Friday, May 31, 2013

Media fuel misperceptions about Lebanon

(Beirut, Lebanon)--When I told my friends, family, and colleagues that I was heading to Beirut, Lebanon, the reaction was shock and horror. How could I go to such an unstable, dangerous place?

I must admit to some pre-departure trepidation myself, given the reputation of Lebanon and Beirut in particular.

Now, after having spent about two weeks here, I am ashamed at my hesitation in coming here. Indeed it is ironic that I am here teaching peace media, including examining stale media stereotypes, while I myself had been fooled by western media’s hysteria about the Middle East.

The truth is that, far from being in jeopardy every second of my stay here, I have never once felt in danger. I have never been threatened or abused in any way, even by cab drivers. The Lebanese I have encountered have been uniformly warm and welcoming.

So, why do Americans think that only a reckless fool would visit Lebanon?

Media coverage of the situation in neighboring Syria is one factor contributing to Americans’ misperceptions about a violent Lebanon. Yes, Syria is very dangerous. However, many here would tell you that this coverage has been sensationalized and the threat to Lebanon itself exaggerated. For example, there was one small rocket attack (reportedly, retaliation for Hezbollah fighting in Syria) in suburban Beirut during my second week here. This attack, which injured four people and destroyed a couple of cars, was splashed prominently over CNN and BBC as though it were the second coming of civil war. It was violent, yes, but in context, minor. We could debate its significance, but the point is that it was just one very small incident.

For a dose of context, think of it this way: on the same day of the rocket attack, how many Americans were murdered in our cities? How much coverage did this violence get on CNN or BBC?

Beyond the Syrian coverage, a number of studies of western media reporting about the Middle East and Arab world demonstrate that coverage tends to be negative, often mischaracterizing the region and Islam as inherently inferior and violent. (Driss Ridouani , School of Arts and Humanities, Meknes, Spain). Since such coverage lacks context, westerners are often left with isolated images of angry, violent, anti-American mobs (Yasser Aman,

Also, like much of our international coverage, stories about the Middle East are disseminated primarily when there is a crisis. Thus, we hear about Lebanon or Jordan or Egypt only when a crisis occurs here, or when someone from the region commits a violent act. (The same crisis orientation can be seen in the oversimplified, superficial coverage of Africa—mostly war and famine.) What we don’t hear, or don’t hear as often or as loudly, are the success stories from this region, for example, about the miraculous rebirth of Lebanon following an awful 15 year civil war.

Part of the Lebanon’s perception problem in the west is actually a misperception problem, as some incorrectly believe Lebanon to be a Muslim-only country along the lines of Iran or Saudi Arabia. In fact, Lebanon has a sizable (40%) Christian minority, along with a mélange of different Muslim and Christian groups and sects representing everyone from the ultra-conservative to the secular. Add to this misperception frequently superficial and sometimes inaccurate coverage of Islam (Islam as monolithic, all Muslims as radicals, etc.), and it’s easy to see why our attitudes about countries like Lebanon are so overwhelmingly negative.

To be accurate, there are of course dangers in Lebanon, and parts of the country I choose not to visit for security reasons. There were riots last week in the northern city of Tripoli, so I’m not going there. There were also riots last week in Stockholm, Sweden. I’m also not going there. The difference is that when violence occurs in Lebanon, it feeds and confirms an established media narrative of Lebanon as a dangerous place. When violence happens in Sweden, we see it as a fluke, an aberration, since violence doesn’t fit into our pre-established narrative of life in idyllic Sweden.

Battling these misperceptions, of course, is one key principle of peace journalism, which seeks to highlight our commonalities and debunk stereotypes. For evidence of the need for peace journalism in the U.S., look no further than our media-fueled misperceptions about Lebanon.

--Follow me on Twitter @peacejourn--

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Press Conference highlights second Beirut PJ seminar

Our second peace journalism seminar here in Beirut was highlighted by a press conference featuring representatives from two opposing political parties.

These representatives, who customarily stoke partisan fires here, were treated to something different: a press corps trained in peace journalism that was seeking a story about common ground, rather than the same old mudslinging.

After a slow start, the students did an excellent job by ignoring the representatives when they said something that was obviously political propaganda or was contentious or overly partisan. Instead, the young journalists pressed the representatives to find and discuss areas of agreement like women’s rights and old age pensions. Afterwards, several students said that they were encouraged that the political partisans were indeed able to find common ground.

Overall, the seminar, sponsored by the Media Association for Peace and MasterPeace-Lebanon and Park University’s Center for Global Peace journalism, was a rousing success thanks to some vigilant and enthusiastic participants.

