Lebanon: the role of the fourth estate in the refugee crisis

General overview of Syrian refugees influx into Lebanon and its effect on the Lebanese social, economical and political realm

Historically being recognized as a safe haven for persecuted ethnic and religious factions, Lebanon witnessed a contemporary wave of refugees’ influx, adding a further conflicting dimension to the nation’s assortment of quandaries. The Syrian crisis erupted back in March 15, 2011 amid peaceful protests demanding the regime led by the Assad family, to promote a wide array of civil liberties and democratic reforms. As the protest escalated into an increasingly violent conflict, a dynamic movement of migration commenced, primarily causing an unparalleled spillover of desperate people into neighboring countries (Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan & Iraq). Within the blink of an eye, the Lebanese government became the caretaker of an auxiliary sub-nation. According to the latest updated stats published on March 31st 2016 by the “Syria Regional Refugee Response”, an inter-agency information sharing portal established by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Lebanon is currently hosting approximately 1,048,275 registered refugees. As of May 6th, this count no longer includes individuals waiting for registration, and of course unregistered and illegal migrants are not accounted for. The Beqaa governorate, constituting most of Lebanon’s eastern border, is the most affected, hosting around 35% of total Syrian refugees. Currently, Syrian refugees constitute up over a quarter of total Lebanon’s population, exclusive of other refugees’ nationalities, expats and foreign labor force. The burden has aggravated as only 22% of the funding required for the year 2016 have been granted (i.e. USD 390 million received to date). It is easy to infer from these different indicators that this 5-year-old phenomenon had loomed heavily over Lebanon’s social, economic and political landscape.

The Syrian refugee crisis in Lebanon presents a double, reciprocal set of problems: it shatters the Syrian individuals and households, and simultaneously wrecks down the already impoverished Lebanese hosting communities.

On a social level, the Lebanese society is yet to adopt a unified national stand regarding the crisis, enabling the predicament to propagate freely. Beliefs and sentiments flow through a wide spectrum ranging from hatred and anxiety to respect and empathy.

In terms of economic conditions, the constantly rising number of refugees outweighs the supply of resources available particularly in Lebanese underprivileged areas. To mention a few, public services such as education, employment support and healthcare are all growing scarce. Hence, access to resources has turned into a fierce rivalry between Syrian refugees and the local host communities, forced to compete even for basic services.

The refugee calamity complicated the local political scene by approaching the issue from two divergent political outlooks: allies vs. adversaries of the Syrian Regime. The concept of “Positive Neutrality” was vowed by few political factions, yet it was seldom pursued. As the crisis extended, the political faceoff became more antagonistic, lacking any objective proposal regarding refugees, which resulted in the deterioration of their overall condition alongside the Lebanese hosting societies’.

Throughout the course of these events, the Lebanese media continues to play a pivotal role in showcasing the Syrian crisis. Primarily, the aim of this publication is to demonstrate the fluctuating impact of the “Fourth Estate” vis-à-vis what arguably looks like a national existential crisis.

The Lebanese media formation & affiliation

Despite being branded as the mouthpiece of democracy among the Arab States, the Lebanese media is dictated by the nation’s overall sectarian consociationalism structure, based on a government system in which political power is proportionally shared among confessional communities. When internal political conflicts intensify, usually government officials encourage the media to safeguard what is known as “the civil peace”, which has often compromised the industry’s professionalism.

The sector can be estimated to be composed of about 20 TV stations (10 of which are prominently known for broadcasting political news), approximately 40 radio stations (multilingual) on FM & AM frequencies and more than 100 newspapers/ magazines (also multilingual inclusive of daily, monthly and quarterly publications). As for online platforms, social media and blogs are all gaining momentum with a considerable section of the audience. Nonetheless, in terms of rankings online news still need time to place themselves ahead of the traditional media.

Media outlets in Lebanon can be well considered as the elite in the sector among their Middle East and North Africa (MENA) colleagues. It goes hand in hand with the fact that the country is considered as the regional hub of competent personnel. The industry proves its worth with eye-catching figures. According to the IDAL’s Media Fact Book 2015, it seizes around 4.75% of the nation’s GDP, with about 400 active companies employing approximately 4.5% of total labor force of the country.

Political polarization of the Lebanese media units is entrenched, particularly those engaged in news publication and reporting; they can be classified unmistakably among March 8th and March 14th camps. The latter is supported internationally by the US and Saudi Arabia and against the Syrian regime. Conversely, the March 8th Alliance is backed by Syria and Iran. Media outlets normally have political allegiance, religious pledge or in the vast majority of the cases hold both these features concurrently, cementing the notion that such medias undoubtedly operate within the country’s general sectarian consociationalism framework. Corresponding political affiliates utilize them as a tool for propaganda, in order to disseminate similar opinions and undermine the opposing parties.

A key element to consider is that public figures who are active in the domain of politics and even some politicians are openly involved in media decision making process. “Politicians [account] for up to a third of many media boards of directors and often [use] these outlets as tools to promote their platforms, influence public opinion and seek public support” (Trombetta, 2010). This mutual engagement is a vivid testimony to how the Lebanese media’s broad configuration and affiliation are interrelated.

