Reports over the last few days have shown that Lebanese journalism lacks firm ethical foundations. Currently formal ethical guidelines and boundaries barely exist for most Lebanese journalists.
One reporter recently announced the death of four Lebanese hostages in Syria live on television. When questioned about the validity of the information, the reporter said that she had spoken directly to the kidnapper’s spokesperson. But the spokesperson had potentially been wrong – the hostages might still be alive, and the possibly erroneous report of their deaths led to panic and rioting.
A second reporter took part in the interrogation of a group of hostages on behalf of a group of kidnappers live on air. The TV coverage enraged viewers.
More than 20 people were kidnapped last week by members of the Al Mokdad clan from the Bekaa valley, not far from the Lebanese Syrian border. The kidnaps were carried out in retaliation for the abduction of a member of the Al Mokdad clan by the Free Syrain army in Damascus a few days earlier.
The Al Mokdad clan also verified that it had kidnapped a Turkish national soon after he had arrived at Beirut airport. A reporter went through the visa stamps in the hostage’s passports live on television.
This is irresponsible journalism at its most blatant.
Lebanon has always been seen as an oasis of free press in the Arab region, not terribly different from counterparts in Europe and across the Mediterranean.
The Lebanese media landscape is broad and diverse, but has long been characterised by an unhealthily close relationship between the press and politicians. Since the Lebanese state came into being in 1920, the media has gone through different phases and engendered a number of different models. With the civil war (1975-1990) came an influx of illegal TV and radio stations that were later regulated in post-civil war Lebanon.
What has emerged on television over the last few days have been reports by individual journalists, who, under pressure to get a scoop or an exclusive, have caused serious damage to their subjects and raised questions about whether the Lebanese press needs proper regulation.
Reports such as those above, show that journalists have often lacked sensitivity to the fact that their work can cause genuine harm to their subjects.
In a country, where the media is owned and controlled by politicians and political parties, and affiliated to religious sects, it has long been up to journalists themselves to maintain professional standards and to act in a socially responsible manner.
These recent reports have proven that Lebanese journalism often lacks sufficient ethical foundation and that formal guidance on press standards and boundaries barely exist.
The recent actions of some journalists highlight the urgent need for a public inquiry into media ethics.
Free and unregulated media is an admirable idea, but if a lack of regulation ends up harming innocent people, or even potentially inciting a new civil war, then it is far too high a price to pay.
Dr Zahera Harb is a Senior Lecturer in International Journalism at City University