Megaphone: The voice of Lebanon’s uprising
Volunteers at the activist media platform say their goal is to push boundaries of acceptable discourse in Lebanon.
Beirut, Lebanon – Tariq Keblaoui has barely left the streets since Lebanon’s uprising began. He has experienced its twists and turns, from the initial explosion of unity more than 50 days ago, through subsequent episodes of violence and growing economic uncertainty.
It has not been easy for the 26-year-old freelance videographer, who films for Megaphone, an independent media platform that has grown to become the voice of the youth-driven protest movement.
“I’ve been beaten, I’ve been teargassed, I’ve gone on very little sleep,” Keblaoui said, but he has never thought of leaving.
“If this whole thing goes south? If there’s more violence? I’d buy a bigger zoom lens for the camera,” he added with a laugh.
Like many Lebanese people, Keblaoui had waited for years to experience something like the cross-sectarian uprising that has swept Lebanon since October 17, bringing down a government in the process.
Protesters want a new government of independent experts to be appointed to steward the country through its worst economic crisis in a generation, which they blame on policies adopted by former militia leaders and businessmen who have ruled Lebanon since its 1975-90 civil war. The demonstrators also want early elections to be held based on a new, non-sectarian electoral law.
But the country’s political elites, deeply entrenched, have so far held on to power.
They have used media organisations under their sway to try and steer the narrative of the uprising, while supporters of some parties, mainly Hezbollah and its ally the Amal Movement, have attacked protesters across the country in what appeared to be organised mobilisations.
In this climate, working for an independent, anti-sectarian organisation like Megaphone can feel intimidating.
“There’s always a fear that one day we’ll get the wrong kind of fame with the wrong kind of people, who might decide to take measures against us,” Keblaoui said. “But despite these fears, there’s a duty to keep going.”
‘Push the boundaries’
Founded in 2017, Megaphone has recently gained popularity for its critical take on news and its breakdowns of politicians speeches during the uprising.
While the majority of its output consists of videos, it also publishes text opinion pieces in Arabic and daily news wraps in English and Arabic.
Before the uprising, Megaphone would post one or two videos a month, each of which received between tens of thousands and 200,000 views, but over the weeks-long protest movement, it has published scores of videos which have cumulatively been watched millions of times.
The platform has also published dozens of no-holds-barred opinion pieces, penned by leading Lebanese progressive thinkers, featuring topics ranging from how the uprising has countered patriarchy in the country, to dissections of Hezbollah leader Hasan Nasrallah’s psyche.
A recent piece, titled “Cutting off the king’s head”, began with the line: “For those who do not know this: The ultimate goal of any revolution is to behead the king.”
It is rare to find that kind of outspoken coverage on traditional media in Lebanon, largely owned and funded by politicians and businessmen.
“The predominant structures in the media industry in Lebanon are more or less extensions of the current political establishment,” Rabie Barakat, a lecturer in media studies at the American University of Beirut, told Al Jazeera.
“One way to circumvent these structures is to create platforms like Megaphone.”
Megaphone is funded entirely with grants from foundations and programmes outside Lebanon, which according to Barakat, “makes sense, because we don’t have an industry in Lebanon capable of creating platforms that can sustain themselves”.
The platform’s funders include the European Endowment for Democracy, Canal France International and Denmark-based International Media Support.
Funders have no influence over Megaphone’s editorial policy, according to Jamal Saleh, the group’s creative director.
Activists and journalists in Lebanon have been interrogated and, in some cases, sentenced to jail terms for critique far less cutting than that published by Megaphone.
The platform’s volunteers say it is their goal to push the boundaries of what is deemed acceptable discourse in the country.
“We’ve been very critical from the beginning,” Saleh told Al Jazeera. “The revolution has definitely given us a more fertile ground and more support, and we feel that, but we never compromise on our editorial line.”
Between activism and journalism
Saleh spoke from the group’s nondescript Beirut office, the exact location of which is kept under wraps for security reasons. Similarly, all those who work with Megaphone keep a low profile online.
The same cannot be said for their presence in the streets. Many have led chants throughout the current uprising, and at protests in the years before.
Most of Megaphone’s core group are in their mid to late 20s and met at the university. They participated in the large anti-corruption protests in Beirut in 2015, a precursor to the current uprising.
“Almost everyone who works for us has held a Megaphone at some point, hence the name,” 27-year-old Saleh said.
“We have all been involved in activism,” she added, noting that she does not see that as an issue for an organisation that also publishes news.
“We have what I’d say is our straight news content in the daily news items, which aim to be more or less objective. But our progressive views are clear and I think that’s why people come to us.”
Barakat said that the platform clearly has an “activist or a motivational side” that aims to drive the uprising in Lebanon. “I don’t think it’s ethically problematic by any means. I just think it’s good to distinguish between journalism and activism on a case-by-case basis.”
Saleh said the group saw a large gap in what traditional media in the country was offering to a mostly-young part of the population who became increasingly opposed to the sectarian parties that have ruled the country since the civil war ended in 1990.
Amplifying regular voices
Megaphone’s style is slick and snappy – intentionally geared towards a generation who get their news on social media.
Open up Instagram, Facebook and – to a lesser extent – Twitter in Lebanon today and you are bound to see posts of their daily news wraps, or links to their latest video, uploaded late at night by a tireless team of volunteers, although two people have recently been given salaried positions.
The platform is also constantly evolving. Recently, it has been posting short, unedited, single-shot videos under the title “a snapshot from the street”, which amplify the voices of regular people taking part in the protests.
“This idea came from me arriving at Megaphone on the second night [of protests] after being teargassed and showing them this insanely cinematic footage,” Keblaoui recalled.
Unfiltered and unedited, the videos show scenes like people chanting feminist slogans, an impassioned speech by an older man to young protesters about why the uprising is a “revolution”, and, from early on, security forces teargassing protesters.
Saleh says 18-hour days have become the norm, and she had only seen her parents once in the first 30 days of the uprising.
“Everyone here has given it their everything,” she said. “But it’s very fulfilling getting out this content that we all really believe in.”