Understanding Lebanon’s Media

The following is a commentary on Nabil Dajani’s study of the Lebanese Media Landscape. A professor in the department of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the American University in Beirut, Dajani has been studying Lebanese media for decades. The articles used here were published in Al Sharq, Arab Media Society and TBS Journal. I highly recommend you read them before reading my commentary. You can read Al Sharq’s interview and the TBS piece if you’re short on time.

Man reading a newspaper in Lebanon. Photo by Hurriyet.
Man reading a newspaper in Lebanon. Photo by Hurriyet.

Lebanon’s media is often seen as being the most liberal in the Arab World, and in many ways that is a deserved description. We can theoretically say anything we want and we don’t have a Big Brother type of government that is often the case in neighboring nations. Why, then, are they viewed as, in Dajani’s words, “driving Lebanese society apart instead of uniting it”? If you’re Lebanese or are familiar with Lebanon, you probably already know the answer: Sectarianism. Indeed, our Sectarian system is largely responsible for the terrible state of journalism in Lebanon. But knowing why exactly that is the case is crucial to knowing how to challenge it from our side, which is why Dajani’s work is so important here.

First, let’s make something clear. There are two entities that can be viewed as crucial for a diverse and free press. The first is a political spectrum (Left, Right, Centrist and whatever is in-between) through which citizens advocate for a certain vision of Lebanon and the second is a Government (I know the latter isn’t a necessity, but please tolerate it for now), or if you want to use a more symbolic term, a Nation State. Lebanon has neither.

The Left/Right spectrum does not exist in Lebanese politics. Politicians don’t fight in the name of Socialism vs Capitalism, Regulation vs Deregulation, Environmentalism vs Corporatism etc. These simply do not exist. Sectarian allegiances are the de-facto way of doing things. Party lines are expected to be repeated by the 7 TV stations which compete for a market of around 4 million Lebanese. Topics rarely address the ‘Nation’ as a single entity, namely because there is no single nation. There is no Lebanon, there are pockets of identity, many Lebanons. As a consequence, we may have great journalists, but no journalism. We may have newspapers, but they’re more like ‘viewspapers’. The combination of these two functions with a sort of self-defeating mechanism. The theoretical base for a free media is there, so we rely on its positive potential to avoid the fact that is is not anywhere near being free in real life.

(This is why the efforts to allow Civil Marriage and the fight for a Woman’s right to pass on her nationality are so crucial: they destabilize the whole system from the inside out. In today’s Patriarchal Sectarian system, you have to be defined as Sunni or Shia or Maronite or Druze or Greek Catholic or Greek Orthodox. And as a general rule, men control all decision-making process at the top. If you weren’t defined as such, the whole system would crumble and Lebanon might actually be allowed to give birth to a Republic. A real one.)

And when I say that Lebanon doesn’t have a government, I’m not referring to the current political vacuum which only confirms Lebanon’s nature. Lebanon has never had a ‘government’ in the traditional sense. To quote Dajani, “What we call “government” is basically a coalition of tribal, sectarian chieftains, who agree to work together.”

So what spectrum does exist? Politically, we can divide it in terms of March 14 and March 8 alliances. The focus of these two alliances is mostly around fighting for power and catering to foreign (roughly: Saudi Arabia vs Syria/Iran) interest. In other words, the System is structured in a way that discourages national unity and encourages division. Without division, and under their current work model, they would go bankrupt. So who are they? There are 9 Television Stations in Lebanon:

LBCI (Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation International) was established by Lebanese Forces militia in 1985. The Civil War had weakened the LF financially (killing people is costly) so in 1992 ownership passed onto Pierre Daher, a well known businessman who’s been its CEO ever since. Officially it is not politically affiliated but is usually viewed as falling with the pro-March 14 Alliance. MTV (Murr TV) was founded in 1991 by Gabriel El Murr, who remains its chairman and CEO to this day. Same as with LBCI, it is not officially politically affiliated but generally favor March 14. Al-Manar is a Hezbollah-affiliated channel which was established in 1991 and favors the March 8 Alliance. Future Television was founded by Rafik Hariri in 1993 and is affiliated with the Future Movement, itself a member of the March 14 Alliance. NBN is an Amal-affiliated network founded in 1996 by the movement’s founder, Nabih Berri, speaker of parliament – there’s even a picture of Berri on their website – and is affiliated with March 8.  Tired? I’m not done. Al Jadeed is a privately-owned network founded in the early 90s by the Lebanese Communist Party. It closed in 1994 and was re-launched in 2001 by businessman Tahsin Khayyat, who remains to this day its CEO. It’s generally viewed as falling within the March 8 alliance. OTV (Orange TV) by Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) founder Michel Aoun in 2007 and is currently managed by his son-in-law Roy Hachem. The FPM is part of the March 8 alliance. Tele Lumiere is a privately-held Christian channel which focuses more on religious topics than political ones. And finally, Tele Liban is a government-owned station founded in 1959 and is politically neutral. (Source)

