Lara Bitar — upholding the values of independent journalism in Lebanon
In conversation with the editor-in-chief of The Public Source
The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region is notorious for its treatment of journalists. The state of press freedom in most countries across MENA has deteriorated in the last few years and continues to threaten journalists trying to do their jobs. Press and media in Lebanon are vulnerable to laws that can be weaponized against them. While a certain faction of press and media in the country is highly politicized, even divided to an extent, the individuals and platforms that value independent journalism have vowed to disseminate the truth.
Lara Bitar, editor of The Public Source — a Beirut-based independent media organization, is one such voice who fearlessly reports the often overlooked realities of Lebanon. The Coalition For Women In Journalism (CFWIJ) spoke with Lara to understand how she runs The Public Source, the stories it delves into, the challenges faced, and the strategies required to make the platform sustainable. She also discussed the matter of accountability and governance in Lebanon amidst the on-going crises.
“Broadly, we identify as a left-leaning publication dedicated to producing quality journalism in various forms,” Lara informed us as we began our conversation. “We see The Public Source as a political project that seeks to disseminate certain ideas and perspectives on crucial issues on one hand, and uncover information on the other. We don’t report on the news; rather, we’ve been providing big picture analysis of the events that have been unfolding since October 17 as we work on long-form investigations.”
The media platform is based in Beirut, dedicated to reporting on socio-economic and environmental crises. Lara lets us in on the stories they cover and all that goes into its content.
“We write deeply and critically on vital issues from local perspectives. The website has an updated and rolling list of topics that we are interested in looking into, some of which include migration and displacement. On this particular topic for example, we have published a few articles on kafala — the sponsorship system. We are also very interested in tackling issues related to labor and organizing. We have published a few pieces on the role of unions, the working class, and labor-organizing in relation to the October popular uprising,” she said when speaking with CFWIJ over a call.
According to Lara, The Public Source has a small team that consists of a couple of editors, including herself, an investigative journalist, and recently recruited an editorial assistant and two interns. The platform works with many collaborators including videographers, photographers, translators, copy editors, and different types of researchers and journalists on specific stories. It has one core unit that runs the platform, in addition to several side projects. One example being their page Comictern — a platform for fictional and non-fictional comics. A few months after launching the publication, the team also began working on a series of investigative reports tackling the material effects of hegemonic structures and systems in Lebanon, which will be unveiled in the coming weeks.
When talking about what makes The Public Source different from other media platforms in the country and the Arab world, Lara emphasized on its structure and its editorial and organizational practices. The site also features a whistleblowing platform.
“Our website has two different methods or tools that potential whistleblowers can use — whether they work in government administrations, ministries or corporations — to send us information or documents that expose the abuse of power, or anything else that they think is worthy of public disclosure and is in the public interest,” she shared.
Lara gave us an insight into how the platform operates, and what differentiates the organization from the otherwise traditionally operating media outlets in the country.
“We are founded on principles of non-hierarchy and mutual aid. We do not run like a traditional media organization with a top-down approach. Decision-making is shared by all of the members of the collective and reached by consensus. We do almost everything transparently, and in particular, when it comes to our sources of funding and its allocation. On that note, we are clear with our readers because we are an independent publication and it is important for our readers to know that our editorial policies and direction are guided by no one but the members of the collective,” she briefed CFWIJ about the platform’s operations and financial transparency.
She added that the funding received by The Public Source comes with no strings attached; the members of the collective are the only people who have a say in the platform’s decision-making, including those related to content.
“It is difficult to attempt to run an independent platform in this context — especially, since the media landscape in Lebanon is saturated by outlets funded by political parties with a lot of wealth, power and access. We are operating without any of those things, so even the simplest requirements of our work, like getting a filming permit, is difficult. But we continue to be committed to actualizing and embodying the values and principles on which The Public Source was founded.” Lara asserted.
When talking about the feedback the platform has received in a very short time, Lara said that the reception has been, for the most part, tremendous.
“We have received a lot of support and feedback from our readers in the different communities that have been following our work. It has been exciting because we are a newly launched publication and we are still quite far from reaching our potential, yet the reception has been generous and positive. We’ve been told by our readers, peers and veteran journalists that The Public Source is an urgent project, that it is needed, necessary, and timely. Readers are appreciative of the kind of work we are doing, especially on specific topics that are usually intentionally ignored; and if they are, they are usually covered in a shallow manner. So, we delve into as much depth as possible through our articles, while trying to keep our material accessible.” she mentioned.
She also discussed how The Public Source’s editorial practices cannot be compromised by funders and investors that may come with preconditions. The platform prioritized editorial liberty to stay true to their work.
“We are, for the most part, selective about where we get our funding from. We have, and continue to build, a list of criteria of who to work with and who not to. We list our funders and supporters on our platform and — for the most part, with minor exceptions — these are organizations that resemble us politically. We are an anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist collective, looking at pressing issues through a feminist lens, which is evident in our body of work. While we are keenly aware of the myriad of issues that come with accepting funding from Western sources, the reality we were confronted with left us no other choice. Some of our peers are now reviving and renewing older media platforms and their funding is local, sure, but tied to establishment figures or the banking sector. We would much rather close shop than advance the agenda of someone else,” she informed CFWIJ.
