BEIRUT, Lebanon, March 26 (UPI) -- I had the privilege recently of lecturing an elite group of young Lebanese journalists from most of the city's top publications for a seminar on "Covering the Oil & Gas Sector."
Though the seminar was chiefly designed to address the issue of covering the energy market (oil and natural gas) at large, the topic of how a new generation of Beirut journalists could report on the development of the Levantine Gas Basin naturally came up throughout the sessions.
In particular, the attendees, who ranged from Now Lebanon, Executive, Bold, Lebanon Opportunities, Al Monitor, L'Orient-Le Jour and Alsumaria News, were interested that as the Levantine Basin is developed on keeping track of the process, following the money, and calling for transparency on the part of the Lebanese government and the Ministry of Energy.
Thus far, many in the Levantine media, both senior and junior, and members of the public, are acutely attuned to the possibility of corruption.
An old editor of mine once repeated the longtime reminder that "Citizens deserve one good shot at the truth" and this came to mind as each presenter spoke with the assembled Beirut journalists.
At issue, is how will Lebanon conduct development of its natural gas resources and how are some ways to guarantee transparency of this process? How to keep track of the revenues gained from drilling? And when rules, regulations, contracts and the flow of money is not transparent, how will the Lebanese news media combat this?
Sponsoring and co-organizing the event were Lebanon's Samir Kassir Foundation and the Sam Houston University Global Center for Journalism and Democracy, along with support from the European Community.
Ayman Mhanna, Samir Kassir foundation director, noted, "Only a well-trained and alert press corps can help Lebanese citizens understand what is happening in strategic sectors that will impact their lives for decades to come."
"An informed citizenry is the foundation of a vibrant democracy," Mhanna said. "The training was aimed at providing journalists in Lebanon with the tools to ask the right questions -- years before the drilling begins -- to ensure that the Lebanese public is well informed and that lessons learnt from other countries are well integrated in the government's planning process."
Kelli Arena, director of SHU's Global Center for Journalism and Democracy, echoed this sentiment, saying, "This new generation of journalists in Lebanon is hungry to perform a different role; to hold officials accountable, to spur the public to action, and to be informed as possible about important developments so they can act as intelligent watchdogs."
A recap on the news -- large potential natural gas reserves were found several years ago in what is called the Levantine Basin. A U.S. Geological Survey said in 2010 the Levant Basin contains 123 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and around 2 billion barrels of oil.
Under maritime law, the basin region was to be shared between Cyprus (an EU country) Israel and Lebanon. Of the former two countries they were quick off the mark in getting into the bidding business, forging relationships with exploratory and drilling companies and generally preparing to do business.
Plagued by slow-motion politics and Lebanon's well-known sectarian splits, the Lebanese government is effectively years behind neighbors Israel and Cyprus in moving forward on exploration.
The Revenue Watch Institute, a non-governmental organization, noted on a white paper regarding media coverage of the extraction industry, "Many governments and private-sector interests avoid media scrutiny by remaining silent on public interest issues, such as royalty and tax agreements, budgets and spending."
The group added, "Some countries constitutionally guarantee freedom of expression and freedom of information but those freedoms may be severely limited in practice. Journalists face threats to their livelihood and safety and fear of these threats often leads to self-censorship, including an unwillingness to conduct in-depth reporting."
RWI's Laury Haytayan participated in the Samir Kassir seminar running through the importance of following the process from the contract period through to the revenue phase.
For attendee Christine El Cheikh, senior editor, Alsumaria News-Alsumaria Iraqi Satellite Channel, a key lesson from the seminar was to begin coverage of the Levantine Basin development, "starting now."
"It (the seminar) added real value to my knowledge in oil and gas sector; including regional overview, challenges, environmental concerns as well as trading, prices and general market trends, and how to turn them into stories accessible to the general public, considering credible sources, different fact-checking techniques and transparency assessment," said El Cheikh.
She added, "I believe the training succeeded in achieving its objectives, since all attendees are convinced now that they should not wait years before actually making a change. Being familiar with the Lebanese political context, the people are expecting more corruption but, as journalists, our job is to change this ideology, starting now."
Presenter Kris Van Orsdel, a government affairs specialist, noted that a lack of transparency and a lack of honesty damaged much of the Gulf of Mexico for years to come after the Deepwater Horizon disaster, adding, "You have the opportunity here as journalists to ask the questions so that these things are put in place and disasters don't happen here."
Final presenter for the seminar, Ben Van Heuvlen, IraqOilReport.com, used Norway as a top example of an oil economy that has set aside a large social fund from their oil boom -- something that will be interesting to see whether that happens in Lebanon or not; also and including improved urban services, community investment; and not a large government sector employment program.
The possibility is there, with solid media coverage leading to an informed citizenry who will push for a better society from the development of the Levantine Basin and resulting potential profit.
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T.K. Malory was a business editor for UPI until 2008. He is the MENA correspondent for Marcopolis.net, an English language business newswire. His most recent project is Faces of the Economy: Lebanon (http://www.marcopolis.net/faces-of-lebanon.htm ) Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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