How hate speech is harming journalism in Lebanon

By Dr Zahera Harb

Just hours after running my first workshop for journalists in Beirut about hate speech in the Lebanese media during times of crisis, a huge explosion shattered the capital. I needed stitches for the facial wounds caused by broken glass but those visible wounds had little impact compared to the invisible scars the Beirut Port explosion left inside every one of us Lebanese.

A sense of despair, anger and sorrow swept us all. Feelings of helplessness and hopelessness overwhelmed us. Personally, that sorrow and anger grew bigger a few days after the explosion when Lebanese political factions and sect leaders started a war over the airwaves and social media as to whom was to blame for the explosion. Hate speech messages shared across social media were soon transmitted through television and vice versa.  The harm caused by the highly divisive rhetoric reached the homes of millions of people through journalists, either on purpose or out of ignorance.

Hate messages fuelled the insecurities among different sectarian communities towards each other. In the aftermath of the explosion two scenes dominated the country. One was of solidarity, demonstrated by the “army of brooms” of volunteers from all over the country, helping those affected by the explosion. The other was of hate, amplified by journalists and media personalities. It was as if the despair and anger among many Lebanese caused by the explosion was being channelled into hate against the other religious sect, rather than against all ruling politicians, who at different stages of the six years since the explosive material was stored in one of the port warehouses, knew about the nitrate ammonium and the devastating impact it could cause if exploded.

The extreme hate demonstrated among the public on social media did disturb me, but not as much as watching journalists sharing, writing, broadcasting and posting images and words full of hate discourse, while declaring their support to those messages.

I was in Beirut working on a project for City, University of London, to identify guidelines or a tool that will help Lebanese and Arab journalists identify and avoid hate speech in their writings and reporting, following on the research and training I have done with journalists across the region.  In light of that, I had to question why so many Lebanese journalists are keen to push sectarian hate with little attention to its potential repercussions, including the possible reigniting of the Lebanese civil war (1975-1990) that took thousands of lives, left hundreds with disabilities and internally displaced hundreds of thousands of people.

During the workshops, before and after the explosion, the following came up when discussing the term hate speech with journalists in Lebanon: the unfamiliarity with the term (the Arabic translation of it), the lack of relative understanding to what hate speech is, what  it means and what consequences it entails.

Discussions of the meaning of hate speech as identified by several international organisations, including the Ethical Journalism Network – which has a five point test for journalists to use to identify hate speech – led to other questions. Is exposing a corrupt politician or civil servant in the absence of a fair and just judiciary system hate speech? Where do journalists draw the line? Should they ignore different international and European definitions of hate speech and define one specifically for Lebanon, where it focusses more on community cohesion and avoiding sectarian divisions? Should we try and add the need to avoid hate based on class, but not include political figures or government figures? Is there a link between advocacy journalism, adopted by many journalists in Lebanon, and hate speech in how it is widely defined? Should we make a clear distinction between the two in definitions related to countries that have a similar political context to Lebanon? These are all valid questions that we need to consider, while promoting media spaces free from hate throughout the globe.

Some of the journalists who took part in the discussions in Beirut hinted that they rarely get to think of checking for hate speech in what they produce or write due to their unfamiliarity with the term. Some have shared their frustration towards other colleagues who – while covering clashes between different communities within neighbouring areas – did not know the political history and nuances of these areas, hence reporting without responsibility and inciting hostility among communities.

Social responsibility came across as a major need for journalists in Lebanon to consider while reporting. To achieve that, journalists need to stay away from sensational reporting. Some TV journalists in Lebanon believe serving their political or sectarian sponsor or media organisation owners with their writing and news production is being responsible. Add to that the tendency for many journalists to be sensational and post extreme and hateful content on social media to enhance their celebrity profile and get more clicks and followers (clickbait syndrome).

How do we cut the umbilical cord between journalists and their political and sectarian leaders? How do we convince them that their loyalty as journalists should be to the public and not to the political and sectarian leaders. How do we remind them that being a journalist requires us to be sceptical, especially of our own political and sectarian affiliation? Being sceptical is crucial in the Lebanese context to detect hate speech. Politicians in Lebanon have been known for using sectarian fears of “the other” to ensure the continuity of their political influence and economic interests.

Fact checking is another must in the Lebanese context to detect and avoid hate speech. The amount of “Fake News”  seems to me to have been  unprecedented following the Beirut explosion. Here is a clear example of how fake news generates hate speech. Journalists might not be the source of hate speech, but ignorance of the historical context of Lebanese internal conflicts might incite hate and violence among neighbouring sectarian communities.

Journalists who took part in the discussions in Beirut kept referring to other journalists’ loyalty to their political and sectarian sponsor as the main obstacle. It is true, but as in any other nation prone to conflict settings, in the absence of representative and independent journalists’ unions in Lebanon, the obligation is on the journalists themselves to try and redeem some of the good journalism we demonstrated through tougher times. To achieve that solidarity among journalists is crucial.

The picture is not completely gloomy as there are still journalists in Lebanon who stick to good journalism and its role in seeking truth and holding those in power accountable. The Lebanese context is not unique, and journalists in similar political settings need to get some time aside to reflect on their profession and be clear on defining their role as journalists in society. Recent weeks in Beirut have shown us just how crucial this is in times of crises.

Main photo was taken by the author after the explosion. Credit Dr Zahera Harb

Author photo

Dr Zahera Harb is Director of the MA International Journalism program at City, University of London. She has published widely on Journalism and Politics in the Arab countries. Her recent publications include an edited collection titled Reporting the Middle East: The Practice of News in the 21st Century (IB Tauris 2017), She is co-editor of Middle East Journal of Culture and Communication and Associate editor of the internationally renowned academic journal Journalism PracticeZahera served as member to the UK broadcast regulator Ofcom content board. She is board member of the Ethical Journalism Network. She is member of Thomson Foundation consultancy board. She was a broadcast Journalist in her native country Lebanon where she worked for local and International news organisations.