Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 23 October 2020

The Public Source: a website started by two journalists changing the way Lebanon’s stories are told

The platform’s main mandate, however, is to produce investigative long-form journalism that delves into the roots of Lebanon’s raft of problems

‘The Public Source’ was launched in response to protests in Lebanon. EPA
‘The Public Source’ was launched in response to protests in Lebanon. EPA

How do you look beyond day-to-day events and begin to analyse the triggers, currents and consequences of a popular movement? The Public Source, a new independent Lebanese media platform, is taking on that challenge.

Launched in January, The Public Source is a non-profit digital media project co-founded by Lebanese journalists Lara Bitar and Kareem Chehayeb. Initially conceived as a digital outlet dedicated to publishing in-depth long-form investigative reports, its scope has broadened amid the ongoing protests in Lebanon.

The bilingual English-Arabic site was launched with Dispatches from the October Revolution, a series of first-person reflections on and analyses of the protest movement and its context, including Lebanon’s financial crisis, the ramifications of various responses to the pitfalls of a technocratic government and the role of women in the uprising.

Other dispatches delve into the tragedy of Lebanon’s brain drain, methods of mapping collective action and what they reveal about the protest movement, and the impact of protests and Lebanon’s economic problems on migrant domestic workers.

Lara Bitar is the co-founder of The Public Source, a new media platform for stories from Lebanon. Lara Bitar
Lara Bitar is the co-founder of The Public Source, a new media platform for stories from Lebanon. Lara Bitar

Each story is written in a unique voice and style and sets aside daily news stories in favour of a broader contextual analysis that helps to highlight the most significant threads running through the tapestry of the protests. Areas of focus include capitalism and neoliberalism, gender and feminism, power, discourse and governance, labour and organising, displacement and migration and forging solidarity, Bitar says.

“The dispatches are brief reflections, analysis, commentary – primarily by people who have been or are currently part of different types of struggles,” she explains. “The aim, really, is to allow people to speak for themselves on the issues that affect their specific communities … We’re hoping to be able to pass the mic around, as opposed to reporting on communities we are not a part of.”

One of the most popular stories on the new site is an intimate work of creative non-fiction penned by Lebanese poet Zeina Hashem Beck. Beck’s piece on sexual harassment in Lebanon and the role of women in the protests, in a piece titled Taking the Bus Alone, combines her personal experiences with wider reflections on how the protests have shifted her views on public space in Lebanon.

She contrasts the long-lasting impact of her childhood experiences with the sense of empowerment she felt witnessing women in Lebanon taking to the streets to demand their rights and reject harassment, abuse and misogyny.

“This thawra [revolution] has made the women visible. This thawra is being lifted by the women,” she wrote.

But the story resonated with readers because it is a personal one on the issue of sexual harassment. “It’s never easy to share a personal story, and it certainly wasn’t easy for me. The topic generally of sexual assault and the female body, I don’t think they’re very taboo in Lebanon, but I do feel that maybe women are more reluctant to say ‘And this happened to me, specifically.’”

The response was so powerful that the publication was convinced to commission a similar but wider selection of stories, Bitar says.

“Zeina’s piece really resonated with a lot of readers. It was the piece that was most widely read and also most widely commented on,” she says. “We wanted to focus on socioeconomic issues, primarily, but because of the response we had to Zeina’s piece, we’re planning to expand our focus a bit and include more intimate portrayals of life under the current order.”

The platform’s main mandate, however, is to produce investigative long-form journalism that delves into the roots of Lebanon’s raft of problems, from the environmental to the economic. “We were kind of tired of the very anecdotal type of reporting that’s a little bit hysterical, not fact-based, not evidence-based, which is widely circulated, and we wanted to produce trustworthy journalism in the form of these types of investigations that really look at the roots of a lot of the crises that we’ve been facing for the past four decades,” Bitar says. “We wanted to answer two basic questions: why are we subjected to these economic, environmental and other types of crises … and who is benefiting from these crises?”

The Public Source’s first in-depth report is due to be published at the end of March.

We wanted to answer two basic questions: why are we subjected to these economic, environmental and other types of crises … and who is benefiting from these crises?

Lara Bitar

“Our first investigation is broadly on environmental injustice and we’re looking specifically at the garbage crisis – not just the 2015 garbage crisis, but going back to the early 1990s. That’s what I mean by tracing the roots of some of our long-standing economic, political, environmental and other crises.”

These long-form stories take months to produce and rely on access to raw data. In addition to leveraging a recent data access law to dig into documents long hidden from the public, The Public Source allows readers to anonymously provide tip-offs of information that is in the public’s interest.

“The goal behind it is to get individuals who work in government administrations or state-affiliated companies, who come across corruption or theft of public resources, theft of public funds, abuse of power, to either tip us [off] or send us documents that could help us investigate,” Bitar says.

The platform’s independent status may allow it greater freedom to publish than traditional media outlets in Lebanon, many of which depend on political patrons for funding. The Public Source, which is funded by grants and donations, is politically independent but not apolitical, Bitar explains, describing it as “anti-capitalist and leftist”.

We are hoping that our investigations will lead people to either take action or cause some kind of disturbance in how things operate on a day-to-day basis.”

For more information, visit www.thepublicsource.org

Updated: March 5, 2020 07:12 PM

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