Between digital threats and media capture | #mediadev | DW | 26.05.2021
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media safety

Between digital threats and media capture

Once known as a regional media hub with space for freedom of expression, the Lebanese media landscape has been polarized, say Roula Mikhael and Mohamad Najem in this interview

Fact checking in a polarized media landscape: Maharat Foundation's Fact-O-Meter

Fact checking in a polarized media landscape: Maharat Foundation's Fact-O-Meter

In recent years, Lebanon has suffered a deep political and economic crisis, affecting the overall stability of this multi-cultural and multi-religious country. The explosion in Beirut harbor in August 2020 and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic have accelerated these developments, leading to inflation, loss of income, and increasing frustration with the political elite among wide parts of the population. Once known as a regional media hub with a cultural openness and space for freedom of expression, the Lebanese media landscape has been polarized, with populist narratives and media institutions serving as mouthpieces for political propaganda. Since media outlets rely rather on investors as a source of revenue than on readership, there has been little incentive for those media outlets to produce independent journalism.

The digital sphere, which since the Arab Spring had developed as a space for free expression, particularly for women and other groups that are often not heard in public dialogue, has become a place of increased surveillance and attacks. In this interview, Roula Mikhael, Executive Director of Maharat Foundation, and Mohamad Najem, Executive Director of SMEX, share their experiences with the direct effects of the current crisis on the media, especially on digital security and viability. In this interview, Roula Mikhael, Executive Director of Maharat Foundation, and Mohamad Najem, Executive Director of SMEX, share their experiences with the direct effects of the current crisis on the media, especially on digital security and viability.

DW Akademie: 2020 was one of the most challenging years in Lebanon’s history—how has this affected your work?

Mohamad Najem: We have seen the economy collapse, with the currency devaluing six-fold. This means that people are not able to afford what they used to afford, as most of the things we consume in Lebanon are imported from outside the country. The salaries of those working in the local economy have decreased: a schoolteacher’s salary, for example, has fallen from 2,000 USD to 300 USD. On top of the economic collapse and the pandemic came the explosion in Beirut harbor on August 4th, which was one of the biggest shocks I have personally had.

COVID-19 has also had a huge effect. At SMEX we decided that we needed to continue our work—whether from the office or from home. We are a small, hybrid team but all these challenges have made our work slower. However, we did manage to host our annual Bread and Net Conference on digital rights in the Arab region at the end of 2020 with more than 800 participants—more than ever before. There was great interest in our sessions on threats towards journalists, COVID-19 apps, the threat to privacy, and the effects of Internet shutdowns. Overall, there has been more demand for our work as COVID19 has pushed us all more towards digital spaces. Access to digital tools has been growing, and there has been an increased demand for apps to collect data. At SMEX, we track these apps and publish our analysis.

Roula Mikhael: 2020 was definitely one of the most difficult years due to the many challenges at the economic, monetary and political levels, on top of the Beirut blast and the spread of COVID-19. However, for us this also meant that there was more work to do. Our role as a watchdog organization, monitoring freedom of expression violations, challenges facing journalists, and lack of transparency and access to information, steadily increased. The fact-checking work on our news website also snowballed with the amount of misinformation spread along with a growing lack of trust and transparency. All this amid challenges related to our staff and management adapting to remote work to cope with the situation in an environment where our wellbeing is at stake.

At the regional level, there were challenges related to governments linking public health security to national security which resulted in shrinking civic spaces. Journalists and activists faced more pressure including online pressure from the public authorities.

Has the current economic situation in Lebanon, the aftermath of the explosion and the pandemic had an impact on the media in general?

Mohamad Najem: Definitely. The media is very polarized, some media outlets have been trying to expose the corruption, neglect and mismanagement that led to the explosion. There has been some good investigative journalism that successfully uncovered the truth, but these journalists have all received threats or have been mocked online. In the end, authorities and politicians have not been held accountable. The threat to journalists covering the protests on the streets has increased. We have seen a lot of legal threats. Journalists have been taken to court as a result of reporting on the protests, some have received online threats from politicians, and there are journalists who have been physically attacked. The problem is not only the media but also the judiciary system, as so many judges are ruling along political lines. Moreover, people in Lebanon don’t trust anything or anyone anymore.

Compared to other countries in the region, Lebanon has enjoyed some freedom in the past, but with COVID-19 on top of a tense political and economic situation, we really feel that the civic space is under threat from different enemies—political parties, the militia, external parties, and other Arab states. On the other hand, the crisis has had some positive effects as well…

Roula Mikhael: … yes, the current crisis has also been an opportunity for independent alternative media platforms to be more visible and to increase their audiences. New spaces emerged especially on platforms aimed at the young, such as Instagram, presenting alternative content in new formats that was able to bring more interaction and engagement. There was an eminent need on the part of the public, specifically young people, for critical voices calling for accountability as well as for fact-based journalism. However, independent media outlets were facing other challenges of viability, especially as the freedom of expression ecosystem was regressing in Lebanon. Maharat documented freedom of expression violations from the beginning of the protests in its annual report published at the end of 2020. The report documented violations in five areas: freedom of expression, freedom to protest, impunity, access to information and investigative journalism.

How has the quality of independent journalism been affected?

Mohamad Najem: When media and journalists are being treated as protestors and are beaten by security forces, it affects the role of the journalist in the specific incident. They become victims and may report on the event from the angle of a victim. At the same time, it highlights the fact that security forces are not treating protestors within the legal frame-work. We also see many journalists who self-censor because they don’t want to have problems with the authorities.

