BEIRUT: When Haitham Shaaban started up his news website Ya Sour seven years ago, the municipality of Tyre was not pleased. His idea was to create a local independent media outlet, a concept new to residents and to the local administration, which took issue when the site exposed matters politicians would have preferred to stay hidden.
“At the time, there wasn’t a culture of media criticizing what needs to be criticized,” says Shaaban. “But now we maintain very good relationships with all groups in the city.”
The website, which highlights business, socioeconomic, entertainment and tourism news, is part of a wave of new media outlets, mostly independent and youth-oriented, that are challenging a media landscape dominated by sectarian and political interests.
“I created this website in 2005 with only several volunteers helping me. However, as the website gained more visibility, I realized I needed to recruit a paid staff in addition to the volunteers,” says Shaaban.
The website does not take money from vested-interests (individuals or political parties), and depends exclusively on revenue from advertisements.
Laws and regulations governing local mass media, including newspapers and television and radio stations, are tough, such as the high cost of obtaining a license for media outlets.
The country’s sectarian groups benefit from such laws – because of their power and resources – and have matched the content of their TV channels to their political agenda at the national level.
Moreover, traditional media tends to focus on news related to the capital as much of the country’s political and economic activity is centralized in Beirut.
To meet the demands of those whose interests are usually neglected by the mass media, young people with minimal resources began developing online blogs or news sites.
Roughly speaking, $600 is enough to create a simple website. Ya Sour had enough advertising from hotels, restaurants and stores to go from depending on volunteers to hiring correspondents and using freelancers abroad.
“Now, not only do we have correspondents in areas in Tyre, but expatriates from Tyre in Cote d’Ivoire, Senegal, Australia, Canada, Germany, and other countries contribute in sending us news about Lebanese community living abroad,” says Shaaban.
According to figures published on the website, it now has an average of 30,000-35,000 readers on a daily basis.
Another start-up in the south is Saida TV, a Web TV station launched last year operating from Sidon.
“We tend to focus on citizens’ daily concerns, vital public services, workers’ demands and students’ activities. Such news does not receive a lot of media attention from the traditional media,” says Osmat al-Qawwas, who manages the site.
The initiative is driven by a number of young people, mostly communications students or new media professionals, says Qawwas.
Unlike Ya Sour, Saida TV relies solely on volunteers who produce documentaries and special segments that highlight major events taking place in Sidon and south Lebanon.
In addition to these segments, the website publishes selected articles from local press, international news and arts and culture news.
Qawwas does not deny receiving financial support from political groups and asks viewers to judge for themselves his station’s commitment to integrity and objectivity.
“All media outlets in this country have political affiliations. But the type and quality of material along with its objectivity should be the basis to which citizens make their judgments,” he says.
In addition to group initiatives, citizen-based journalism via blogs has also taken off and provides a source for those searching for alternative news.
There are nearly 700 blogs registered in the Lebanon Aggregator – a website that includes a blogs directory – with the number of blogs steadily rising over the past five years. There could be even more as the Aggregator only counts those blogs that their creators register.
The popularity of blogging has been aided by easy-to-use blogging sites, as well as improvements, however slight, in Lebanon’s Internet infrastructure.
Last year, Al-Jadeed TV introduced a three-minute segment at the end of its news bulletin to present material posted on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and blogs. It is one of very few initiatives that reconciles traditional media with the citizens-based one.