The security situation in Lebanon has many people on edge these days, which is understandable given last week’s deadly explosion in Beirut’s southern suburbs.
As it is, the country is often fertile ground for rumors, irrespective of whether the information that is being circulated has any connection to reality.
In many cases, short items generated by the official state news agency are merely relayed verbatim by the media, leaving only more questions in their wake.
This leads to a situation in which several dozen TV stations, newspapers and websites all compete for the latest “security scoop.” Most outlets have a political slant; some may want to play up any government success in dealing with attempts to destabilize the country, while others might want to merely portray any suspicious incident as the latest foreign plot to wreak havoc, even though the evidence might be flimsy.
In the absence of solid information, rumors affect people’s lives. Over the weekend, it was said that residents of an entire part of Greater Beirut had been advised to stay indoors, a tale that turned out to be false. Security officials should realize that some news items making the rounds might have a grain of truth in them, so they can’t ignore the situation completely.
As for government officials, they have engaged in doublespeak for many months, veering between two distinctly different messages: The country is being targeted by attempts at destabilization, versus the situation is fine, and everything is under control.
Perhaps it’s not surprising to see a state of confusion emerge under such conditions, but the task at hand remains: A concerted media effort should be launched to respond to the situation. Officials must make a more proactive effort to give the public the credible information it needs, in order to head off attempts by breathless scoop-masters to sow more confusion.
One of the aspects of the problem is that the Lebanese Army, and the judiciary in the form of the Judicial Police, are part of the national security equation, and these institutions are governed by a standing procedure of avoiding contact with the media as much as possible. Better coordination between these institutions and the Internal Security Forces is needed, so that state officials, whatever agency they represent, become used to the practice of informing the public on a timely basis by interacting with members of the media through news conferences and briefings.
As everyone knows, much of Lebanon’s political system is operating in a void, paralyzed by a host of disputes and struggles. The public is certainly grateful to see the police and Army erect checkpoints on roads and highways as part of their efforts to provide security, but the same level of effort could be put into managing information, which can have real-world repercussions when it’s not used in the national interest.