Pictured: A 2019 edition of An-Nahar, a leading Arabic-language daily newspaper published in Lebanon.

Challenges faced by female journalists in Lebanon and the Middle East: Advocating for press freedom and gender equality

Women journalists in Lebanon and the Middle East face challenges in press freedom and gender equality. This can hinder their reporting and put them at risk of harassment and discrimination. Supporting and uplifting these journalists is crucial to ensure their voices are heard and their work valued.

This piece is a little meta. At Missing Perspectives, we believe that it is important to platform stories that are overlooked by mainstream newsmakers. But in some parts of the world, there are challenges inherent in even being able to do the job of reporting.

For example, women journalists in Lebanon and the Middle East face challenges in press freedom and gender equality. This can hinder their reporting and put them at risk of harassment and discrimination. Supporting and uplifting these journalists is crucial to ensure their voices are heard and their work is valued.

The fight for gender equality in Arab nations, particularly in Lebanon, is an ongoing struggle despite progress made in recent years. Women still face discrimination and marginalization, particularly in male-dominated fields like the media industry. 

These challenges are further compounded by societal pressures, unjust laws, workplace exploitation, and individual injustices. It is crucial to uphold the basic human rights of all individuals, and to acknowledge and safeguard the rights of female journalists. The onus is on those in positions of authority to encourage and guarantee the fulfilment of these rights.

Lebanon, in particular, has faced numerous challenges over the past four years, including economic, political, financial, and social crises. Despite the people's protest in October 2019 to oust the government, the authorities have remained in power, hampering efforts at reform. The Covid-19 pandemic and external interventions have further complicated the situation. Things went from bad to worse with the devastating explosion at Beirut Port on August 4, 2020, which torpedoed the already dire economic situation. As a result, Lebanon's economy is teetering on the brink of collapse.

Women, journalism, and working in the Middle East

Journalism in the Middle East can be a challenging field for women, particularly in countries like Lebanon where conservative values are prevalent. Unfortunately, female journalists who are qualified and competent often face prejudice and discrimination based solely on their gender. 

This unfair treatment can cast doubt on their authority and credibility, despite their significant contributions to the profession. Additionally, traditional gender roles and expectations can limit their ability to cover important topics such as political debates, gender-based crimes, and economic issues. Regrettably, speaking out against the political status quo or reporting on illegal authoritarian behaviour can damage their reputation and add to the difficulties they already face.

"Maryam Seif", a Lebanese journalist, is one of those who suffered severe repercussions for daring to speak out against the policies of various Lebanese political parties. Her brave stance provoked increased political and social pressure, which manifested itself in both verbal and physical assaults against her. In 2021, Maryam was compelled to flee to France, fearing for her own and her family's safety. Despite facing constant threats and harassment, Maryam's dedication to investigative journalism and humanitarian concerns is inspiring. Her indomitable spirit in the face of adversity is a testament to her commitment to her work as a journalist. 

Meanwhile, a 2018 survey conducted by Troll Busters and the International Women’s Media Foundation found that over 60% of female reporters worldwide had been threatened or harassed online, while 58% had experienced the same in person. 26% of the respondents were physically attacked, and 10% had received death threats within the previous year. The survey also revealed that 85% of respondents felt less safe doing their work than they did five years earlier (in part due to the growing confidence and volume of trolls online), experiencing harassment in the form of unsolicited sexual messages, threats of violence, rape or death, or the publication of their confidential information, particularly when covering political news.

The impact of the crisis in Lebanon on the freedom of the press

As the crisis in Lebanon intensifies, journalists who speak out against the government face harsh repression. This is creating an atmosphere of fear and self-censorship that is particularly pronounced among those who investigate corruption and political incompetence. Both male and female journalists are at risk, as authorities crack down on those who criticize those in power or fail to fulfil their professional duties.

The latest report by "Reporters Without Borders" titled "A New Era of Polarization" brings to light Lebanon's dismal state of press freedom. The country's ranking of 130th out of 180 countries in the 2022 World Press Freedom Index is cause for alarm. There are only 50 countries in the world whose media and journalists have it worse. Considering the state of play in Lebanon, the reality of that statistic is terrifying. The report highlights the alarming trend of journalists being summoned or oppressed for unclear reasons when they speak out against the system, with even lawyers being subjected to prior censorship. 

The case of journalist "Dima Sadek" serves as a stark reminder of the perils of refusing to bow to political repression. For daring to voice her dissent against right-wing factions in Lebanon, she was unjustly handed a year-long prison sentence by the country's judicial system, along with a slew of authoritarian and social injustices. Her personal life was publicly exposed, and she was subjected to insults, as well as attacks on her professional reputation and livelihood. The verdict is presently being contested, and this matter must be resolved with fairness and equity, although it's doubtful that will happen.

Employment discrimination and unequal pay

The media industry undoubtedly holds a strong bias against women, leading to unjust treatment with regards to issues like pay. According to a study titled "The Domestic Tethering of Lebanese and Arab Women Journalists and News Managers" from the American University of Beirut, male journalists are significantly more likely to be found in higher income categories. Specifically, those in the middle-income range ($1,001 to $3,000) are 2.29 times more likely to be men, while those in the highest income category (> $3,000) are 4.01 times more likely to be men, compared to those in the low-income range (<$1,000).

Gender biases in journalism lead to male journalists being seen as more competent and discourage women from pursuing the field. This lack of support and mentorship perpetuates gender inequality, worsened by the gender wage gap in Arab and Lebanese societies. Fairer opportunities and recognition are needed for women in journalism to create a more inclusive and diverse industry.

To achieve gender equality and ensure the safety of female journalists in the Middle East, it is crucial for governments, media organizations, civil society groups, and international partners to work together. Committing to the "Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women" can and will establish necessary laws to promote fairness and equal opportunities. Supplying tailored training and support groups can help to empower female journalists to overcome challenges and enhance their status in the industry, creating a more secure and supportive environment for all journalists, regardless of their gender.