The platform is attempting to develop a model that would allow them to become completely sustainable and financially independent in three years.
“Whether we will be able to meet that goal or not is still unclear, but it is ultimately our aspiration to be funded by our readers. We are thinking about different models, like subscriptions and memberships. As an organization that attempts to do work in public interest, we thought that it would not be possible to do so from behind a paywall. So what we’re doing now in the first phase, is getting readers acquainted with our publication, with the quality of our work, and with the kinds of topics, material and issues that we take on,” Lara said.
She also touched upon the crisis journalism is facing and deemed that as a major hurdle for news organizations suffering all over the world.
“Newspapers and other media organizations are slashing secure jobs, shutting down permanently, or increasingly relying on the exploitation of precarious freelancers and I’ve been through all these experiences, as have most of the founding members of The Public Source. So when the idea for this project was being nurtured, it was first and foremost premised on the belief that we need to democratize our workplaces and, for me, that attempt is a daily practice and, again, that’s why our structure is so integral to who we are and how we situate ourselves in this landscape,” Lara said.
Moving on from the structural and operational systems of the platform, we then spoke with Lara about the latest article published on the site, a testimony of a person profoundly impacted by the Beirut port explosions on August 4.
At the time of the interview, Lara said the testimony, featuring a domestic worker named Doris Agbakey, was about to be updated with a more accurate reflection of her life in Beirut, adding that the Lebanese sponsorship system is very cruel for domestic workers. When Doris was initially interviewed in Beirut, she was not able to speak freely, particularly after being severely injured during the blasts that shook the city. However, once she was able to return to her home in Ghana, Doris spoke about the injustices she faced throughout her time working in Beirut. As the editor of the publication, Lara thought of a creative way of updating the original testimony which she believes made it even more powerful.
“I was faced with a number of options. We could have simply taken down the article and act as if nothing happened; we could have taken down the article and then republished a new one that portrayed a more truthful recounting of her life in Lebanon, or we could have left the first intact and added select excerpts from the second testimony, particularly in places that reveal deep contradictions,” Lara said, explaining that she eventually decided on the last option.
“This will allow the readers to see the difference between Doris’s first and second accounts. Originally, Doris said she could contemplate coming back to Lebanon, but once she was back in her home country, her response was ‘hell, no. I would never come back.’ Side by side, the reader can compare and see how vast the difference is between these two testimonies,” Lara added.
With concerns regarding the fate of independent journalism across MENA, we asked Lara what it is like for The Public Source to operate as an independent platform, despite the fear of draconian laws threatening press freedom in the country.
“It is obviously in the back of my mind and we have taken some security precautions. We recently got a lawyer on-board for legal representation, if needed at some point. We continue to strengthen our digital security and, of course, we have some mechanisms in place to ensure our physical safety. We are conscious of the risks and we try to mitigate them as best we can, but we will not allow them to make us paranoid or hinder our work,” she responded.
Lara added that when The Public Source was initially conceived, the mission of the organization was precisely to “respond to this moment in particular.”
“We knew that there was going to be harsh austerity measures. We knew that the ramifications of those measures were going to be severe, we knew a financial crisis was looming and we had, at that point, identified the need for an organization like ours… that’s why we cannot veer too far off from that initial idea, because this is essentially what the organization was founded to respond to. We were working on the establishment of the whistleblowing platform, the only in the country that’s tied to a media organization, one of a handful across the region, months before October 17. So, yes, we are aware and conscious of the dangers, but we will not allow the state and its repressive tactics to stop us from doing our work,” she remarked, underlining the weaponization of laws in the country against the press.
Lack of accountability among the ruling class in Lebanon is a norm. Lara shared with us how the many issues that the country faces today are a result of the different crimes committed by those who hold some form of power in the country. She highlighted the lawlessness with examples of the environmental crimes committed regularly in Lebanon.
“A couple of days later, or maybe the day after the explosion, I don’t remember exactly when it took place, there was a huge fire next to my place. I’m not sure whose decision it was but they took a lot of the garbage and the debris including glass, metal and different types of material then dumped in a valley, which later caught fire. This is just to give you a sample of the crimes, carried out every single day and no one ever faces any repercussions,” she informed us.
Lara shared that even though the press informs the public and exposes problem areas within the country, there is no accountability, which makes it difficult for justice to prevail.
“Despite its limitations and political affiliations, the press in Lebanon is still very strong. But merely informing the public of wrongdoing is not enough. It doesn’t matter how much you expose these criminals and thugs, nothing happens. Some journalists are doing excellent work but there is no one at all to pass the torch to. No independent judiciary, no real revolutionary forces. They are only one link in a long chain required to attain some form of justice, but everything comes to a halt at the moment of exposure. There is scandal after scandal every single day and people are unfazed by them at this point, and understandably so. Corruption is not a symptom of a deficient system that needs to be reformed. Corruption is the system… so what we need right now is its radical overhaul,” Lara commented.
This Interview originally appeared in the Women In Journalism Magazine by The Coalition For Women In Journalism