So how does this play into Freedom of the Press? While we do have “freedom from government” – remember: we do not have a government – which can provide overly optimistic data to those studying Press Freedom in the world, we do not have freedom from sectarian allegiances. As Dajani wrote, “there is no freedom from sectarian tribes. So, the media outlets cannot be free from censorship. They cannot dare to write something that their group or chief opposes. The Lebanese population is being divided across different sects, because each medium, each outlet speaks for a sect of a certain political or religious orientation.” If you were a ‘journalist’ for Al Manar, you cannot go on air and criticize Hezbollah’s alliance with Bashar Al Assad in Syria. You just can’t. If you were a ‘journalist’ for Future TV, you cannot go on air and describe Solidere (Hariri’s company) as a Capitalist monster that can’t stop its privatization frenzy of Beirut or say that Hariri is essentially Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Lebanon. You can’t do that either. While there is no law saying you can’t, you simply cannot do so for purely self-preservation reasons. You might lose your job, be banned from the network or even face actual threats. In other words, you self-censor, and that is by far the most effective form of censorship.

The party ideology of news stations can be seen in the way they cover events. Dajani studied a sample of the first 15 minutes of the evening news of Tuesday, October 11th, 2005 on 6 national Lebanese TV stations. I chose 4 of them (Future TV, LBC, NBN and Al Manar) here but you can read all 6 on the original post:

  • Future Television […] began with the usual short editorial after announcing that the day was the 240th after the assassination of Hariri. The anchorwoman, in her blue memorial ribbon and Hariri pin, then announced that “all eyes are on Mehlis’ report.” The second item in the editorial was that Syrian newspapers have criticized the report and have dedicated several pages to attacking MP Saad Al Hariri and the Lebanese Prime Minister. The report played up the Syrian Prime Minister’s refusal to answer three calls from the Lebanese PM as well as an official Syrian statement declaring that “France and the US now run Lebanon” and that “Red hell will open on Lebanon if they pursue this path.” Another five minutes were then spent on MP Hariri’s 45-minute retreat with Lebanese Maronite Patriarch, after which MP Hariri issued a statement acknowledging the Patriarch’s importance in seizing what he called “Lebanon’s golden opportunity.” Al Hariri also emphasized the importance of Mehlis’ report in bringing justice to his father’s assassination, and gave details about his plans for the next few days. The blue-ribbonned anchorwoman subsequently reported the visit of a high US official and the US ambassador to a pro-Hezbollah Lebanese minister.
  • LBC began with the tense relationship between Syria and the impending Mehlis report. Over five minutes of air time was dedicated to Syrian newspapers’ condemnation of Saad Al Hariri and the Lebanese Premier, as well as the Syrian denunciation of the Mehlis report and the US. This last statement was repeated twice (by the anchorwoman whose pin paid tribute to a smiling May Chidiac, another LBC anchorwoman, who was the victim of a terrorist attack). The visit of a high US official to Lebanon was the second item. The return of the Speaker of the Parliament from an official visit to an Arab country also was reported, with emphasis on the fact that he denounced US claims of Syrian interference in Lebanon. LBC reported (in far from positive tones) the Speaker’s claim that Syria in fact supports Lebanon, and that the responsibility for the Hariri assassination falls on an “unknown third party.”
  • NBN led with a report about Berri’s return, and read the statement he issued regarding the Mehlis mission. Following that was the President’s call for independence of the judiciary system. The third item was a brief account of progress made by the Mehlis report, and immediately after, the threat of the bird flu. NBN then covered Condoleeza Rice’s announcement that Syria was en route to isolating itself diplomatically.
  • Al Manar TV […] began with a critical account of Saad Al Hariri’s whereabouts and views. They then reported Israeli planes had violated the Southern Lebanese air space. Al Manar TV cited a Syrian newspaper as saying that “it is clear that Lebanon and Syria are the targets of a grand plot and that the UN probe is led astray by false testimony.” The next items were those of the President, the US high official’s visit, and the return of the Speaker of Parliament. Al Manar was the only station that night to report that the US detention center in Guantanamo Bay had ordered the release of an Egyptian man crippled by torture.

The same essentially goes for newspapers in Lebanon. We have 12 Arabic dailies (Al-Akhbar, Al-Balad, Ad-Diyar, An-Nahar, As-Safir, Al-Mustaqbal, Al-Anwar, Al-Joumhouria, Al-Liwaa, Al-Shark, Al-Binaa and Al-Bayrak), 3 Armenian dailies (Ararad, Aztag and Zartonk), 1 English daily (The Daily Star) and 1 French daily (L’Orient-Le-Jour). We have a number of magazines that run weekly, bi-weekly, monthly or bi-monthly that usually cater to a Secular, a-Political (emphasis on a-Political), Intellectual Elite in English or sometimes English and Arabic (French is becoming rare).

