The repetitive discourse broadcast by the main media, most of which are closely connected to the parties in power, has become repugnant. It is a discourse that blames the citizen for the spread of the coronavirus and its disastrous consequences.
The discourse intensifies every time the authorities face a dilemma, as a result of their inaction and failure to manage the crises. Whenever that happens, the media offer a lifeline. The response to the outbreak of the coronavirus was characterized by tremendous confusion, which manifested itself at different levels.
First, private hospitals distanced themselves from the crisis and presented their financial problems with the state as a precondition to open Covid departments. Second, the arbitrary procedures as part of the lockdowns. Third, regarding vaccination, why it is still delayed? Minister of Health Hamad Hassan has repeatedly promised to obtain vaccines by early February.
As the crisis intensified, most traditional media hastened to adopt the rhetoric of the ruling class. Blaming the citizen became the main headline on TV screens and in newspapers. Take for example the LBCI news on January 12, in which the Lebanese citizen was stereotyped as ”someone who always bends and outsmarts the law.”
In a news broadcast on March 23 last year the same channel described the citizen as “brainless,” referring to people on the Corniche to do sports and people who had opened their shop, arguably because they did not have the luxury to not do so.
The Al-Akhbar newspaper, in a very irresponsible and inflammatory way, called upon the state security bodies to send the violators of coronavirus regulations directly to prison. An article published on January 12 stated: “What prevents the leaders of the army, security forces and affiliated bodies from implementing the lockdown decisions? What prevents them from arresting the violator and throwing him in prison for a number of days equal to the lockdown days? You can imagine what a Lebanese would be like, if his car and phone were confiscated and he was imprisoned for days.”
There is no doubt that many citizens violate the preventive measures, and do not fully adhere to the quarantine, especially in more popular areas. However, this is at least partly due to the need for people to meet their daily needs, which the state does not help provide. A situation that will only worsen when the subsidies on basic commodities are lifted, as is currently being discussed.
Not to mention the price of bread being raised to 2,250 Lebanese pounds following a decision by the Minister of Economy and Trade Raul Nehme. He cited the increase of global flour prices and the Iraqi flour donation. The latter was a gift that was stored, ignoring all health regulations, in the Beirut Municipal Stadium, until it went rotten.
People rushing to stock foodstuffs only shows their fear of the state’s inability to secure sufficient quantities on the one hand, and their fear of merchants manipulating prices on the other. Violations of measures and procedures express the loss of confidence in the authorities, especially since the latter could not prevent the explosion of 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate in the Beirut Port, despite knowing the chemicals had been stored there for years.
Also, the media that now chastise the violators are the same that ran ads for the New Year’s parties, which are considered a major cause of the recent increase in cases. In a way the media participated in the spread of the virus. Yet, they still share the role of “executioner” with the authorities by broadcasting reasons and pretexts to mitigate the government’s responsibility.
“The disciplinary role of the traditional media isn’t new,” said Jan Kassir, cofounder of the Megaphone website. “It appeared in similar fashion during the Lebanese uprising. The media outlets colluded with the authorities in an attempt to discipline people and prevent them from insulting.”
Kassir reiterated that the alternative media’s principal role is “highlighting the failure of the authorities, most notably in the management of the corona crisis, especially seeing they had about a year to equip the health sector before things got out of hand.”
The media outlets that chastise violators are the same that ran ads for the New Year’s parties, that are considered a major cause of the recent increase in cases.
“Pointing fingers at people is a policy that many media outlets follow,” said Joelle Boutros, head of the Archiving and Documentation Department at non-profit organization The Legal Agenda. “It’s a policy that constitutes a major violation of the simplest professional rules.”
Boutros identified grave media abuses, including violations of people’s privacy. Reporters entered homes by surprise to check quantities of stored supplies and reprimand people if the quantities sufficed for more than a week. Others snooped on commercial stores pretending to be closed, while opening their doors to customers. The owners were rebuked live on air. MTV broadcasted a report, in which the correspondent tried to obtain a statement from an elderly person who was lying in hospital with a ventilator. This report intended to be: “a message to spread awareness that your fate, and that of your loved ones, is death, if you do not take precautions.”
By Their Own Will
The scenario of blaming Lebanon’s citizens for the spread of the pandemic has been repeated ever since the first months of the outbreak. And it was again the case in the recent statement of caretaker Prime Minister Hassan Diab following the Supreme Defense Council meeting on January 11. The meeting imposed a 24-hour curfew for an 11-day period due to the hospitals’ inability to absorb more patients.
According to Diab, the people violating rules and regulations were responsible for the increasing number of infections. “This recklessness has led us to a very difficult situation,” he said. “And still some people refuse to adhere to the measures we’ve taken.”
Minister of Health Hamad Hassan is yet another official who often resorts to such a narrative. His recent statement on Al-Jadid TV, however, was truly remarkable. Hassan considered the port explosion mere fate, yet held coronavirus victims responsible for their disease, saying: “They were infected by their [own] will whether they like it or not.”
This report was translated from Arabic by Fatima Jaber.