BEIRUT: When the country found itself on the brink of civil war yet again last month , many residents turned to local media to follow the crisis. However, the strong political biases of most Lebanese media run the risk of twisting these outlets into one of the major threats facing the country's stability, a number of media academics said.
In a country as diverse as Lebanon, media bias can do much to fuel political and sectarian conflict, the academics said.
Simply put, nearly all Lebanese media institutions flog an obvious bias, they added.
From the oldest, most renowned newspapers to newly founded Web sites, the majority are committed to promoting a certain political agenda.
"Media outlets don't even claim to seek objectivity," said Ramez Maalouf, a professor at the Lebanese American University (LAU).
One reason behind this is the nonexistence of independent media, as nearly every media outlet is financially dependent on a political party or leader and therefore reflects the sponsor's opinions, the academics said.
In tense times, the media only exacerbates the situation by inflaming political and sectarian tensions, they added.
"In times of crisis, facts are exaggerated; people feel threatened and will react more emotionally and instinctively," said LAU professor Dina Dabbous-Sensenig.
When it comes to the language used in the media, most words and discourses are loaded with hostility and sarcasm, such as the openings of the closely watched evening news, the academics said.
This aggressive language pre-empts rational dialogue on many controversial issues, leaving many less attractive alternatives to resolve the nation's numerous festering conflicts.
"When you bring dialogue to an end, you are indirectly instructing people to resort to violence," said Maalouf.
While media institutions take sides and spew propaganda, they make use of accusations and claims against their political rivals, painting them as the bad guys and indirectly justifying attacks on them.
In May's violence, control of media outlets became a pivotal issue, as opposition groups seized the Future Television station and Al-Mustaqbal newspaper belonging to the family of parliamentary majority leader MP Saad Hariri.
"Hindering opposing media outlets is considered a key blow to the adversary, and we've seen some recent examples," said Roula Mikael, a member of the non-governmental organization Maharat.
However, the public bears a share of the blame for the dangerous coverage, as they demand media slants that reflect and support their views, the academics said.
"The Lebanese media is only reinforcing existing attitudes and accentuating them, but not forcing them," American University of Beirut professor Nabil Dajani told The Daily Star.
The same logic applies to political leaders when they refuse to participate in any dialogue.
The effective implementation of any media law, meanwhile, requires a competent government, and when it comes to Lebanon, no political party will accept imposing any restrictions on its media outlets and limiting its share of the media power pie.
When it comes to building national peace and promoting social and economic growth, key reforms concerning the role of media institutions should be tackled, Mikael said.
"If there is a will, there is always a way, and a simple start would be to enhance the international law of conscience," she added.
However, in Lebanon, binding reforms have to take place to ensure that the media's role in spreading the culture of peace will not only remain on paper, she said.
Mikael added that granting a national media committee or civil society more power is a must, if they are to implement a given media law and develop a mechanism to monitor the work of media institutions.
One key move, the academics said, would be the reform of the existing media law regarding the distribution of licenses, which prevents the media from escaping the bonds of being political tools.