Lebanon: The Strange Love Between Media and Women’s Murders

Nay El-Rahi
Lebanese Writer and Researcher
October 7, 2021
Media coverage of women's murders over the years has often sought to perpetuate the myth that the murderer committed his crime out of love. 

The year 2021 was off to a bloody start. In the first month three women were killed by either their husband or another man in the family. The second month began with a crime that almost became the fourth murder, but the victim survived. The three women who died at the start of the year, were Palestinian mother Wadad Hassoun, Ahkam Derbas (50) from Akkar, and Zeina Kanjo. However, we only heard about Zeina. 

Apparently, Lebanese media were unable to reach the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp, where Wadad was killed, and Khraibet al-Jundi in Akkar in the north of the country, where Derbas was stabbed to death. For them no media campaign, news report and sad background music. The outskirts of this marginalized and amputated country do not attract viewers. There is no excitement or scandal. And thus, Lebanon’s media are not overly concerned with what is happening there.

Sharp Increase The Sharika Walaken website recorded a 107% increase in murders of Lebanese girls and women in 2020: 27 murders took place last year, up from 13 the year prior to that.  According to data collected by the Internal Security Forces (ISF), 1,468 incidents of domestic violence were reported to the special 1745 hotline between February 2020 and January 2021, compared to less than half of that a year earlier. 

What “deserves” to become a matter of public opinion among the thousands of crimes against women remains governed by the standards set by the media and the competition between them over viewership rates.

The past year saw intense media coverage of four cases: the murder of Zeina Kanjo, the attempted murder of Lara Shaaban, and the battles of Lilian Chaito and Ghina al-Bayat over child custody. They overshadowed all other stories governed by the media’s policy of “accounting for the incident” when it comes to crimes against women. Misogynistic structures and attitudes are rarely mentioned.

Misogynistic structures are only spoken of after a crime has occurred. The media races to the victim’s house in search of an interesting story through which it raises the rates of its viewing, as is evident in the reporter’s frantic movements between rooms in search of the tears of children and grandmothers, only to be forgotten after that the crime, and then the case. neglected without follow-up, until the occurrence of another crime, to repeat the same monotonous scene endlessly.

Thus, every crime is treated as if it were the first of its kind, isolated from its predecessors and alien to our societies, as if all these crimes against women were individual cases that were not produced by one society. Thus, every crime is treated as if it were the first of its kind, isolated from its predecessors, alien to our societies. It is as if all these crimes against women were completely individual cases not produced by one and the same society.

The following is a review of the general patterns that characterize Lebanese media when crimes against women are committed or custody battles take place. They concern the murder of Zeina Kanjo, the attempted murder of Lara Shaaban, and Lilian Chaito and Ghina Al Bayat’s  battles for custody of their two children.

Establishing Crime as a Point of View

The Lebanese media have a long history of whitewashing killers.

In the days following the murder of Zeina Kanjo, broadcasters hosted her husband Ibrahim Al-Ghazal, the main suspect, by calling him by phone live on TV. This offered him ample time and space to justify himself and make a series of accusations directed against the victim, her family and friends. He was also repeatedly asked about his “reasons” and whether he repented. 

The practice is reminiscent of the media dealing with Mohamed al-Nahili, the murderer of Manal al-Assi and her husband, during his trial and after the very light prison sentence (5 years) he got in 2016. This is a practice establishes the act of murder – killing women specifically, as it does not occur with any other crime – as a point of view. This is on top of the fact that they never get two sides of the story, because the only party that occupies the space is the party that committed the crime.

Murder is not the only crime the media like to feature as a point of view. Depriving a woman of child custody is another criminal tool directed against women and often presented as a mere point of view in a marital dispute.

Ghina Al-Bayat appealed to the world via her Facebook page by sharing the tragedy of her being deprived of her baby some two weeks after its birth, which prompted various media outlets to focus on the legal part of the case.

