Media, identity and co-existence: Sharing learning from Lebanon and Northern Ireland

Media, identity and co-existence: Sharing learning from Lebanon and Northern Ireland
by Allan LEONARD for Shared Future News
24 September 2008

Stratagem NI (Ltd) hosted an evening seminar of visiting Lebanese journalists: “Media, identity and co-existence: Sharing Learning from Lebanon and Northern Ireland”, to mark the culmination of a four-day study visit to Northern Ireland by a group of senior Lebanese journalists. There are eight in the group, from across the political spectrums, both print and broadcast media, and are led by former BBC Radio 4 journalist Tudor Lomas who runs www.jemstone.net from Jordan.

Their visit focused on recent experiences in Northern Ireland, investigating whether or not there are lessons to be learned about peace, co-existence and how to reach viable compromises.

Mark Simpson chaired the event. He is now the BBC’s Ireland correspondant, replaceing Dennis Murphy, who retired. There were about 40 in attendance at the seminar. The discussion was lively, with full participation.

One Lebanese journalist cited a locally (Lebanese) produced documentary about how all the media covered the “May events” [9 May 2008, when Hezbollah temporarily took over Western Beirut?]. This was example of how the Lebanese media is starting (just) to have a debate among itself about its objectivity, fairness, and bias of coverage.

Another Lebanese journalist described the (surreal) matter of how the media were prevented (censured) from reporting the [Serian army withdrawal and suspected links with the assassination of Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri] as significant events, due to “book practices” (i.e. Government-approved guidelines of what reportage is permissible). The departure of the Syrian army has reduced Government censorship, but not the reality of political party and other editorial control of the media.

After the dinner break I described the role of the media in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement referendum campaigns, Northern and Southern Ireland. Namely, the Northern Ireland Government publically supported a “yes” vote, whereas in the South the Government, by law, put forward the case for both a “yes” and a “no” vote. Quintin Oliver further explained how this is procedure is evolving in the South, whereby the Government will financially support “yes” and “no” campaigns directly on such type of referendum. I sought to contrast Government censoring events to facilitating equal treatment.

One Lebanese journalist was particularly pessimistic that the current poltical peace in Northern Ireland would last. Mark Simpson asked her for exact reasons, and she and others provided a succient
list:

  • “Peace walls”; someone said they should be called “hate walls”
  • Separate schools (by religion)
  • Segregation (walled neighbourhoods, no-go areas, separate shopping, leisure, etc.)
  • The public funding of separate buildings and services based on segregation
  • Rancoring by the politicians
  • Lack of consensal identity (“In Lebanon we are all Lebanese.”)

What I found remarkable was that these items were identified and agreed so quickly by these foreign visitors, across the board, and coming from an area of deep societal division itself.

This generated some exchange of ideas. For example, one Lebanese journalist said that maybe Northern Ireland is more realistic about its deep divisions and how difficult it will be to achieve reconciliation, in contrast to Lebanon, where people are told (sic), “The short war is over, we are all happy, reconciled Lebanese once again.” She cited John Alderdice, who said that “peace is a process”.

Another mooted whether Lebanon was turning into Northern Ireland. I don’t know if this was meant in a positive (path to peace) or negative (acknowledging and entrenching divisions) way. It was mooted whether Lebanon was part of a big Middle East problem, or saw itself as an island to stay out of this bigger conflict.

Finally, there was a debate about the motivation of politicians. A local person argued that the Northern Ireland politicians need sectarianism to survive, that the politicians are more interested in fighting each other than getting on with each other. In regards to dealing with the proverbial elephant in the room (sectarianism), another local person suggested to “eat the elephant one spoonful at a time”. In reply, a Lebanese journalist said that he felt at times Lebanese politicians keep “picking the wound” to stay in power.

I thorougly enjoyed this event, for the discussion that it generated, including each side (Northern Ireland and Lebanese) recognising similarities and differences.

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