Unwanted reminders of Lebanon's civil war

Here in Beirut, it’s hard to escape reminders of Lebanon’s civil war (1975-90). This is because of several accidental monuments to the conflict scattered around Beirut.

These monuments are actually buildings that were gutted during the war, but remain standing.

Exhibit A is the old Holiday Inn, built in 1974 and destroyed a year later. It’s burned out, artillery-pockmarked shell still hulks over the city. It’s ironically situated on the seafront sandwiched between two beautiful, modern hotels—old and new Lebanon side by side. Looking left out of my hotel window, I see the Holiday Inn. Looking right, I see the five-star Phoenicia Hotel and a spectacular view of the Mediterranean Sea.

I sympathize with my one of my Lebanese friends who said she hates the Holiday Inn’s burned out shell and what it represents. If I were mayor of Beirut, the Holiday Inn and the few other wartime skeletons would be razed immediately because they have no place in modern, cosmopolitan Beirut.

My friend did have one good suggestion—leave one pockmarked building standing as a testament to the futility of war. Good idea. But, make the memorial building one that isn’t so prominent or as large as the old Holiday Inn.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

After refugee encounter, young reporters count blessings

Note: For audio story, including the voices of those discussed below, see:

(Beirut, Lebanon)—We’ve all walked past the poor or the homeless asking for money, usually not giving them a second thought. I was about to do the same thing yesterday until the young journalists I was accompanying on a reporting assignment stopped an engaged one such middle-aged man, whom I’ll call Hakim, in conversation.

Believe me, Hakim doesn’t have your usual down-on-his-luck story. But then again, the same can probably be said for the other 463,000 Syrian refugees (UNHCR) who have made their way here into neighboring Lebanon.

As we approached Hakim, the first thing we noticed was the odor. It’s hard to guess, but it’s been many days, perhaps weeks, since Hakim has bathed. He was sitting on the sidewalk, splayed, ironically, in front of a fancy jewelry store on Hamra Street, in the center of Beirut’s upscale shopping district.

As the well-heeled shoppers robotically wheeled around us, we stooped to speak to Hakim.

He explained three times that he had never been in this position before, that he “never had to beg” to survive. Hakim said he was going to get bread for his family in Syria when a massive explosion killed his entire family and left Hakim’s foot injured. To dispel any doubts about this, and to elicit sympathy, his foot was prominently displayed, jutting out into the middle of the sidewalk. I could see that the foot was injured, but didn’t want to look too closely.

Hakim said that he smuggled himself in to Lebanon almost two years ago, right after the explosion. He crossed the border with nothing but his ID. He has been looking for relatives who live in Lebanon, but hasn’t located them yet.

Even as a self-described beggar, Hakim said that life on the streets of Beirut is “safer than the streets of Syria. If they see me in the streets of Syria, they would run me over.” In fact, he said that in comparison, life in Lebanon “is almost like a hotel.” But one minute later, Hakim did an about face, commenting, “I have no help. The situation is very bad.”

Hakim is one of 88,000 Syrian refugees living in Beirut, according to the UNHCR. This makes sense, since Beirut is only 55 miles from Damascus, Syria’s capital. Syrian refugees come from all walks of life, as I learned during our visit to Hamra Street. In fact, we met a group of four very well dressed and presumably wealthy Syrian women who were window shopping, a Syrian retail clerk who charmed my female companions with his intelligence and good looks, and four Syrian construction workers laying concrete blocks.

Their stories all differ, but unlike Hakim, all were reluctant to call themselves refugees or admit that they have been in some way victimized. My Lebanese companions insisted that this refusal to admit victimization was Arab pride. I told them that I believe that no one anywhere likes to admit that that they are vulnerable.

Our discussion with Hakim and the others was part of an assignment in my peace journalism workshop to produce stories about Syrian refugees. As the participants wrote stories about the Syrians the day after their reporting forays into the city, we all shared a “count your blessings” moment. The Lebanese student reporters said that they now have a better and more sympathetic understanding of the refugees who have crowded into their tiny country. I hope that, through their journalism, these students can help spread this enhanced empathy to their Lebanese neighbors.

Steven Youngblood is director of the Center for Global Peace Journalism at Park University. He is in Lebanon in May directing peace journalism workshops for students and for professional journalists. His project is sponsored by the Center for Global Peace Journalism at Park University, MasterPeace-Lebanon, and the Media Association for Peace-Lebanon.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

In Lebanon, searching for peace and "the enemy"

(Beirut, Lebanon)--For most Americans, discussions about peace and war are, thankfully, abstract. Sadly, that’s not the case here in Lebanon, where talk of war, of “the enemy”, and of the prospects for peace is never far from the surface.
 As we discussed peace in a general way during the first day of my first peace journalism seminar here in Beirut, the attendees, all bright, energetic young people, began talking about the prospects of peace in a skeptical way. I asked them the question, “Do Lebanese want peace?” The response was one of the most poignant things I have ever heard. One student said, “We want peace, but we don’t know what peace is.” The other students applauded this response while I stood, mouth agape, not knowing what to say.