Evolution of media perception and coverage of the phenomenon

As the refugee spillover increased, the Lebanese media coverage of the neighbouring country’s conflict witnessed an “evolution” in their angle. At an early stage, media outlets displayed the Syrian crisis with a complacent attitude due to an underestimation of the situation. Reports kept on showing the issue from sheer political perspectives.

When the Syrian state of affairs took a definite violent turn, the influx of refugees into Lebanon mounted noticeably. Alarm spiked at the virtual impossibility to clearly identify beforehand the background of the refugees, whether civilians or militants. Meanwhile, numerous suicidal bombings took place across Lebanon, primarily in areas that are presumed to be politically and religiously partisans of Hezbollah (a central ally of the Syrian regime). Allegations were pinpointed towards Syrian refugees and some host communities were accused of sheltering and aiding militarily-oriented migrants. Public concerns rose as the refugee dilemma provoked critical security threats. Discriminatory and hate speech spread across the media via news TV reports, segments, published articles and radio programs, making the Syrian refugees as a scapegoat for the ongoing internal complexities. As Alsharabati and Nammour (2016) argue, the entire communication spectrum – be it institutional, social or media – has inflated the sense of insecurity. The course of action varied depending on the various medias’ political interpretation of the issue.

In August 2014, the town of Arsal witnessed an eruption of clashes between the Lebanese Army and Security Forces on one side and militants from ISIS and Nusra Front on the other side. Tens of civilians and soldiers were murdered, while others were abducted by the terrorist groups. Public wrath spread nationwide. Given the fact that the tragedy involved the Lebanese Army and the Security Forces, which are considered two of the few sacred pillars in the country, the local media had a unified message of utter support and solidarity.

Shortly after, the Lebanese cabinet decided to reduce the influx of refugees into Lebanon. Background check was the priority with respect to individuals with suspicious military history. Back in May 2015, as per the Lebanese governmental instructions, the UNHCR halted the registration of new refugees. Despite a number of criticisms from international and local NGOs and humanitarian organizations, governmental officials and stakeholders linked the measures to security threats. In the same period, a modest faction of the refugees returned to Syrian cities which were labeled as “liberated zones” as they fell under the regime’s control.

As the overall security circumstances reasonably adjusted and cooled down, the media in Lebanon accordingly altered their angle. A fairly objective exposure of the crisis, highlighted humanitarian aspects and, in some cases, success stories were publicly revealed: a Syrian refugee excelling at school, a single mom seeking a decent job to support her family and how Syrian refugees are helping Lebanese host communities in boosting agricultural productivity. Nevertheless, the media powerhouses didn’t by any means cease to abandon their predisposed political and sectarian attachment.

The media in Lebanon can be a fundamental estate concerning such an existential crisis

Like in global media, in Lebanon access to information causes a merciless competition among outlets, which sometimes jeopardizes the authenticity and efficacy of the information. A variety of logical fallacies, alongside stereotyping, might prevail throughout publications with the intent to attract audience, and fail to highlight the core problems. Accordingly, the disseminated message fails to address key issues, and the transmitted communication results in questionable outcomes.

Pushing for a joint cooperation between refugees and host communities, under the supervision of governmental entities (such as the Ministries of Social Affairs, Foreign Affairs & Emigrants, Labor, Health among others) with local and international NGOs, would certainly facilitate the comprehension of the common challenges faced by all subjects involved in the crisis. Alongside this, a well-thought nationwide crisis response plan is mandatory. The Lebanese media can significantly contribute by conveying and lobbying a scheme which will enable the international community and the domestic communal to recognize the already existing concerns that are undermining primarily the state, and consequently influencing all other factions present on the Lebanese soil. The preface of the 2016 Lebanon Crisis Response Plan displays the main objectives to counter the difficulties faced by the host communities and the Syrian refugees, and aims to join forces between the Government of Lebanon (GoL) and national and international partners to provide mutually reinforcing humanitarian and stabilization interventions.

Labeled as the fourth estate, the media in Lebanon has a focal role to play vis-à-vis the Syrian crisis. Ideally, it should transcend into a national platform for a full-fledged advocacy and outreach campaign, enabling civic engagement to promote the issue within a genuine context, and provide recommendations consequently. It is its role to become the country’s conscience, offsetting any attempt to deviate the crisis from a humanitarian and national perspective into a xenophobic and sectarian context.

Joey Geadah

Communication Advisor of International Affairs

MA in International Affairs (Lebanese American University)


Alsharabati C, & Nammour J. (2015), Survey on Perceptions of Syrian Refugees in Lebanon, Institut Des Sciences Politiques USJ. Retrieved May 30, 2016 from http://bit.ly/1OhbETF

Government of Lebanon & The United Nations (2015) , Lebanon Crisis Response Plan 2015-16 Year Two. Retrieved May 30, 2016 from http://bit.ly/1TZt4jE

IDAL (2015), Media Fact Book 2015. Retrieved May 28, 2016 from http://bit.ly/21d8NfB

Trombetta L. (2010), Lebanon – Media Landscape, European Journalism Centre (EJC). Retrieved May 29, 2016, from http://bit.ly/1UlCH0J

UNHCR, Syria Regional Refugee Response, Inter-agency Information Sharing Portal. Retrieved May 26, 2016 from http://bit.ly/O6HzaR

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