Dr. Pradeep Mahapatra
The Lebanon example demonstrated that in the event of a disruption in the traditional models of mainstream journalism, digital technology is capable of filling up the gap. People not only like alternative platforms but increasingly engage themselves in meaningful ways
Lebanon, rich with historical background is an Arab nation surrounded by Syria, Israel, Cyprus and Mediterranean Sea in West Asia. Its population size is limited to 52 lakhs. It is a disturbed region in the recent past. After being liberated from the Ottoman Empire in the post-first world war and French colonialism in the post-second world war period, the country plunged into civil war between 1975 and 1990. The military invasion was carried out by the Syrian army from 1976 to 2005 and the Israeli army from 1985 to 2000. By the beginning of the third decade of the twenty-first century, Lebanon was confronted with financial bankruptcy and administrative corruption. Lebanese people faced the pangs of inflation, scarcity of essential commodities, unemployment and poverty.
Despite its small geographic location and population, Lebanon is the cultural epicenter of the Middle East. Armed with a rich heritage of print, radio and television, it also led in online publication in the Arab world. Three Lebanese print newspapers started digital editions in 1996 and by 2000 over 200 news websites were in operation. Internet consumers in the country crossed 84 percent of the total population in 2022.
The only English print newspaper The Daily Star was closed in 2020 after an economic collapse following the explosion of a bomb in the Beirut harbor. Private radio and television broadcasting is permitted by the government. In comparison to neighboring Arab nations, the freedom of expression index is better in Lebanon. But as ownership of media platforms are controlled by politicians and political parties, journalism loses its independence. Though platforms like Aljazeera, Al Arabiya, CNN, and BBC are popular, the general public prefer local media outlets.
The Spread of the internet and digital technology during the last decade of the twentieth century resulted in the disruption of business models in the traditional media industry worldwide. The situation compelled many to solicit investments or sponsorships from politicians and industrial houses. In the process legacy print, radio and television channels changed ownership to politicians in most of the places. It resulted in the rise of partisan or polarized media landscapes. In a time when people become suffocated by a politically motivated news environment, a new chapter was unleashed with the spread of independent journalism in the digital mode in Beirut.
Production of news in print, radio and television platforms is expensive. Similarly the readers, listeners and viewers have to pay the cost of news products for consumption. News publishers choose to neglect investments for better journalism burdened with expenses incurred in routine news production. On the other hand, advanced technology used in digital platforms for news circulation and reception is cheaper where the publisher gets a better opportunity to invest money for qualitative journalism. The growing trend of influx of politicians and industrialists into ownership of media platforms gave rise to independent digital news platforms in different geographies.
Penetration of the internet in Lebanon during the civil war, invasion of a foreign army, economic disturbance and social unrest could build up an alternative media ecosystem by connecting wide spectrum of news consumers online. The Lebanon example demonstrated that in the event of a disruption in the traditional models in mainstream journalism, digital technology is capable of filling up the gap. People not only like alternative platforms but increasingly engage themselves in meaningful ways.
The popularity of Daraj, a digital news website specializing in investigative journalism, could attract the attention of media analysts in the international level. Three working journalists of Beirut co-founded Daraj in 2017. In Arabic language ‘daraj’ means ‘steps’. One co-founder explained that citizens in Lebanon are compelled to live in a media dark environment with the spread of fake news. Daraj leads the way to light for the news consumers step by step.
Daraj predominantly publishes reporting on corruption along with women, human rights and climate change. The subjects, those are not entertained by the mainstream media, the news platform ventures to bring into the attention of the people. Within six years of its launch, the number of journalists working for the website could increase from three to twenty. Every day a minimum of eight new stories are published. It includes both text and video. Occasionally important content published elsewhere are also republished.
Taking advantage of the traditional recognition of Lebanon as a mass media centre of the middle-east Daraj gradually emerged as a representative platform for the Arab nations. The availability of English translations of the original Arab content in the website helped to spread influence worldwide. Above 221 journalists stationed in Palestine, Iran, Sudan and Morocco are accredited with the digital platform. About 20 to 25 journalists write in pseudonyms. It entertains long-form reporting. The government of Egypt blocked Daraj for an objectionable report in November 2022. The author of the news story was imprisoned for two years.
With the objective to protect the independence of journalism Daraj chooses alternative ways to gather finance. Instead of wealthy politicians and industrial houses, it solicits finance from international funding agencies. International Media Support, Open Society, European Endowment for Democracy and Google News initiative fund Daraj. While about 80 percent of the budget is met by external funding, the rest 20 percent is derived from income through the execution of media products such as print, video, content creation and training sources. As the economic condition of Lebanon continues to be in bad shape, subscription revenue generation has not been prioritised.
Daraj has created an audience in Iraq, Jordan and United States of America. It claimed that 25 lakh readers-listener-viewers were present in the digital news platform during 2022. Efforts are being initiated to reach common people through social media. Tailored content is created by the platform to reach the younger audience.
Plurality is the core value of journalism. Fake news, rumour, exaggeration, agenda-driven and partisan journalism contribute towards polarization that results in social unrest. In some cases, partisan reporting may intend for the welfare of society to fight for a cause but slips away from journalistic ethics. In tune with the practice of democracy, journalism should entertain diverse views. Quality journalism presents different perspectives before the audience. Publication of opinion is essential, but it should be visibly segregated from news and entertain the opinion of all parties concerned on an issue. Technological advancement has created the opportunity to present comments by all interested readers on the development in digital news platforms. Daraj journalism is expected to encourage talents all over the world to practice independent journalism by setting itself as an example.
(English translation of the original Odia newsletter by the author circulated on May 26, 2023. https://tinyletter.com/pradeepmahapatra/letters/message-303
It is an open-access content, free for translation and reproduction)
Dr. Pradeep Mahapatra is a retired faculty of Journalism, Berhampur University, Odisha.https://about.me/pradeepmahapatraReference :
Oliver, Laura. How news site Daraj reports on women’s rights and corruption across the Middle East. Reuters Institute. 23 May 2023.