When the live transmission with Ghina’s lawyer ended, the reporter called her husband, Rabia Hamza, to hear his point of view. As if there can be any justification for removing a baby from the mother’s lap after only two weeks!   The husband justified the act by saying that his baby girl had an allergy to animals. He claimed Ghina had left her baby with her dog, which had attacked and bitten the child. He even feared the dog would eat his child. 

Regardless of the confidence with which the man shared information that lacked any scientific accuracy, his defense furthermore included details about his wife’s psychological condition, as well as the name of her therapist and the address of his clinic.

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Murder as an Act of Love

The Al Jadeed news report about the attempted murder of Lara Shaaban began with classical music and the phrase: “He wanted her only for himself.” 

As if it is normal for a man to be jealous to the point of attacking his wife with a dagger, a taser and an iron “box.” In the dictionary of the Lebanese media, such behavior is not considered criminal nor an excess of power and entitlement. “I love her a lot.” As if anything is allowed for the sake of love. 

The TV report invoked our pity for the devout husband, who is just exhausted by the thought that his wife might be with another man, instead of condemning him and calling for punishment. 

All news reports dealing with the murder of Zeina Kanjo, in which the killer – her husband Ibrahim Al-Ghazal – appeared, repeated more than once that he did not intend to kill her and only tried to “silence” her. Thus her death seemed a mere coincidence, a detail, a mistake in the man’s love for his wife, a typo in an epic love story. 

“I killed her by mistake” and “she is my life” are some of the phrases he liked repeating, without being questioned.

In his dealings with Al-Jadeed, he seemed confident, so reassuring to the point that he shocked reporter Zahraa Fardoun on the air when she dared to ask him why he killed his wife, to which he responded, “Don’t say that I killed her Zahraa”. Indeed, how dare we believe that this coverage is to convict the criminal instead of whitewashing his crime? 

Media coverage of women’s murders over the years has sought to perpetuate the myth that the murderer committed his crime out of love. When combined with passion, or when established as a case of a man’s infatuation with his wife, this automatically leads to a normalization of violence.

Ja’fari Courts  Just as murder appears as an act of love, “granting” custody to the mother is framed. As if she is being honored by her husband. During the live transmission from Ghani al-Bayat’s lawyer’s office, a friend of her husband stated that the girl returned to her mother’s arms “because Rabia decided to return her, and not because of the interference of lawyers and media.” This statement summarizes the core of the problem. 

Women’s rights, such as child custody, are still granted exclusively by the will of the father, not by law. And this passes without comment or questioning, despite the presence of a reporter who claims to support the rights of women and children. 

In the case of Ghani al-Bayat, everyone dealt with the situation as if the mother is not concerned, or incompetent, or as if she was a minor whose opinion does not count. And no one actually mentioned the husband’s absolute authority granted to him by the Ja`fari courts, which entitles him to decide his daughter’s fate without being questioned. The logic repeats itself in Lilian Shaito’s custody case. She has been in a coma since the Beirut Port explosion and her family was forced to resort to (social) media campaigns to prevent her husband from taking her baby out of the country without their consent or even their knowledge. 

In a televised interview with the husband, Hassan Hodroj, who lives in Nigeria, Joe Maalouf asked him if he had “refused” for the infant to visit its mother in hospital, upon which he replied: “There is no problem.” Later, a court ruling decided out in favor of Lillian and her family to see the child for at least four hours a day. The logic repeats itself in Lilian Shaito’s custody case. She has been in a coma since the Beirut Port explosion and her family was forced to resort to (social) media campaigns to prevent her husband from taking her baby out of the country without their consent or even their knowledge. 

In a televised interview with the husband, Hassan Hodroj, who lives in Nigeria, Joe Maalouf asked him if he had “refused” for the infant to visit its mother in hospital, upon which he replied: “There is no problem.” Later, a court ruling decided out in favor of Lillian and her family to see the child for at least four hours a day.

Violation of Privacy

In all these cases, news reports delve into the women’s cases, not without a touch of voyeurism and an eye for scandal. What is the added value, for example, of the moment Ghina Al-Bayat embraces her daughter? What is the use of diving into the details of her psychological state, her suicidal tendencies, and love for animals?

