BEIRUT: Around 100 students from eight universities in Lebanon are coming together to create an independent youth media outlet just seven days before the parliamentary elections.
The outlet, Sawt Ashabab (Youth Voice), hopes to represent young Lebanese in the media, and will be distributed as a special section inside two dailies, An-Nahar and Al-Akhbar.
The cooperation between newspapers linked to opposite political camps may be a first in Lebanon, and it is an unusual step in a media environment that was criticized earlier this month by the Lebanese Civic Media Initiative as inciting hatred and violence in Lebanon.
Sawt Ashabab consists of 13 students on an editorial board who plan and edit content, which is provided by about 70 student contributors across Lebanon. The print product is published once per week on Thursday, while Sawt Ashabab also publishes a website, www.sawtashabab.org, and video content on LBC television about the elections.
Root Space, a social innovation NGO, is behind Sawt Ashabab's creation. Root Space provides the office space, coordination and final editing for Sawt Ashabab. "There's not much opportunity for people to contribute and have an independent voice," CEO of Root Space David Munir Nabti said about Lebanese media. Nabti said he wants to help build Sawt Ashabab to change that.
The students on the editorial board come from different backgrounds, and only a few are majoring in journalism, while most aren't even old enough to vote. But there was a shared sense of dissatisfaction with the current media situation in Lebanon among the Sawt Ashabab staff.
"I feel something like this is what this country is lacking. There is no independent press there is no outlet for the youth basically to get involved in anything. A different perspective on things is what is lacking," said Maryam Hoballah, an 18-year-old economics major at the American University of Beirut.
Lebanon's media landscape is largely divided among newspapers and televisions stations that are either directly backed by a politician or political party, or indirectly allied with a political cause. There are few independent news sources.
Part of the electoral law reform passed last fall was geared toward the regulation of partisan media. The new law created a supervisory commission whose responsibilities include regulating media objectivity.
Discontent with this lack of objective Lebanese media seems to be the main reason students are joining Sawt Ashabab.
Yasmin Fansa, a section editor on the Sawt Ashabab editorial board and a 19-year-old AUB student said that a non-partisan viewpoint is what she found appealing about Sawt Ashabab. "Everyone's coming together to write different views," said Fansa.
Sawt Ashbab's code of ethics was written by the students and reflects Fansa's non-partisan sentiment. It includes topics such as transparency, respect, independence and free speech.
"We all come from different universities, so we all come from different areas of Lebanon. I'm from Beirut, some are from the south, some are from the north. People drive from all over Lebanon just to meet up and work on this newspaper," said Fansa.
Students from AUB, the Lebanese Academy of Fine Arts, and Notre Dame University-Louaize, as well as five other universities work for Sawt Ashabab.
The print and web content will be in Arabic and English. The print product will be eight pages and distributed to schools and organizations in addition to the two dailies. Sawt Ashabab's video content will be in Arabic and aired on the "Kalam Ashabab" segment of the Kalam An-Nas talk show, hosted by Marcel Ghanem on LBC.
Much of the programs' funding is being provided by Internews, an NGO that supports independent media. Editors and contributors will receive small pay, per story or per day, for their work.
After Sawt Ashabab covers the elections, Root Space wants to see the news outlet turn into a regular feature, updated online and possibly printed monthly.
"We are working on building this out into an ongoing multimedia platform for young people, for citizens, for non-professionals to be able to participate and contribute," said Nabti, Root Space CEO.
"So in a broader sense, we are trying to build this up so the different organizations, the different groups the universities etcetera, all can cooperate to help develop content to share."