the dialogue will develop,” said Ibrahim Halabi, Al-Jadeed’s administrative and public relations manager. “What we can do is remind our guests before the interview of our guidelines in avoiding inappropriate or sectarian rhetoric.”
When it comes to politician guests, however, Halabi believes that they are “uncontrollable.”
“We do engage in self regulation to some extent,” he said. “But how do you regulate politicians when the government itself cannot?
“If the government can’t strip an MP of his parliamentary immunity, what can we do?” Halabi asked.
He was referring to recent calls for exactly that to be done to Mohammad Kabbara after the Tripoli lawmaker accused President Michel Sleiman and the Army of political covering for the pro-Syrian regime Arab Democratic Party, which has been involved in the bloody strife in Tripoli.
Also last week, Tawhid Movement leader Wi’am Wahhab lashed out at the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, Sheikh Abdel-Aziz al-Shaikh during an appearance on OTV, using insulting language and demanding that he refrain from criticizing Hezbollah.
The statements were condemned by several local religious figures as well as by Dar al-Fatwa, the country’s highest Sunni religious authority.
“Politicians are not the only ones to blame,” said Daouk after the meeting Wednesday. “Some media professionals have been performing beneath acceptable guidelines of behavior.”
While the minister urged attendees to brief guests on guidelines before they go on air, media representatives insist that live interviews are impossible to control and regulate.
“We are doing the maximum we can,” said Ghayath Yazbek, the head of the news department at MTV. “We already have some guests who are blacklisted, meaning we don’t host them to avoid their trouble.”
Daouk described the meeting as a last attempt to deliberate with media professionals before he takes future cases to court.
Furthermore, the minister suggested that if some stations were unable to abide by the regulations stipulated by the Audiovisual Media law, their licenses would not be renewed, according to those present at the meeting.
Dar al-Fatwa issued a statement Tuesday in which it urged talk show guests to refrain from provoking people by disrespecting the Prophet Mohammad and other religious symbols.
Sources close to the institution told The Daily Star the statement was issued in response to comments by a pro-March 14 political analyst Mohammad Salam on LBC.
Salam criticized any move to join a new Cabinet in which members of Hezbollah were included, adding he would refuse to take part in a government “even if the Prophet Mohammad himself is part of it.”
Although Daouk urged media professionals to self-regulate their behavior, he focused on the importance of freedom of expression and the need for “responsible freedom.”
Sarah Richani, an expert on Lebanese media, said “the media in Lebanon are backed by political actors and are therefore strong.”
“Since the government has been reluctant to take action against media outlets, these outlets should self-regulate and use some restraint with their potentially dangerous rhetoric.”