Media

    A State of Ongoing Crisis and Over-Supply
    The Media in Lebanon

    Man reading a newspaper, Al-Azhar Mosque, Cairo. Photo: Markus Kirchgessner How many newspapers, magazines, and television channels can a country with only four million inhabitants cope with? Not many, you might think. Not so in Lebanon. No less than thirteen daily newspapers and about 300 weekly, monthly, and quarterly magazines are published here. Add to this eight Lebanese television stations and countless imported international print media. Of course, for a small subscription, all global television channels are also available. The supply is overwhelming. From time to time new media appear on the scene, such as the daily newspaper al-Akhbar or the glossy erotic magazine Jasad. Last year the television channel MTV, which belongs to Gabriel al-Murr, a member of the powerful al-Murr family, started broadcasting again. And yet the Lebanese are by no means enthusiastic newspaper readers. No more than 60,000 copies of all of the country's daily newspapers are sold every day, and only a few hundred magazines. The television stations have to share a tiny advertising market. This naturally raises the question as to the reason for this diversity and the secret of the survival of these media.

    Exceptional situation

    The media landscape in Lebanon is unique in the Arab world. With the exception of the insignificant television channel Télé Liban, which is teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, the country has never had media that are steered or controlled by the state. Lebanese journalists and newspaper publishers do not have firsthand experience of the kind of bitter battles waged by their colleagues in other Arab countries against the state in favour of freedom of speech. The press in Lebanon is often described as having the most freedom of all press sectors in the Arab world, and enjoys a good reputation. It is very often labelled liberal, pluralistic, and professional. This reputation, on which the Lebanese press still feeds to this day, dates back to its heyday in the 1950s and 1960s. The president at the time, Camille Chamoun, lifted the restrictions imposed by his predecessor and paved the way for the issuing of new licences. This led to an unprecedented number of new media being founded. Even then, the basic evil and the greatest problem faced by the Lebanese media was evident, namely their dependence on financial backers, who are very often political leaders from different groupings. The inflationary number of new newspapers led the newspaper association to urge the Lebanese president to put a stop to the issuing of licences. This stop remains in place to this day.

    The press upswing in Lebanon is closely linked with political changes in the region and the country's new role. Following the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, Israel's northern neighbour became a new transit route. This small state in the eastern Mediterranean blossomed into a trade and financial hub in the Middle East. With the military coup of 1952 and the increasing pressure exerted by Gamal Abdel Nasser on the print media and publishing companies, Lebanon took over from Egypt as the centre of pan-Arabic media. For a long time, the majority of people reading Lebanese newspapers and magazines were not based in or around Beirut, but in the Gulf region or in Baghdad. In the 1950s, significant technical innovations were introduced and journalism was made more professional.

    Dependence on financial backers

    Large parts of the liberal press law initiated by President Fuad Chihab in 1962 remain valid to this day. This law also stipulates the restrictions to which Lebanese journalists must adhere, namely to consider national security and the unity of the country and not to engage in denominational incitement. In practice, however, it is not these limitations that make the work of Lebanese journalists difficult. It is the boundaries and taboos that journalists and editors-in-chief impose on themselves, all of which have to do with their loyalty to their financial backers. The downside to Lebanon's key role as the centre of the pan-Arabic press are the attempts made by a variety of Arab regimes and parties to win over the media as the mouthpiece of their politics. There are many tales of heads of state sending emissaries to editorial offices with bulging envelopes full of money in their briefcases. To this day, indirect support, for example in the form of paper deliveries, is not unknown. Yet it is not just a question of carrots being dangled, but also of sticks being swung by the henchmen of Arab governments in order to bring journalists into line or to silence them altogether. Kamel Mroueh, editor-in-chief of al-Hayat, was murdered in 1966. Salim al-Lawzi, editor-in-chief of the magazine al-Hawadith, was kidnapped and assassinated in 1980. Gibran Tueni, editor-in-chief of an-Nahar, and Samir Kassir, a journalist working on the same paper, both became victims of car bombs in 2005.

