For Hussein Mehdy and Elham Barjas, journalism was less a calling – Mehdy studied psychology and political science, Barjas law – than a logical way to change Lebanese society.
Barjas had wanted to be a lawyer but could not because, even though she was born in Lebanon, she is not a citizen, and the profession is closed to non-citizens. She writes on legal and judicial affairs and human rights.
“I chose to become a journalist because I considered it the second-best option and a most meaningful way to fight for human rights,” she says.
For Mehdy’s part, the conversion was gradual, but he says, “Once I realized and understood the potential that journalism has and the success I was having in making an impact, I decided to continue down that path.”
Barjas and Mehdy both have experience in investigative work and in-depth reporting. Mehdy has probed corruption, misuse of resources, and mismanagement at the American University of Beirut. Barjas has written for the Legal Agenda, a nonprofit group that aims to make the legal process more transparent for non-lawyers, the Al-Modon online newspaper, for which she created a supplement on legal issues, and the Al-Akhbar newspaper.
Both journalists bemoan the lack of independent reporting in Lebanon, where mainstream media are often tools of political or business interests. Reporting is rarely done in the public interest and few journalists dare to challenge their outlets’ editorial line.
“There is a need for independent journalists who are not reliant on any institution or organization,” Mehdy says. “Independent journalists are not bound by the interests or motives of political parties or advertising companies.”
Lebanon ranks in the middle of Reporters Without Borders’ most recent Press Freedom Index of 180 countries. Among other issues, it gets a black mark for laws that treat defamation and the dissemination of false information as criminal, rather than civil, offenses.
Mehdy and Barjas have felt those restrictions. Mehdy, who has been threatened and sued over his reporting, says editors have pressured him to drop certain stories. Barjas has received anonymous threats in response to her work.
The duo recently won a fellowship to explore the implications of expanded government surveillance in Lebanon, awarded by the Social Media Exchange, a digital rights advocacy group in Beirut.
Lebanon’s secret services have stepped up online monitoring, violating privacy rights and threatening freedom of expression. The Interior Ministry’s Cybercrime and Intellectual Property Rights Bureau, for example, has drawn fire from watchdog groups for widening its remit to investigating the online activity of journalists and bloggers, in contravention of Lebanon’s main press law.
“In Lebanon, it is difficult for non-experts to access matters related to the law and human rights. It’s even harder when you add technology as a component.” Barjas says. “That’s why I think this topic is important.”