On the 1st of December, a Syrian worker was shot by Lebanese police dressed in civilian clothes in the early hours of the morning. The murder happened in Hamra, a residential and commercial district of Beirut that is popular with tourists and locals alike. The incident received little coverage in the media, with the exception of Al-Akhbar newspaper which published detailed coverage of the circumstances of the murder and placed it prominently on its digital version. Two things conspired to keep the story from receiving the attention that it deserved: the fact that the victim Abdel Nasser Ahmad was Syrian and Al-Akhbar’s publication of the leaked cables from several Arab countries which dominated the news.
In my previous post about Al-Akhbar and the leaked cables, I criticised the newspaper’s handling of the American documents. In my opinion Al-Akhbar failed to write the story and opted for a mass-dump of information Wikileaks-style instead. But I don’t want my critique to be read as a broad dismissal of Al-Akhbar, much like all Lebanese other media outlets it struggles with its own contradictions and the complexities of Lebanon. However, there’s no denying that it has nurtured a group of young journalists that have become excellent at doing the bread-and-butter work of journalism: the in-depth stories, the investigative angles, and giving voice to those who wouldn’t be heard otherwise.
Abdel Nasser’s story was a very good example of this much needed type of journalism in Lebanon. The reporter talked to the neighbours and a relative of the victim, uncovered the fact that the police were driving in an unmarked car and wearing civilian clothes and that they did not identify themselves before approaching the victim, who then fled and was then shot down. Abdel Nasser’s employer was very distressed with the murder, and many of the neighbours felt the same and they were full of praise for the youth whom they had known for years. I don’t wish to prejudge the outcome of the investigation, but suffice it to say that there are enough unanswered questions in this story to make it merit more media and public attention.
As it happened, the story will be treated as yet another unfortunate incident and will be quickly forgotten, showing how anesthetised Lebanese society has become to the abuses of power. Unmasking the excesses of the security services and the collusion of all political parties in preventing proper accountability should be a priority for journalists, instead of the tittle-tattle of the political classes and blunt propaganda. Al-Akhbar’s Ghassan Saoud for example carried out a series of investigations that exposed exactly how Michel El-Murr, veteran politician and father of the Deputy PM, maintains his political empire in Al-Maten area through a network of corruption, bribery and nepotism. To my eyes, that was a bigger scandal that anything his hapless son said to American diplomats, yet there was no political fallout.
The Lebanese media take their share of the blame for this failure: within every organisation, there is a clearly prescribed political limit that controls the coverage of news stories. Such limit is derived from the organisation’s position within the political spectrum, its ownership and financing, and, most dangerously, self-censorship that passes as ‘responsible reporting.’ While the first two aspects might be out of the control of journalists, the third is firmly theirs. Not long ago, Al-Akhbar’s Ibrahim Al-Amin bragged in an article about his newspaper’s ‘responsibility’ in not publishing all the information it has access to, in the interest of national stability. This is not an exception in the Lebanese press but pretty much the rule, an unforgivable abdication of journalistic responsibility if there’s any.
Many of us who disagree with Al-Akhbar’s politics respect its professionalism and the school of investigative journalism that it has nurtured in a clear departure from the complacency of Lebanese media. However, the important question is why does Al-Akhbar maintain a ceiling for this type of journalism at the expense of promoting the more politically explicit content? Why has Al-Akhbar’s role during the past few months allowed it to become that of relaying ‘regional’ wishes to the Lebanese political classes? We have the right to ask because we recognise the potential role that Al-Akhbar could have, and it’s a much needed one.
P.S. While I still maintain my support and solidarity with Al-Akhbar because of the hacking of its website, I am disgusted by how the Facebook support group has quickly become a mud-slinging platform, particularly insults that are aimed at other media outlets. For example, Elaph is described as a ‘Zionist publication’, always the surest way of silencing opponents. My sense is none of those supporters have learned anything about freedom of speech.