Later, as I sat in my hotel room, I thought that “not knowing what peace is” was not only poignant, but was one of the saddest comments I had ever heard as well.

We picked up this discussion the second day. The young lady who made the “not knowing what peace is” comment said that she, too, had been thinking about the discussion overnight. She said that what she really wanted to say was that Lebanese do want peace, but sometimes misunderstand the true meaning of peace.

The discussion at our advanced peace journalism seminar also taught me about the daily, routine use of the term “the enemy” by the Lebanese media to denote Israel. One attendee even noted that at her media outlet, it was mandatory to say “the enemy” instead of Israel. I asked the students about this term, and they all agreed that Israel is the enemy, and that the label was accurate. My response was that this term is inconsistent with peace journalism, since it is needlessly inflammatory and reflects bias and a lack of objectivity. The students’ retort: But what if this is the way I really feel? I replied that all journalists have feelings and individual biases, but the best reporters present news in a matter-of-fact way.

We also briefly talked about how some Lebanese media refuse to use the acronym IDF (Israeli Defense Forces). Why? Because IDF implies that this army is merely defending Israeli territory. Here in Lebanon, the IDF is seen an army of aggression and oppression. Again, I cautioned about making value judgments that reveal bias. I said that it’s better to call them what they choose to call themselves, and then systematically and factually reveal the IDF’s actions, letting the reader/listener/viewer decide if this is a defensive or offensive force.

As wonderful as the participants were, my first Lebanese peace journalism seminar left me with more questions than answers. If we can’t move beyond discussions about labels, how can we ever enter into a deeper and more constructive dialogue?

--Follow me on Twitter @PeaceJourn

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

In support of free press in Uganda

The Center for Global Peace Journalism strongly condemns the Ugandan government’s actions against the Daily Monitor newspaper, the Red Pepper newspaper, and two Kampala radio stations. Yesterday, according to a statement from the newspaper, about 50 armed men in police uniforms stormed the company's premises with a search warrant, blocked all exits and insisted they wanted to conduct a search. The statement said, “Instead of carrying out the search, the armed men disabled the printing press, computer servers and radio transmission equipment. The intention was to prevent the Monitor from operating broadcasting and printing its newspapers. ‘We are horrified by this act, which is a gross disregard of Ugandan Law and a violation of The Monitor's constitutional right,’ said Mr. Alex Asiimwe, The MPL Managing Director.

The foundation of a free society is a free press. If the Monitor’s rights are taken away, who is next? Certainly, actions like these put Uganda on a slippery slope that leads inexorably to oppression and dictatorship.

We call on the Museveni government to immediately allow the Monitor and its sister media outlets to re-open, and further that the Monitor be paid restitution for the losses it has incurred as a result of this incident.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Authoritarian regime? Not in Dictatorland

I knew I was in for an interesting lunchtime discussion when I heard the words, “I don’t believe in elections.”

This discussion was with several participants from a recent Fulbright Association-Kyrgyzstan seminar called Generation Peace: New Media Technologies for Central Asia. Attendees were from five central Asian countries.

When I questioned the woman about her stance on elections, she backpedaled. Perhaps she had misspoken, or maybe I just didn’t understand. She elaborated on her comment by explaining that elections are inherently flawed and often corrupt, and that the process needs to be changed—not that elections themselves must be scrapped.

Before I could breathe a sigh of relief, however, the anti-election mantle was picked up by two other fellow diners, one a young man and the other a young woman. These young people were both from a central Asian country renowned for its oppressive government. I will call this place Dictatorland.*

First, some background. International human rights NGO’s like Freedom House and Human Rights Watch have been extremely critical of this country for its authoritarian government and consistent suppression of human rights and free speech. “Dictatorland” is consistently ranked near the bottom of the various lists these organizations produce. These criticisms have been echoed by the UN Human Rights Committee.

Both of the young people from Dictatorland said that they support the government, and that “the people” support the government, too. I jumped on the term ”the people.” All the people? Some? How do we know—through the government controlled media?

There have been elections in Dictatorland, but not elections in any Western sense. There are different parties, some representing interests like labor or the environment, I was told, but that none of these parties oppose the current leadership or their major programs. Still, the young lady told me that that these elections did represent the will of the people. She said that the people like the government, and approved of its leaders.

