Where have Lebanese media violated journalism ethics in Nancy Ajram’s case?
Enab Baladi – Yamen al-Maghribi
In the first hours following an incident that occurred on the farm of the Lebanese singer Nancy Ajram, with conditions that are still unclear to date, Lebanon’s official National News Agency (NNA) named the refugee and mentioned his nationality and date of birth, accusing him of being a burglar who broke into the farm with the aim of theft.
On January 5, Lebanese media outlets focused, during the reporting of the incident’s details, on the nationality and name of the Syrian refugee. They describe him as a “burglar who was killed while trying to break into the farm,” in an incident that ended in his murder “out of self-defence,” amid many details that adopted the element of stirring, which contributed to the establishment of circulated stereotypes about Syrians in Lebanon.
However, the case was not resolved at the judiciary, and after discussions and unclear details, the Lebanese authorities charged Nancy Ajram’s husband, Fadi el Hachem, with murder on January 15.
Article 11 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “everyone charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to the law in a public trial at which he has had all the guarantees necessary for his defence.”
Where are journalism ethics?
Mentioning the victim’s nationality and focusing on it in the headlines is the first point that drew attention to the way Lebanese media have dealt with the case, and opened discussions about its violation of editorial policies and journalism ethics.
Lebanese journalist Muhannad al-Haj Ali explained that there are two problems with this news: first, the talk about an armed Syrian who entered the house masked and the focus on the nationality of the young man (Syrian), to help attract sympathy for the artist and her husband. The second problem is that the media did not reveal another version of the events of the case.
Muhannad al-Haj Ali pointed out in an interview with Enab Baladi to the news circulated later, which revealed that the victim was not an outsider and a stranger. In other words, he was working at that house, he was armed only with a plastic pistol and that there had been a previous financial dispute, which may explain the unusual number of bullets in his body.
Lebanese media published the report of the dead body issued by the coroner, Malik Hilal, on January 10, and confirmed the existence of 17 bullets in separate areas of the dead body.
Lebanese journalist Diana Makled considered in an interview with Enab Baladi that the number of bullets in itself is sufficient to raise questions that need fair scrutiny and investigation. Makled described the way the media deal with the incident as “resentful,” especially with the bias of the media and public figures alongside Nancy Ajram before the disclosure of any facts.
The media cannot mention the nationality, color, sect, or race of the victim or the perpetrator, except within defined frameworks and precise regulations that have their specific reasons, as this type of case is sensitive and can easily be used for incitement.
Diana Makled indicated that, in contrast, the case witnessed a human rights movement by lawyers, journalists, and independent parties that managed to push forward to achieve justice in this case.
Poisoned speech summarizing the Syrian reality in Lebanon
The controversy over the way the Lebanese media have dealt with the case did not stop at mentioning the nationality of the dead man. It reached the level of defending Nancy Ajram and her husband by media outlets that attended a press conference to which Nancy invited journalists at her house to present her viewpoint on the case.
Dozens of press materials were produced through the most prominent Lebanese TV stations and their websites, accusing the victim of theft without any judicial verdict confirming the charge, and the singer then re-shared them via her Twitter account.
Diana Makled stated that the crime came to give a new space to the same method of broadcasting a “poisoned and generalized” speech, especially as no one knows precisely what happened. At the same time, Muhannad al-Haj Ali considered that the incident is an individual. Still, it summarizes the Syrian reality in Lebanon and the results of the systematic political campaign against refugees.
Muhannad al-Haj Ali said that the Syrian refugees are subject to a political campaign based on holding them responsible for all the country’s economic, social and security crises. Nancy is a Lebanese art icon, and this fact further complicates matters.
Syrian journalist Samer Qatrib considered that the refugee, in this case, was a victim twice, once for his weakness and once for being a refugee. Also, some Lebanese media outlets took advantage of the crime in Nancy’s house to cover up the popular demonstrations in Lebanon and found a topic that filled broadcast hours instead of reporting the protests, especially TV channels and websites of the authorized parties.
On the other hand, Syrian journalist Nabil Mohamed shed light on a different point regarding the Syrian media that dealt with the incident, which turned it into a political and racial course. At the same time, this is a purely criminal case that needs lawyers and judicial committees.
Nabil Mohamed added to Enab Baladi that it is good to magnify the case in the media and draw the attention of judicial committees and lawyers to get them involved in the case in order not to deprive the victim of defence. However, this must not turn into incitement to create a “Syrian oppression” because the Syrian refugees are already oppressed.
