What does it take to be alternative?
“If the military judicial system didn’t find me guilty, then who did? The media,” said actor Ziad Itani in a talk on the suppression of freedoms in Lebanon. A victim of torture and fabricated claims of treason, Ziad Itani was framed by much of the mainstream Lebanese media as an Israeli agent during his detention.
On one hand, the most influential TV stations and media organizations in Lebanon are utilized by the state’s main political forces to instill particular ideas and perspectives. On the other hand, it is commonly believed that these same organizations sustain themselves by offering the general public narratives they approve of or are comfortable with.
Observing the changes that have accompanied mainstream outlets before and after 2015 frames the above pattern well. Prior to the anti-establishment protests that took place during the garbage crisis in 2015, polarization was a key attribute of media giants.
In a study conducted by Dr. Lorenzo Trombetta, the author concludes that media outlets in Lebanon were largely influenced and directed by the recurrent tensions between different factions on issues such as foreign policy and stability.
However, since 2015, the average Lebanese viewer has had an arguably growing interest in their rights as a citizen. Although the mainstream media seemingly changed course since then, practical efforts to locate or create “fresh and new” platforms also proceeded.
What it Takes to be “Alternative”
With our understanding of the aforementioned patterns that dominate conventional media outlets, the parameters and purpose of “alternative media” in the Lebanese context become clearer.
Many of these fresh outlets are led by groups of activists who only connect with the public and speak their language, but also provoke them into perceiving particular causes and events that are routinely marginalized by the country’s media giants.
“Most alternative media today have a very rights-based approach,” said Jean Kassir, co-founder of Megaphone, an online media outlet. Kassir further emphasized the technical shift to a more digitized approach and making use of the modern technology available to reach out to an audience.
Technological progress, particularly in the domain of social media, is considered a crucial factor of growth for alternative media outlets. In a talk titled “Alternative Media: Is it the Future,” MTV journalist Ralph Doumit explained the power of new interactive tools like Instagram stories.
Besides content and technological advancement, a key factor related to alternative platforms is the question of financial sustainability.
According to Daraj Media, another media platform with a growing audience, it’s crucial that “financial independence be of the main characteristics of editorial independence.” In other words, financial independence allows editors to make decisions without the intervention of the publication’s owners.
Spawned out of a Need?
Considering the attention given to investigative content produced by these fresh outlets, it is not surprising that the general public felt a need for an alternative narrative used to describe and assess how the system functions in the country.
According to Kassir, an important and distinguishing characteristic of alternative media in general and Megaphone in particular is the “unpacking of complex ideas and analyses.” Such a method of content creation allows for demonstrating a language understood by the general public.
Since 2015, these outlets have attempted to highlight many causes marginalized by the public discourse promoted by conventional media and the state. Ranging from investigating the societal abuse received by Mashrou’ Leila and the documentation of “International Women’s Day” marches to the unloading of multiplex economic scandals, such platforms have prioritized those rendered voiceless on many occasions.
For instance, Daraj Media asserts that a crucial part of its role is “giving a platform to women, minorities and environmental causes, alongside fighting for free speech and expression.”
This is exemplified by their online video series “In my Opinion,” a space given to activists and ideas often marginalized by mainstream platforms and institutional structures such as Lebanon’s Anti-Cybercrime Security Office.
In the same aforementioned talk about the future of alternative media, Daraj founder Diana Moukalled expressed a collective interest and desire among independent journalists post-2011 to go beyond the restrictive political dynamics of Lebanon and their effects on the media since 2005.
Considering that “alternative” media is by definition not very fond of the traditional political landscape and discourse, it is only natural that such pieces arrive at a heated argument between the site and its diverse set of readers.
Although being fairly fresh and new, Megaphone has produced analyses and digital documentation that have created a consistent conversation about what’s happening between progressive activists.
For instance, one controversy relating to the Central Bank and its monetary policy was later explained in a video issued by Megaphone detailing the context we’re in. In a state of affairs where the Central Bank insists on the stability of the banking sector, the video tackles the official narrative and counters it with facts from credible sources.
As a result, such a piece created an environment of skepticism regarding the success of the Central Bank’s policies in maintaining confidence in the local currency.
On another level, national debate has witnessed the rise of satire as a way to stir controversy and heated debate. This trend expressed itself with the usage of Facebook to satirize diverse political figures and events by various comedians and satirists, many of whom organized into different media outlets and pages such as Al-Hudood.
Unlike other forms of media, Al-Hudood doesn’t deliver news but instead creates parody stories of the different events or cultural trends happening on a national or regional level. “The secret police succeeds in changing the opinion of a young man who thought he old feared God,” reads the title of an article on their website. Alongside the site, their Facebook page makes use of catchy titles, creative imagery and customized technology to attract followers.
A Constant Conversation
In this sense, alternative media platforms have been sights for learning new lessons from the experience of their predecessors.
The conversation created between the old and the new has reflected itself on several domains ranging from technology to topic choices to political orientation. On that basis, what is known as alternative media is generally considered an adaptation to the current organization methods of groups attempting to create platforms of opposition.
Finally, alternative media platforms manifest themselves as modern, fresh and young ‘spaces’ for those not given a space in a country becoming excessively exclusive.