What is the point of mentioning the details of Zeina Kanjo’s profession? Why focus on her family’s disputes or “the quality of her friends” in reports that are supposed to focus on her murder? 

One report focused on Zeina’s beauty and the relationships with her friends, which paved the way for the killer to accuse them of setting her up against him and thus indirectly suggests that Zeina is responsible for her own murder. 

The “hidden angle” that the report is searching for brings us to the world of soap operas. We almost forget we are seeing a news report about a horrific crime. It is as if we follow and interact with an episode of reality TV.Another report dealt with the attempted murder of Lara Shaaban in a similar way. The report focused on her lawyer saying Lara suffered from “normal marital problems, bad marriage and miserliness.” 

In a 5-minute news item, the reporter hardly touched upon the slow progress of the alimony and divorce case, nor on the stubbornness of the husband, his refusal to divorce and his neglect of his daughter. As if talking about miserliness is the most urgent. This phobia for calling a criminal a criminal, intentionally or unintentionally, floods us with unrelated nonsense.

In the same context, all reports dealing with Lilian Chaito’s case did not mention that she got injured in the explosion on August 4, 2020, as she was shopping for a birthday gift for her husband, and the fact that they had a good relationship. 

This helps suggest that a certain tension in the relationship gives the husband the right to prevent his wife and her family from seeing their grandchild. It is as if different scenarios between spouses produce situations in which certain measures, such as depriving a mother of seeing her child, seem acceptable. Even though child custody, and seeing her child is a natural and self-evident right for a mother, this is generally not visible in news reports.

Normalizing Crimes against Women

On February 1, 2021, the Al Jadeed presenter who dealt with Zeina Kanjo’s murder resorted to playing with words – a practice for which the broadcaster is known. It compared Zeina’s disputes with her husband to those between Michel Aoun and Saad Hariri.

Thus, in a mere four minutes, the killing of a young woman by her husband was likened to a round of government formation, turning her death into a chapter of political insignificance, source material for empty verbal acrobatics. 

Live on air, Kanjo’s killer did not hesitate to give his address after he was located on the map. For he was not a fugitive, he said. And: “I want to tell you my side.”He returned to the show of his own accord. Because he had something to say, not to surrender himself because he was wanted. Thus, the crime became but a boring detail. We jump over it because: “the man has something to say.”

The same man appeared in an MTV report which aimed to instruct public opinion, asking us to think about “eternal issues” and not “stray too far from the subject.” Note that the report was broadcasted on the day the killer requested. 

With the same arrogance and idiocy, both Rabia and Hassan decided to grant the few hours to inform public opinion. 

“I gave her the girl because I wanted to,” Rabia said. Thus, he and Hassan became the exception to the reality of many women being deprived of their children. The exception appears apologetic and seperate from the legal and political structure that controls women’s child custody.

Do Not Address Structures

When delivering her baby girl to Ghana al-Bayat, her lawyer attributed the “success of the case,” and the baby’s return, to the media. The statement is an insult, not only because it negates the contributions of women activists and activist campaigns that broke the silence about the injustice of the Ja`fari courts, but also because it negates the need for structural work and radical change in these courts. 

By repeatedly resorting to the media to claim such self-evident rights as child custody, the need for amending custody practices and adopting a personal status law vanishes in people’s minds. Why should women exhaust themselves demanding just laws, when one episode with Joe Maalouf is enough to return the child to its mother’s lap?

However, resorting to the media remains a luxury that only occurs in exceptional cases. And it comes with the exposure of both mother and child to long-term psychological pressure, as it opens the mother’s life to accountability and public trial. 

Often, the approach of a large segment of the media and its correspondents is not without cheap excitement through eavesdropping on private lives, without a real confrontation with such repressive authoritarian institutions as the Sharia courts. The only constant are the viewership ratings, which is like a dagger stabbed in the backs of all victims, even after their death.

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