In 1948, the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 19 of the declaration states that “everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) is a United Nations convention. It is the first international treaty to deal directly with the issue of “hate speech,” considering that “all dissemination of ideas based on racial superiority or hatred, incitement to racial discrimination, as well as all acts of violence or incitement to such acts against any race or group of persons of another color or ethnic origin, (…) is an offence punishable by law.”
As for the “International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights,” adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1966, it calls for the necessity of stripping media messages of tools of hate, as its 19th Article it stipulates “respecting the rights of others and respecting their reputation. Article 20 states on the” Prohibition of advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence.”
Why do the Lebanese media focus on the Syrians?
In the previous years, the emphasis of the Lebanese media has been directed to Syrian refugees. The Lebanese press were chasing the refugees’ errors and problems and holding them responsible for Lebanon’s economic and political issues and even poor services, as well as making fun of them in TV programs and comedies.
Some of this sarcasm came from Lebanese artists who previously worked in the Syrian series, which make their followers interested in the conditions of Syrian refugees to the question: Why is all this focus on them?
In this regard, Diana Makled, says: “For years, it has become apparent in media that there have been major political parties in Lebanon that are trying to initiate hostile rhetoric towards the Syrian refugees, and this is reflected in many media performance and press statements.
Makled believes that “the focus of political parties, such as the Free Patriotic Movement, on the issue of refugees, and the attempt to deceive Lebanese public opinion that Lebanon’s problems or most of them are due to the Syrian asylum, is an opportunistic speech that has become blatant and wavy.”
According to the journalist, the irony is that the Lebanese uprising (which started on October 17, 2019) demonstrated that this speech was wasted “especially when we find that a figure like Minister Gibran Bassil, who issued the hate speech, is the most hated figure by Lebanese public opinion, and this is not a minor matter.”
She stressed that “it has become obvious who is behind this speech, and I mean honestly the Aounist movement, Hezbollah and its allies, in a malicious implicit way.”
However, she pointed to “a youth rights awareness movement that has become more present, active and serious.”
According to Muhannad al-Haj Ali, the Syrians are the easiest political target, due to the absence of any defender among them on the local and regional scene as well. Al-Haj Ali noted that when crises and structural problems are referred to a party such as the Syrian refugees, this exempts politicians from responsibility for the situation in Lebanon.
Nabil Mohamed said that Lebanon’s political, economic, and social circumstances make this situation worse. “We are talking about a country that is politically destroyed, poor, indebted, and governed by corrupt political classes, and therefore citizens consider any new consumer beside him as an unwelcomed monster.”
Meanwhile, Samer Qatrib sees that the focus on Syrian refugees is “part of the campaign led by extreme-right political parties in Lebanon,” and its goal is to get rid of the Syrian refugees and deport them so that their experience with the Palestinian refugees will not be reproduced.
The number of Syrian refugees in Lebanon is about 945,000, according to UNHCR estimates, and Lebanon is the largest refugee-hosting country compared to its population.
Refugees in Lebanon are suffering from severe living conditions, and Amnesty International accused the Lebanese authorities of intentionally pressuring the Syrians to return to their country, after the spread of racist campaigns, restrictive policies, imposing curfews and the ongoing raid on the camps.
The Lebanese General Security announced in March 2019 the return of 172,000 refugees to Syria since December 2017. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has documented the arrival of 14,500 refugees from Lebanon to Syria during 2018 while warning of a lack of safe conditions for their return.
The United Nations Human Rights Council has set the legal sanction if it is proven to use “hate speech” at three levels depending on the type of expression, the first is what requires criminal prosecution, and the second is what requires follow-up through civil cases. The last is an expression that does not require legal proceedings, but it is placed as an issue of concern.
However, such an overly broad international standard required domestic laws to regulate hate speech, which is often employed by state policy and the regime.
On the other hand, the American Convention on Human Rights states that “advocating hatred for national, racial or religious reasons is a criminal crime” and binds the law to this.
The European Convention on Human Rights and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights do not require the law to prohibit the hatred speech.
Legal penalties are also linked to the type of discourse directed through the media (defamation, incitement, racial discrimination), which further complicates laws related to combating hate speech and increases gaps that reduce its effectiveness.
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