Dajani pointed that newspapers actually lose money when they print. This was the most surprising discovery. In Dajani’s words: “[They lose money] because there are not many people who buy them. The newspaper publisher depends mainly on subsidies. The bulk of the subsidies comes from government subscriptions. In other words: If I run a certain newspaper, I will go to a certain head of an Arab country and say: I have a newspaper, I am a loyal supporter of yours. And also: I do not need money from you, all I need is subscriptions. Distribute my newspaper in your country. In all Arab countries, the Lebanese press has a certain prestige. That is why newspapers do not care for your or my subscription, they call for governments’ and influential people’s subscriptions.”

In other words, they’re not even concerned about what you think when you read their articles because they’re already losing money doing it. Their business model is radically different from what you’d expect. “Those who run the media are millionaires. So they are independent from their audience or advertising. They depend more on the subsidizers. For example: If you subscribe to a newspaper in Lebanon, you pay more than if you buy the newspaper from the newsstand every day. That is because the day the newspapers do not come out, they make money.”

How about Online? Well, the situation is definitely more diversified but remains essentially the same for the online versions of print publications and TV stations listed above. There are a number of websites and blogs that do take alternative views but these usually cater to specific circles with little to no nation-wide impact.

Things get even messier when you realize how prevalent bribes are in the media business. Dajani cited a very poignant example in his AMS piece. Following the assassination of General Wissam Al-Hassan in 2012, the editor-in-chief of Al Diyar newspaper, which is generally aligned with Syria and Hezbollah, published a front-page account “in which he described accepting financial assistance [from Al-Hassan] in return for taking a middle line in his paper’s coverage of two political alliances, the March 14th movement (Western-backed, anti-Syria) and the March 8th movement (pro-Syria).” Here’s an extract:

“One day, the late Gen. Wessam al-Hassan called me to ask if my newspaper Al-Diyar could take a middle line between the March 8th and March 14th movements. I replied in the affirmative, so he asked me what March 8th would do [as a result of the paper’s shifting its loyalty]. I said that I stand by my principles as long as this doesn’t cause friction for me with March 8th. At the same time I can take a solid stand with you regarding March 14th. Prime Minister Hariri brought his hand to his chest and said “I will pay $150,000 per month [for you] to advance the news of the Future Party [the largest member of the March 14th movement] and to not attack the March 14th movement in Al-Diyar.”

Of course, people talk about payments [to journalists] but they do not bear in mind that this is actually a kind of exchange that allows the publisher to pay salaries and cover the cost of paper and printing. General al-Hassan…then informed me that Sheikh Saad Hariri is honest and that the amount will be lowered from $150,000 to $100,000 in return for truthful and positive news about March 14th to be extended over six pages in the newspaper.

[..]

I told [General al-Hassan] that I was surprised by the cutting off of funds since we had made no mistake. He said “It’s not matter of you having done the wrong thing. On the contrary, you were right. The issue is that Saad Hariri is in a difficult financial position.” I told him I was not convinced, and that [he] and Prime Minister Saad Hariri, as well as a third party that created conflict between us, were responsible for stopping the subsidy. You will see now what it feels like to have Al-Diyar opposing you [I said]. [This is how] I started my press campaign against the Future Party, Saad Hariri, and General al-Hassan, to make them comply with what they had agreed with me.”

So if you were a reader of Al Diyar, you will have read pro-Future Movement news for a while and then suddenly read anti-Future Movement news depending on which stage the bribing process was at. This means that the journalists of Al Diyar are effectively not allowed to do their job.

Dajani later explains why the Al Diyar example shouldn’t surprise us: “This account should not be surprising, for Lebanon is essentially a country of services. Its historic economic role was, and continues to be, that of a middle man who provides a service transporting consumer goods from the West to Arab markets and participates in exploiting these markets. The prosperity of Lebanon after independence was neither the result nor the cause of genuine national development; it was the result of servicing interest groups. Lebanon’s role as an economic or political intermediary is still reflected in the country’s mass media (particularly the print media) which inevitably take on the agendas of those financing them.”

So where do we go from here? It’s hard to say. As we have learned, issues related to the media aren’t specific to the media but rather represent a much wider problem across Lebanese society. On the surface of it, it would be efficient to start by really trying to understand how the media works, as I have tried to do here. We also need to think of what we can do to counter the negative effects of the mainstream media – the vast majority of Lebanese watch TV regularly – to provoke more nation-wide change, rather than the short-term movements we’re used to. This is an open-ended post. Your ideas are as good as mine, so feel free to suggest anything.

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2 Comments

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  1. “Driving Lebanese society apart instead of uniting it“? Important idea considering it is a liberal media. However, “Those who run the media are millionaires. So they are independent from their audience or advertising… They make money.”

  2. What do you think of Al Mayadeen?

    So right that the media problem represents a ‘much wider problem across Lebanese society’. But, sadly, most don’t see the identity-obsession as a problem. The only way of keeping personal choices personal is to accentuate that confrontation endangers all. Perhaps the solution lies in a more socially aware educational system? I fear it will take generations to remove the blinders.

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