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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 18 June 2018

Politics of the press: Lebanon’s journalists run in the parliamentary elections

‘This election is a Pandora’s box,’ says former TV correspondent Paula Yacoubian

Lebanese singer Ragheb Alameh (L) welcomes Lebanese TV host Paula Yacoubian (C) during a karting race organised by Lebanese celebrities to mark the beginning of the Beirut Cultural Festival at Beirut's water front on May 20, 2016. Patrick Baz / AFP
Lebanese singer Ragheb Alameh (L) welcomes Lebanese TV host Paula Yacoubian (C) during a karting race organised by Lebanese celebrities to mark the beginning of the Beirut Cultural Festival at Beirut's water front on May 20, 2016. Patrick Baz / AFP

After more than 10 years as a television host, Paula Yacoubian decided she could do more for her country as a politician.

She is among those hoping that Lebanon’s first parliamentary elections since 2009 could be a political game-changer or, at least, deliver a blow to the current establishment.

“In Lebanon, you don’t only cover the news, you live the consequences,” she said. “In 2018, our country still doesn't have [24-hour] electricity and the garbage crisis is a scandal.”

The country has been facing a garbage crisis since 2015, when Beirut’s main landfill shut down after running beyond its expiry date – sparking a protest movement that criticised politicians over their inability to resolve the issue.

Lebanon’s constitution stipulates four-year terms for parliament, but the current one has extended its own mandate twice. That means when voters go to the polls this May, a significant number of them will be casting their votes for the first time.

What remains to be is seen is whether new voters will choose new faces over established politicians – many of whom come from a line of government officials.

“This election is a Pandora’s box,” Ms Yacoubian told The National.

The 41-year-old is one of Lebanon’s most recognisable television journalists, a status cemented by her selection to conduct an exclusive interview with Prime Minister Saad Hariri in Saudi Arabia last year after he made a sudden decision – which he later rescinded – to resign.

Although Ms Yacoubian had worked for a decade at Future TV – a channel owned by Mr Hariri and loyal to his party, the Future Movement – she is running as part of Sabaa, a newly formed non-sectarian political party made up of candidates drawn from civil society.

Ms Yacoubian criticised the current political establishment as made up of people from “royal families”, who rely on fearmongering to rally the support of their electorates.

“The new voters will vote differently, from their family, their parents, and they will vote for women and for human rights and candidates that will not use superstition and fearmongering,” she said.

In Lebanon’s most recent municipal elections in 2016, Beirut Madinatee – a civil society party established in 2009 – took approximately 40 per cent of the vote in the capital. The 10-point platform focused on improving quality of life Beirut, including the expansion of public transport, green space, and public libraries.

“I believe people who are running with the civil society movement are very good people – I believe they will do well. They don’t have a [chief], and they don’t have a spiritual leader,” Ms Yacoubian said, referring to many of the country’s politicians whose parties are linked to religious institutions.

“They need the support of the electorates, they cannot disappoint us or fail,” she said. “Because if they do, they will not be elected again.”

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Also this year, there is hope that the election will change the demographics of parliament. Women are 111 of the 976 candidates registered to run in the election – slightly more than 10 per cent.

Currently, of the 128 MPs, only four are women.

But Jessica Azar, 31, another TV journalist who is running for the upcoming election, said she did not expect a significant increase in female representatives.

“If we want to be realistic, all statistics show [the new parliament] will not exceed five or six women for the main reason that some big parties, who talk day and night about women’s rights, did not bother themselves to nominate a female candidate,” said Ms Azar, who has been working at Lebanese channel MTV for nine years.

In addition to Ms Azar and Ms Yacoubian, at least a half dozen journalists, mostly women, are standing in the election, including veteran newspaper correspondent and The National columnist Raghida Dergham, who is running for a seat in Beirut’s second district.

In contrast to Ms Yacoubian, Ms Azar is running with the Lebanese Forces, an established party that grew out of one of the largest militias in Lebanon’s 1976-1990 civil war.

She said that it was more important to have new faces elected to parliament, whatever the party.

“Change can’t be made by politicians who ruled the country for decades,” she said.

The dysfunction of state institutions is not the only issue motivating new candidates.

Ms Azar is acutely aware of what rights activists have identified as a growing trend of prosecutions against journalists in Lebanon.

Jamil Al Sayyed, the former chief of Lebanon’s General Security agency, threatened to sue Ms Azar for libel this year after she re-tweeted another journalist’s tweet asserting that Mr Al Sayyed had “mischief on his hands”.

“Protecting journalists with new laws will be for sure one of my priorities if I will have the chance to be part of the new parliament,” Ms Azar said. “Freedom of the press is a shared and sacred commitment.”

Ms Yacoubian said that regardless of the results, she has given up journalism for politics.

“If I can help the civil society movement, give them a voice, and try to be on the right side of history to help my country and the future of my son, I thought that would be a very noble cause,” Ms Yacoubian said.

“Every day I’m more convinced I’m doing the right thing and that people believe in us.”