Moreover, in Lebanon it’s not the audience that pays for the media, it’s often foreign sponsors with a political interest in our country. They use big media houses to spread their propaganda. Journalists are already paid low salaries, and this can be cut by the media ’sponsor’ if they don’t like what they are covering, which in turn can affect the quality of the content as well as the livelihood of any journalist. If a TV portal which is sponsored by foreign money is doing a report on human rights in the country of the sponsor, the journalists will not get their paycheck. Advertising budgets are also used to influence the editorial agenda.

Now with the financial crisis, the ability of the Lebanese people to pay for content is decreasing and for many not an option anymore. This means that the quality of the media has decreased as it is totally dependent on external funds and not on internal demand.

How does this affect the credibility of news media? Do people trust the news they consume?

Mohamad Najem: False news is easily spread in Lebanon. If you are consuming the news that is supporting your political narrative, people will believe it. This is a global issue and a big challenge. But I see a lot of demand for quality news. Many media outlets are losing more and more of their audiences due to the lack of trust. So, it’s the right time to invest more in quality journalism—to expose corruption, to expose mismanagement and to cover the situation better.

In Lebanon, people are getting their news via WhatsApp, but it’s mainly fake news and it’s mostly politicized. This is especially true for people who live outside the capital, where there is less organic consumption of media and less critical discussion of facts and information. There is a huge need to find solutions for this and to have more local media support this.

Roula Mikhael: People in Lebanon generally don’t trust public sources. Maharat is now leading an initiative to fact-check rumors on COVID-19 that circulate via WhatsApp, where we are monitoring messages and open groups, and then recirculating the fact-checked news through the same channel of communication. There is definitely a need for increased fact-based media initiatives that would increase citizens’ trust in media.

The independence of journalism is an important aspect of media viability. Do you see a direct connection between safety and security issues, particularly during crises, and the viability of media outlets?

Roula Mikhael: Digital security is an important viability aspect, especially in hostile environments. However, a holistic approach should be adopted. Journalists and media organizations cannot solely focus on digital security, they also need to consider physical safety based on the threats they could face while doing their journalistic work on the ground.

At Maharat, we now consider safety to be one of the main pillars of our information and viability strategy. When Maharat started its news website, we didn’t think about security issues that might affect us. This included checking where the server was located or if the host had another server to mirror our data, so that if we lose the server at least our data is not lost—something which happened to us once when the host company of our website was hacked.

When you start a media project you often neglect to think about these points. Now, based on the knowledge that we’ve gained, we know that we cannot start a project without considering digital safety and other security issues. Even small details like drafting a contract with the hosting company need expertise to ensure that all essential aspects are covered. Having a well-functioning and secure website is a big part of media viability. Another viability aspect is finding ways to secure the work of your team and to find secure communication channels with your partners. This needs people with specific skills as well as a separate budget. Up to now, we have hired an external company to take care of our IT and digital safety, but this isn’t viable. What we really need is someone in the team who takes care of this.

Will the demand for digital security increase in the near future? And if yes, how?

Roula Mikhael: Online threats aimed at journalists and activists who are using social media platforms to criticize public figures are increasing in Lebanon, particularly online harassment of women journalists. This is definitely hindering them from expressing their views and is putting pressure on them not to follow up on issues of accountability. Thus, there is a need for journalists and activists to be equipped with tools and techniques to deal with such forms of online threats, and to be better protected. It is noticeable that online harassment of journalists increases in times of crisis, especially in countries that witness repression or chaos in the political scene.

Mohamad Najem: In Lebanon, we feel that the civic space is generally under threat from different enemies—political parties, the militia, and external groups. Digital issues are definitely increasing with more people receiving digital threats, not just in Lebanon but in the entire Arab region. SMEX monitors online threats and runs a hotline and a help desk for those affected. We have been receiving more requests for the helpdesk since the start of the pandemic. At the same time, we see that the threats are becoming more complex.

One of the concerns we hear from our community is the size and the power of the big tech companies and how they decide what content is removed. They are becoming stronger and bigger than nation states. We are also concerned about new laws being adopted in Europe or in other regions which send the wrong message to political leaders in the Arab world, who will use them as examples to restrict freedom of expression. In Iraq and Sudan, for example, Internet shutdowns are a concern. In Egypt, women are being arrested because of their TikTok videos and people are being imprisoned for their political views. Threats against women online is a huge concern as well as how Twitter is manipulated to threaten journalists.

We are addressing this by doing more research, by talking about it and addressing it with the big tech companies. It is very important to continue pushing back by understanding what is going on, talking about it, holding big tech companies accountable and by creating coalitions with other groups in the MENA region.

Roula Mikhael is a journalist and the Executive Director of Maharat Foundation, a media development organization working in Lebanon and the MENA region. Previously, she worked for An-Nahar newspaper. Roula has more than 20 years of experience and editorial positions on media development, activism and civil society engagement. With her commitment to the defense of human rights focusing on freedom of expression, women’s rights, and peace building initiatives in the MENA region, she led Maharat and voiced freedom of expression challenges at both local and international levels. Under her leadership, Maharat launched the news website Maharat-News, serving as a model of non-partisan journalism.


Mohamad Najem is the Executive Director of the Beirut-based digital rights organization SMEX, the Middle East and North Africa’s leading organization for digital rights research and policy advocacy in this field. His work includes local and regional advocacy campaigns, research on privacy, data protection, and freedom of expression. He organized “Bread & Net”, the first conference in the MENA region that tackled topics related to technology and human rights. Mohamad works as a trainer, speaker, and consultant for diverse NGOs and civil society groups in the Arab region.

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