I challenged the young Dictatorland residents by proposing that if the government truly is popular and loved, that they should have no fear of free elections featuring authentic opponents running on an anti-ruling party platform. After all, I pointed out that if Dictatorland held real, contested elections, and if the the ruling party still won, that this would confer legitimacy upon the regime and perhaps help remove its status as an international pariah. The young man responded by saying, “You have a point.”

I left lunch a bit stunned by what I had heard. Were these intelligent, articulate young people typical Dictatorland residents? If they are, then one can reasonably conclude that there is definitely some support for the country’s regime. However, I believe this support is nothing but a house of cards, since it is built upon government manipulation and propaganda.

As we finished up lunch, I asked the young man if I would be welcomed to his country to teach peace journalism. He said yes, of course I would be welcome in his country, although there would be no need for peace journalism there since Dictatorland is completely peaceful. I plan to test his invitation, and see if Dictatorland’s regime will really be as welcoming as he says.

*I won’t name the people involved or their country, just in case it could cause problems for these two at home. This is probably paranoid on my part, but I wouldn’t want to do anything that might cause them problems. A little paranoia is probably a good thing when dealing with dictatorships.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Religious labels, stereotypes challenge responsible journalists

(Issyk Kul, Kyrgyzstan)--How are religious labels used by leaders (and media) to divide populations and inflame passions? What role do stereotypes have in laying a foundation for hate speech?

These were two key questions discussed during the last day of “Generation Peace: New Media Technology for Central Asia,” a conference I’m teaching at this week at Issyk Kul lake in Kyrgyzstan. The conference is sponsored by the Fulbright Association of Kyrgyzstan, and includes participants from five central Asian countries.

The first presentation today about religion was adeptly taught by Gerd Junne from the Amsterdam Centre for Conflict Studies. Junne pointed out how religion is used to divide groups—the classic “us vs. them” outlined by the originators of peace journalism. Junne also recommended that journalists take a different approach, and instead look to highlight common, shared values—again, a fundamental peace journalism principle.

Although I’ve occasionally led discussions about peace journalism and religion, Junne’s presentation has encouraged me to expand my consideration of religion and media issues, especially religious jargon and propaganda from extremist leaders and groups. As peace journalists, we must be able to filter out inflammatory religious content, or at minimum, expose it as extremism. This discussion was especially salient for me as I ready to hop a plane for Lebanon, my next peace journalism teaching stop this May.

Another excellent session today at the conference featured a presentation by Kyrgyzstan Director of the School of Peacemaking Inga Sikorskay (pictured). She led the participants through an exercise where they catalogued popular stereotypes of central Asian peoples. (Tajiks are all terrorists, for example). The exercise was well executed, and engaged the participants in some valuable introspection.

After hearing Inga’s presentation, I plan to “borrow” her exercise for my classes. Avoiding spreading stereotypes, which are often divisive and inflammatory, begins with understanding and cataloging these stereotypes and their impacts.

--Follow me on Twitter @PeaceJourn.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Seeking peace, and peace journalism, in Kyrgyzstan

Active participants at Generation Peace conference

45 NGO leaders and journalists from across central Asia are gathering this week in Issyk Kul, Kyrgyzstan (see photo--wow!) to learn about new media and, at least today, peace journalism.

My two hour presentation this morning was exhilarating, at least for me, thanks to the high energy and keen interest of the participants. It was one of those seminars where, if I had stopped to answer every question, my two hour session would have taken six hours.

Beach, Issyk Kul lake. Stunning!

The interest was keen, I suspect, in part because of unrest here in Kyrgyzstan in 2010, and because many of the participants are alumni of the Fulbright program.

The most vibrant discussions we had today were about what constitutes a terrorist, and about a Russian media article that demonstrated inflammatory, biased media.

Our morning session culminated with the participants producing scripts for a peace-themed public service announcement. The best one—a simple series of peace advocacy statements by women in their native tongue .

I’m looking forward to presentations tomorrow about the use of new and social media.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Busy summer commences in Kyrgyzstan

Now that finals are almost over at Park University, things are really going to start to get busy.

Beginning the week of May 12, I'll be headed out to spread the peace journalism gospel. The first initiative will be workshop presentations at the Fulbright Association's conference titled, "Generation Peace-New Media Technologies for Central Asia." This seminar is being held at a beautiful lake resort in  Kyrgystan (central Asia). Then, it's off to Beirut to teach peace journalism courses for professionals and students in conjunction with MasterPeace Lebanon. The June itinerary includes a Peace Journalism Boot Camp in the Bronx, NY.

Of course, photos of and details about these seminars and courses will be posted in a timely fashion on this very blog. So, stay tuned. You can also follow me on Twitter: @PeaceJourn.