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IPI completes press freedom mission, urges respect for editorial independence and credibility

Fractured media landscape reflects Lebanese society's divisions

(IPI/IFEX) - 23 October 2009 – The International Press Institute (IPI) on Thursday completed a four-day press freedom mission to Lebanon during which it held discussions with leading editors and journalists, as well as political leaders and government officials.

Participants in the discussions noted that Lebanon has a freer and more diverse and vibrant media than any other Arab country, and IPI is encouraged by such an environment.

However, a recurring concern expressed in discussions was that Lebanon's politically-polarised society is mirrored in much of the country's media landscape, particularly in television. It was repeatedly suggested that most of the country's media outlets are unduly influenced in their journalism content by powerful political figures to whom they are financially and politically beholden.

Although a depoliticised media can help bind a society together, a media fractured along political and often sectarian lines, as in Lebanon, when coupled with politically-influenced interference in editorial independence, can actually serve to deepen divisions among citizens.

"Although there are many excellent media organisations in Lebanon, the politicisation of the media means that, too often, journalists are forced to choose between their natural desire for credibility and their loyalty to a media organisation," said IPI Director David Dadge. "All those who would seek to influence the media must realise that the politicisation of the media only furthers the prejudices that exist within Lebanese society and that the best way to overcome these prejudices is to enable a free and independent media to practise accurate, fair and balanced news."

For any news outlet, credibility is crucial. The media's credibility rests on its ability to check its facts, especially in a fractured society such as Lebanon. News outlets should have in place voluntary codes of practice that ensure accurate, fair and balanced reporting.

It is imperative that all groups and parties in Lebanon, as well as states and parties beyond the country's borders, respect editorial independence and the right of the media to report free of harassment and intimidation.

Media credibility is jeopardised if powerful figures and/or countries seek to use the media as a mouthpiece, and political opinion finds its way into news content. Politicians must resist the temptation to improperly influence editorial policy.

A further step, for media outlets in Lebanon, towards bolstering credibility is to ensure financial transparency. Details about the ownership and funding of Lebanese media outlets are too often opaque when they should be transparent for all.

IPI is particularly concerned about the impunity that, for decades, has protected the murderers of journalists in Lebanon.

IPI urges the Lebanese authorities, the United Nations international tribunal set up in 2007 to try those responsible for political killings in Lebanon, and the French authorities investigating the murder of Al-Nahar columnist Samir Kassir in 2005, to redouble their investigative and judicial efforts. The killers of journalists in Lebanon should never be allowed to escape justice.

In this regard, strengthening the independence of Lebanon's judiciary is of paramount importance as is the willingness of the authorities to pursue cases to their conclusion.

A culture of accountability for crimes committed is more likely to stem the tide of journalist slayings in Lebanon than a culture of impunity, and to reverse a worrying increase in self-censorship which editors and reporters told IPI has resulted from the killings and attempted killings.

Journalists are still prosecuted under criminal defamation laws in Lebanon and although editors told IPI that a negotiated settlement sparing the journalist jail time is usually possible IPI is of the view that such laws are outdated and disproportionate, and help fuel self-censorship. Grievances by concerned parties should be pursued through the civil courts.

A number of journalists from across the media spectrum spoke of a tense in-the-field relationship with the army and security services. It was alleged that the security services and army occasionally physically assaulted or verbally intimidated reporters. Although discussions were usually held afterwards between editors and officers, rarely has a member of the army or security services been held accountable for untoward treatment of a journalist.

IPI believes there should be detailed, internal army and security service guidelines on how to treat journalists practising their profession.

The pluralism of Lebanon's media environment is refreshing but to encourage that pluralism the Lebanese government should commit to removing all barriers that prevent or inhibit people from becoming journalists.

While in Lebanon, the IPI delegation met with former Lebanese President Amine Gemayel, former Lebanese Prime Minister General Michel Aoun, Minister of Information Tareq Mitri, Ministry of Justice Director-General Omar Natour, MP Ghassan Moukheiber, representatives of Lebanon's Press Syndicate, and a broad range of print and electronic media as well as members of civil society and academia.

The IPI delegation that travelled to Lebanon comprised IPI Director David Dadge, IPI Press Freedom Manager Anthony Mills, and IPI Press Freedom Advisor for the Middle East and Africa Naomi Hunt.

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