The Region Is Changing and So Are the Media
“The need for coverage in crisis situations, for example during bombings, turns regular citizens into reporters.”
Connection Point Manager Yasmina Mrabet interviewed Lebanese journalist Basma Badran about her experiences working in the media. Her responses are below.
What inspired you to begin working in the media, and what has been your experience as a woman working in this field?
I actually never thought I’d end up working in the media. Originally, I began as an editor at a news agency – an opportunity I received based on my language background and interest in politics and history, notably of the Middle East. After two years there was an opening in the media department for Greenpeace, and I was lucky enough to be picked as communications officer in the Lebanon outpost. I had been volunteering for Greenpeace in Lebanon since 1999 and took part in practically every activity the office organized. However, the media relations, brand management, campaign planning were challenging, and I discovered a new passion. I actually had to learn everything from scratch, since it was not only media relations and exposure, but overall communications.
As for being a woman in this field, I didn’t feel discrimination, quite the contrary. This was despite the fact that I worked for Greenpeace on thorny issues such as toxic pollution from, among others, industries and hospitals – which had political backing, which required political campaigning. I believe being a woman made it easier to tackle tricky issues and campaigns. Especially since in Lebanon, prejudice against women is lower in the public sphere than other Arab countries, and we have been known for great female names in journalism, literature, and arts. Later on, as our work expanded to the Arab world, it took a change of approach to dealing with Arab media in the Gulf or Egypt, for example.
Why might it be easier for women in the media to tackle difficult subjects?
In relatively moderate societies, there’s always a softening impact to having a female presence, particularly in discussions on “harsh” subjects, such as politics or economics, and certainly war. On our Arabic TV networks, political talk shows have been turning to fist fights lately in the light of the explosive situation(s) in the region. However, this is exclusive to shows hosted and attended by men, as witnessed so far. I have witnessed it myself in different dialogues with journalists and media, where the same conversation took completely different turns depending on who’s addressing them: me or my male colleague. I have also seen it happen during awareness lectures, especially when related to critical elements or audiences.
Mind you, this might have a downside for women: not being taken seriously. But in the circumstances I worked in (e.g. for Greenpeace), a world- respected environmental NGO, during post-war assessment, which is an extremely traumatizing time, I believe there was genuine interest. Having a woman give harsh environmental-political facts, in very carefully chosen words, allowed the organization to tread a tricky path and accomplish work, cooperating with everyone on the scene, and earn more respect for accurate, straightforward, and unbiased efforts.
News around the world is translated into many different languages to reach international audiences. What insights can you give on the role of translation in the media? Particularly when reporting on events taking place in the Arab region?
Translation plays a major role in the news world. Many of the colleagues I currently work with are translation and interpretation graduates. Some are bilingual and bicultural and work on a piece of news beyond its translation. In fact, translation is not enough on its own. Transferring news from one corner of the world to another requires cultural sensitivity and background on both ends of the job. It requires constant research and lots of curiosity, within an overall umbrella of common sense. And one must beware of translating news reports written, for example, to a Western audience, while intending to publish them in the MENA region. In this instance, the texts need to be rewritten for the appropriate crowd.
What are the challenges and opportunities, as you have experienced them, for reporters working in the media during times of crisis?
Working in Lebanon during several extreme events the country witnessed, I have seen plenty of opportunities unravel for many friends and colleagues. The need for coverage in crisis situations, for example during bombings, turns regular citizens into reporters. It also forces them to seek new communication means, such as new media and mobile telecoms, ranging from tweets to satellite phone connections in the worst case. It’s actually the challenges of a crisis situation that create the search for new ways to overcome them, and that has led in Lebanon’s case to a boom in the new media public.
However, Lebanon is a more relaxed atmosphere for media work, as it enjoyed a relatively more liberal, almost chaotic, atmosphere in reporting. A major problem is accessing financing. Media work has costs; transportation becomes way more expensive, if it’s accessible at all. Providing basic needs such as food, water, fuel, etc. becomes tough, sometimes impossible. That allowed many local and international NGOs to contribute in providing logistical knowledge on the ground, in money transfers, telecoms solutions, food rationing, etc. that was taken on by local activists and was used in the next crisis. (Crises are unfortunately frequent in our region.)
The telecoms challenges were the main obstacle to covering news during violent events and oppression. The first breakthrough showed up in Egypt, during the al Mahalla al Kubra popular protests against the cost of living that were viciously repressed by the Mubarak regime in April 2008. This is when the Egyptian blogosphere emerged as a blooming power player. The activists organized ranks and protests, shared reports of arrests that the government was denying, and basically changed the media structure forever. It was the first major event that the authorities couldn’t suppress due to their lost grip on media, and that was a prelude to the boiling Egyptian youth yearning for change, and having the knowledge, education, technology, and righteousness to drive it.
This is how challenges and opportunities are intricately linked.
This model was repeated in the post-elections protests in Iran in 2009-2010 and was reproduced later on throughout the Arab revolutions.
Do you see a shift in the way reporting is handled with the advent of social media and other new media outlets?
Definitely. Reporting through blogging, tweeting, YouTubing, Flickering, etc. is based on short messaging aiming to get the information out, based on factual statements most of the time. The activists’ objective is to show the world what’s happening to them. Photos, short videos, and statements are their weapons to resist oppression, prison, corporate and government denials. Traditional media can’t play this role, not only due to their historic link to establishments in Arab countries, but also due to their heavy structure and work methods, as well as the older generation employees, unable to keep up with the novelty of new media and modern reporting.
What’s starting to happen is that traditional media are trying to keep up, keep some competitive edge, by establishing e-media departments with instant WAP news flashes that are tweeted or posted online way before they get detailed on paper. It’s an inevitable path for media and reporting to stay on top of the game in the midst of the historic events in the region, events driven and sustained by technology in progress.
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The views and opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Peace X Peace.