    The Lebanese media is a reflection of a society that is deeply divided along religious and political lines of condemnation. With the exception of Télé Liban, no television station and no newspaper addresses all members of Lebanese society. The target audience is always the group that subscribes to or sympathises with the political project of that station or publication. Al-Mustaqbal, the name of a newspaper and an eponymous television station, stands for the assassinated Rafik al-Hariri, his son Saad, and the majority of the country's Sunnis. The television channel al-Manar, on the other hand, is the mouthpiece for many Shias and the Hizbollah. In times of domestic tension in particular, for example after the war in 2006 or in the run-up to the parliamentary elections in 2009, the media do not shrink from fanning the flames. Although obvious bias and the incitement of denominational unrest contravene the Audiovisual Media Act of 1994, punishment is not to be expected in view of the political protection enjoyed by these media.

    The heavily political slant of the Lebanese media is conspicuous. Every evening and every morning, throngs of politicians and commentators pass through television talk show studios. The newspapers too always reserve their first few pages for political matters, whether they are relevant or not. Is this really what the Lebanese want to see and read day-in, day-out? The reaction to Marcel Ghanim's talk show Kalam an-Nas on LBC in January 2010 showed that the needs of media consumers are entirely different. Instead of doing what he usually did, namely inviting a member of parliament or a minister to take part in his weekly show, Ghanim spoke to experts in food-related consumer affairs. They uncovered cases of serious, damaging contamination in cheese, water, and meat. The programme was such a resounding success that subsequent episodes tackled similar topics.

    Experiments

    The experiment that was the re-establishment of the al-Akhbar newspaper shows, on the one hand, that readers will reward publishers for breaking out of the mould. On the other, it shows that even this new newspaper abides – or has to abide – by the usual, unwritten laws of the Lebanese media in order to exist in the first place. This daily newspaper, which hit newsstands for the first time on 14th August 2006 in tabloid format, has a clear structure, fixed sections, sensational headlines, colourful photos, and a taste for controversy. Together with an-Nahar and as-Safir, it is one of the best-selling newspapers in the country. Al-Akhbar is mainly bought by young people. According to al-Akhbar itself, the number of hits registered for the online edition is as high as that of the national newspaper al-Hayat. According to editor-in-chief Khalid Saghiye, the newspaper is funded by ‘business people’. The newspaper defines itself as left wing and opposed to American policy in the region; it is also a clear supporter of the weapons of Hizbollah. What that means for its day-to-day reporting is that it focusses on the concerns of the man on the street and is very critical of the government's economic policy. It also means that the power policy of the Hizbollah and its ally, Syria, is not called into question. This young newspaper, which is visually innovative, fits neatly into the political map of the Lebanese press.

    When in late 2009 several well-known elements of the Lebanese media were hit by an unprecedented wave of redundancies, the word ‘crisis’ was on everyone's lips. Al-Nahar, for example, sent long-serving staff members into retirement. LBC rid itself of about 200 journalists and technicians. There are several reasons for this. In the case of al-Nahar, there has been a changing of the guard at this venerable daily newspaper. The young Naila Tueni, granddaughter of Ghassan and daughter of Gibran Tueni, is now at the helm. The official version of events is that auditors advised the newspaper to cut personnel costs. The same kind of thing is also being said by LBC. However, it is interesting to note that the Saudi Arabian media mogul Prince Walid ibn Talal is a shareholder in both companies. The term ‘crisis’ can be used to describe the situation for more than just these two media. If newspapers, television channels, or radio stations are not able to survive on their own, there is no real competition worth speaking of, and there is no transparency when it comes to financing, the future does not look bright for these media. After all, liberal press laws can do little to prevent self-censorship and ‘clientele journalism’.
    Mona Naggar
    is a German journalist based in Lebanon.

    Translated by Aingeal Flanagan
    Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
    June 2010

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