BEIRUT: A cross section of Lebanese journalists met on Monday to work together and find common ground on objective reporting in Lebanon, which is known for its politicized and sectarian media environment. The approximately 20 journalists in the workshop represented most of the major players in Lebanon's media landscape.
These included both pro-March 14 Forces media like An-Nahar and LBC, and pro-March 8 media like Al-Akhbar, and Al-Manar. The four-day journalism workshop, held at the Crowne Plaza Hotel, was arranged by the Agence France Presse Foundation (AFPF) and backed by the United Nations Development Program.
There are few completely independent news outlets in Lebanon. Much of the media, like newspapers Al-Mustaqbal and Al-Akhbar are considered an extension of political parties. The daily An-Nahar even has a direct connection to Parliament with its deputy publisher, Nayla Tueni, elected MP in June.
These political connections show up in the media through favorable coverage of political figures, the use of loaded terminology and lack of objectivity. Politicized journalism is very ingrained in Lebanese media and combating it through training like the AFPF program has proved difficult.
Criticism of the Lebanese media has been caustic and extensive. In May, the Lebanese Civic Media Initiative released a report accusing the media of inciting hatred and violence.
In June, prior to the parliamentary elections, the press was criticized by politicians for increasing political tensions.
Most recently, former Beirut Associated Press bureau chief Terry Anderson, called for more professional journalism training in Lebanon in order to fight politicized media.
Conferences like the one beginning Monday are a response to that criticism.
"The media has played a detrimental role in the past, but it doesn't have to remain this way," said Lana Captan Ghandour, project manager of the workshop. "This is the open door, the new lease on their role."
During the first day of the workshop international reporters from the BBC, Al-Arabia and the AFP moderated discussion between the Lebanese reporters who had diverse political backgrounds. The debates were often heated and the issue of coverage of political parties, Israel and Palestine proved frustrating sticking points for the reporters.
For the next three days of the workshop journalists will be divided into groups to collaborate on a story that the politically different reporters have to report on together objectively.
"They all go back to their political affiliations," said Ghandour about the reporter's political leanings. "We are not asking them to leave those behind; we are asking them to respect each others bounds."
The AFPF program, which began in 2007, has had some success in breaking down the political barriers that separate Lebanese journalists.
Individual reporters who have participated in the training have formed relationships with journalists from politically opposite media and produced objective stories that have been aired on each others networks.
A reporting team during an AFPF workshop in 2008 went into neighborhoods and talked to people who backed parties opposing their own. For some, these were places and people they had never been to or talked with ever before.
Even with these successes, politicized journalism has a long history in Lebanon and is deeply engrained in the culture.
In 2005 journalists were targeted for their political views, with several anti-Syrian-occu?pation journalists either assassinated or attacked.
Before that, during the 1975-90 Lebanese Civil War, the country was divided between confessions and political parties. What journalism could be done during the fighting was under intense political pressure.
The ability to break from this fractured past has been made possible by the period of stability that has taken hold of Lebanon ever since the Doha agreement in 2008.
For progress to continue the program would need the recent tensions heightening around the creation of the government not to boil over into polarizing instability and violence.
"It's a program which is being applied in communities that emerged from conflict," said Robert Holloway, director of the AFPF training about the workshop. Holloway added that if Lebanon were to go back to a conflict society, training in objectivity would be seriously set back.
The problem of politicization remains far more endemic in the media structure than the individual relationships that the AFPF program is focused on. Holloway acknowledged as much, and said that the program does not target the editors and the structures that publish the divisive journalism.
As long as the structure demanding non-objective journalism is still there, there can be little hope for completely removing the media from its political bend.
"There are a lot of things that cannot be achieved regarding the political issue and the journalistic issues in Lebanon," said Malak Najem, a radio host from Sawt Al-Shab (Voice of the People) who was participating in the four-day workshop.
"The media in Lebanon is an instrument by the political powers in our community," he added.
Its current politics aside, Lebanon still has one of the most free media environments in the Middle East. The NGO Reporters without Boarders ranked Lebanon 66th out of 177 countries for most press freedom in its 2008 index. Of Middle Eastern countries it was bested only by Cyprus and its rating was 32 places higher than in 2007.
There is cause for hope, but also a realization that the establishment of an objective press in this politically volatile state will take time.
"It's so hard to achieve all the things we are talking about regarding how to have objective reporting in conflict areas," said Najem. "But we are trying, we have to begin, we have to start."