The Media in Municipal Elections: Manipulator or Scapegoat?

The latest municipal elections in Lebanon left much room for debate. Seizing this opportunity, Maharat Foundation, in coordination with the UNDP “Peace Building in Lebanon” project funded by KFW, sought to initiate a discussion on the role of the media in covering municipal elections within the context of the “Journalist’s Pact for Strengthening Civil Peace” – the crux of the UNDP-Maharat partnership.  

Journalists, experts, political analysts, and candidates for the latest municipal elections of Lebanon, as well as representatives from UNDP and Maharat, met on the 19th of July 2016 for a discussion facilitated by MTV news editor-in-chief, Mr. Walid Abboud.

Executive Director of Maharat Foundation, Mrs. Roula Mikhael, emphasized the importance of this discussion especially in light of the political situation in Lebanon that often limits the media space for voter education, democratic awareness, and local development.  Mr. Luca Renda, UNDP Country Director, reminded the audience that this discussion falls under the framework of the “Journalist’s Pact for Strengthening Civil Peace”. This Pact was launched by UNDP in 2013, in partnership with the Ministry of Information. The “Peace Building in Lebanon” project, in collaboration with Maharat Foundation, has been monitoring its implementation by the 34 national media outlets that signed it since 2015 and has published till date 5 media monitoring studies.

The debate took off when Maharat presented the preliminary results of the study that analyzed the media’s coverage of the elections prior to and during election month.

During the months leading up to the elections (February-April), coverage in the media focused on whether the elections will take place. Thus, media space allocated for candidates and for voters’ education remained very limited. During election month, however, the majority of media coverage (72%) consisted of local news on candidates, alliances, and competitors.

During the discussion, divergent personal and professional views appeared. Perhaps the media’s violations occupied most of the discussion. Experts such as Dr. Ali Rammal cited media bias, absence of media silence, politicization of the municipal elections, and manipulation of opinion.

In addition, the emergence of new actors and the media’s response to the new dynamics was deliberated. Ibrahim Mneimneh spoke of Beirut Madinati’s fluctuating relationship with the media and the need to resort to social media for an extra “push”. While candidates on behalf of political parties complained of being vilified in the media and portrayed as “against civil society” as Mr. Abed Salam Moussa argued.

Journalists, in response, defended their profession, which they felt was being wrongfully depicted. For Denise Rahme Fakhri from MTV, “journalists are always in search for the scoop and often resort to sensationalizing certain local events to avoid being boring”. Mr. Charbel Abboud from Future TV contended, “The Lebanese cannot expect BBC or CNN coverage in the Lebanese media. We are Lebanese media that resembles the Lebanese society.” As for Manar Sabbagh from Al Manar, she believed that civil society was equally represented in the media and believed that the role of social media was being exaggerated. Media representatives had one united message: “don’t misjudge the media”.

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