BEIRUT: In a Wednesday academic forum at AUST, a panel of journalists and activists invited by the school talked about the veil of invisibility hiding a system of oppression against minorities.
Those included migrant domestics workers, or those who are afflicted with mental illness, or those who are simply different such as gay or lesbian citizens.
To create awareness on the issue, the Communication Department of AUST held a panel on misrepresentation of minorities and other groups in media. “In a society witnessing sexism, violence and gender inequalities, minorities deserve more narratives,” said moderator and journalism instructor Raghda Mugharbil, who organized the debate.
The event gathered four panelists who play a significant role in highlighting the structural marginalization of certain social groups in Lebanese society.
The panel began with Marie José Daoud, journalist, and co-founder of "Labneh and Facts," an independent publication that aims at inspiring youth to take action. In May 2016, Daoud started publishing articles on people suffering from mental diseases on the Labneh and Facts social platforms, including website and Instagram.
Thanks to social media she was able to reach a community of people with mental illness who began sharing their personal stories resulting in an extensive investigation, led over three months. During this period, she also interviewed experts: “One of the main problems about mental illness is not talking about it,” said Daoud. Indeed, mental health is still perceived as a taboo and rarely finds space in Lebanese media.
Following in the forum was the presentation of Beirut-based reporter Timour Azhari, who widely covered the issue of migrant domestic labors abuse in the pages of the Daily Star. “Most of the media are not interested in migrant workers exploitation,” said Azhari.
In nine Middle Eastern countries, the control of migrant laborers is reinforced by a system of norms known as “kafala system.” Although kafala was meant to regulate workers’ immigration status, it has evolved instead to be a way to delegate responsibility for migrants to private citizens, which can allow exploitation and human rights abuse. Kafala system has been described by activists as a modern form of slavery because it establishes a legal tie that limits workers personal freedom. Indeed, workers can’t quit their job or leave the country without their employer’s consent.
“In Lebanon, the migrant workers' suicide rate is one per week,” Azhari revealed, “we have the responsibility to speak about them.” The journalist didn’t deny that reporting this kind of news is a hard task, not only because many workers commit suicide before speaking about their abuse, but also because of language barriers: “most of them come from Ethiopia, Philippines, and Sri Lanka.”
The major obstacle, however, it’s represented by a political system that has no interest in solving the problem: “After I covered a case of domestic abuse that had an international resonance, I was investigated by the Cyber Crime Bureau,” Azhari explained. The journalist underwent an eight-hour interrogation and was accused by the police of being an activist who wanted to ruin the image of the country.
“I was sued, and for a period I stopped writing,” Azhari continued, “however, when I later realized that their purpose was intimidation, I began covering the issue again.”
Oppression and misrepresentation perpetrated by media do not only affect minorities but a large part of the population too, firstly women.
During the panel, feminist activist and expert Hayat Mirchad, director of The Lebanese Democratic Women’s Gathering (RDFL), informed the audience about the lack of female leadership in the media business in Lebanon. The data, provided by the United Nations Populations Fund and AUB depict a strong contrast between the high percentage of women choosing university studies related to Media and the low rate of women that reach leadership or ownership positions, respectively 3.4 percent in radio, 6 percent in television.
Moreover, media connivance in the female under-representation keeps women apart from politics: “In 2016 the news covering women running for elections didn’t exceed 12 percent,” said Mirchad, “Women never made the cover of magazines and 94 percent of experts talking about politics in TV programs were men.”
According to Mirchad, a media discourse based on stereotypes, the traditional division of roles and female body objectification, keeps women confined by a perception of inferiority as well as contributes in the rise of gender violence.
The conversation inevitably shifted to another social group that is largely affected by misrepresentation and discrimination, the LGBT community.
"Although the process is not linear and requires time, media has the potential to change the discourse on minorities," said the last speaker, Sahar Mandour. Lebanese-Egyptian novelist, journalist, and researcher for Amnesty International, Mandour quoted the case of the Cinema Plaza in 2012, where gay men were arrested, as an example of how suddenly, a new narrative was brought into the media discourse.
Although Lebanese society is still far from recognizing equal rights to the LGBQT community, she sounded hopeful: “What matters is that these debates have started to happen and will continue.”
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