With the novel coronavirus exacerbating already dire socio-economic conditions in Lebanon, journalists there find themselves facing double the work. Even as Lebanon’s government grapples with a deteriorating economy and financial crisis on one hand, and the COVID-19 pandemic on the other, popular demonstrations have resumed. Many of those protesting are ignoring measures aimed at guarding against the spread of the coronavirus. Reporters are caught in the middle.

“Now that popular protests and movements are back amid the coronavirus outbreak, the biggest challenge I’m facing while at work is trying to cover developments from the field,” said Joyce Akiki, a prominent reporter with Lebanon-based MTV channel in a velfie (or a video selfie) she posted on her social media platforms. “I’m compelled to interview people and penetrate protests where hundreds of people are gathering without maintaining physical distance or wearing protective masks, forcing me to risk contracting the virus.”

Joyce Akiki wears a face mask while covering street protests in Beirut. The protests make social distancing difficult. Photo courtesy Hussam Chebaro

Akiki’s velfie is part of #JournalistsSafetyIsYourSafety, a social media challenge launched by the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) regional office in Lebanon and the UN Information Centre (UNIC) in Beirut on the occasion of World Press Freedom Day.

Raneem Abou Khzam, a prominent young reporter for LBCI TV, echoed the same fear in the velfie she posted on Twitter and Instagram.

The two-day challenge, taken by 15 renowned reporters, involved recounting one challenge they are facing in their work amid the pandemic, posting it as a short video or velfie, and challenging their colleagues to do the same. The posts were promoted on the social media platforms of all UN agencies in Lebanon, an effort coordinated with the UN Communications Group in Lebanon.

Photo illustration showing journalists who took part in the two-day #JournalistsSafetyIsYourSafety challenge. Illustration: UNIC Beiruit

Like most reporters, Halima Tabiaa from Al Jadeed TV cherishes freedom of expression, but must balance that against the real health risk she is taking as she does her work – including her fear that she could bring the virus home to her husband, children or parents. “The biggest challenge I am facing now amid COVID-19 and the popular protests is to be able to earn a living by relaying the news in a free and transparent way, but without contracting the virus and transmitting it to my loved ones,” she said.

For Wissam Oraby from state-run Tele Liban, the greatest challenge for journalists now is safeguarding freedom of expression and freedom of speech. “I hope journalism will remain free,” he said, as he accepted the challenge from his colleague at the TV station.

Reporters with disabilities also face constraints as they work to gather and deliver the news, but they also bear the brunt of a lack of access to services needed to cover their basic needs. “The lack of an accessible environment hampers my work whenever I try to be in the field covering people with disabilities and advocating for their rights. On this occasion, I do hope that the media will be more inclusive, and access to communications and technology will be without any obstacles to allow me to carry out my daily work,” said Sylavana Lakkis, Chair of the Arab Forum for the right of persons with disabilities, in her velfie. A new UN report finds the COVID-19 pandemic is intensifying inequalities experienced by the world’s one billion people with disabilities, UN Secretary-General António Guterres said. The report urges a response and recovery to the crisis that is inclusive of people with disabilities.

In addition to these challenges, other reporters noted significant security risks in Lebanon. For example, Alain Dargham from MTV described the situation he faced while covering riots in the northern city of Tripoli as dangerous, especially after the riots turned into violent clashes between protesters and the Lebanese Armed Forces. Unfortunately, the need to exercise physical distancing and wear protective equipment pales in comparison to more immediate security needs reporters and protesters alike face during such confrontations.