Despite its inevitable entanglement in regional turmoil, Lebanon is now viewed as the most stable and safe country in the Middle East. This reflects on its media environment which enjoys the same relative safety, even in a context that has become increasingly polarised and radicalised. Currently the Lebanese media landscape is in fact an arena of political patronage and domestic and foreign influence peddling.
The Lebanese media sector is facing a profound crisis and there are many journalists and media staff, working in the local and pan-Arab media outlets based in Beirut, who have not been paid for long time or have lost their jobs. As-Safir, a historic newspaper, was forced to close, and An-Nahar has weakened and had to restructure. Even Al-Arabiya and Al-Jazeera offices in Beirut and in the region have reduced the number of their staff members. The only media outlets that resist are those financed by large investors, linked to political-sectarian actors in the region.
In the 1970s, Lebanon offered a unique cultural openness and freedom of expression. Beirut was the region’s media hub and the target of important funding for its publications. Investors included Iraq’s former president Saddam Hussein, Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, deposed Tunisian president Ben Ali, as well as Saudi royals. Lebanese newspapers were read throughout the Arab world and used to feature articles and op-eds by personalities from all over the region. Gulf countries, but also Iraq and Libya, used to finance Lebanese newsrooms to carry out and support their political battles. As a result, the injection of foreign funding was abundant and steady. Nowadays, with the global economic crises and the new channels of the Gulf, that money has been inexorably vanishing.
From the second half of the 19th century, decades before the creation of independent Lebanon in 1946, Beirut boasted pre-eminence in the surrounding Arab regions for the freedom of expression enjoyed by its several newspapers. These are indeed the oldest and most important in the area. Even today, the smallest country in the Middle East is an exception compared to its Arab neighbours in terms of pluralism of the press and broad range of readers.
Despite a history of turmoil, Lebanon’s well-educated and critical population has led to one of the most diverse and sophisticated press and media landscapes in the Arab Levant. With newspapers and media outlets in four different languages (Arabic, French, English and Armenian), Beirut has a vibrant media community with relatively high professional standards and free from State control. The Lebanese press does, however, reflect the limitations of the sectarian system that dominates the country, where a newspaper or a TV station is more often than not identified with one of the main religious and political groups.
With the media being entangled to the national politics and international influence peddling, journalists are often required to act like political activists. On the one hand the Lebanese State does not control media outlets, contrary to what happens in many other Arab countries; however, on the other hand, political parties have the power to influence and direct the majority of Lebanese media institutions, which therefore reflect the country’s sectarian politics and all too often serve as the mouthpiece for political propaganda.
Since media outlets do not rely on readership, but rather on investors as a source of revenue, there is little – if any – interest in producing quality journalism.
It is unfortunately a common practice to bribe journalists to publish a certain piece of information, or – on the contrary – to avoid any further analysis on specific matters. With the financial crisis newsrooms have been facing, it is even harder for journalists to resist such offers.
Lebanese syndicates have asked the government to support the country’s media. Former minister of information Ramzi Joreige announced in 2016 the creation of a $10m fund to back Lebanese newspapers, but the plan was never voted on in parliament. The newly appointed minister of information Melhem Riachy, a former journalist himself, has repeatedly promised he would make any efforts to protect journalists, but no concrete measures have been adopted so far.
With the escalation of the conflict in neighbouring Syria and with the emergence of the so-called Islamic State (IS) in some regions between Iraq and Syria, Lebanon has been increasingly caught in profound political divisions mirroring the regional fault lines. In the early times of the Syrian war, the political-sectarian parties in parliament were divided over the conflict, being deeply connected to one player or another in the region. In particular, the impact of Hezbollah’s open and numerically significant involvement in Syria since 2012 has had an impact not just on the battlefield, where the Syrian government and its allies have gained momentum in many areas, but also in Lebanon. Here rising sectarian tensions have undermined the country’s security and stability, with spillovers of violence from the Syrian conflict. A number of bomb attacks and deadly clashes between supporters and opponents of the Syrian president occurred mainly in Tripoli and Beirut (the twin attacks of august 2013 to two mosques in Tripoli are the deadliest in Lebanon since the end of the civil war). Moreover, the influx of Syrian refugees fleeing the war in their home country have resulted in strained relations between locals and newcomers. The UN estimates that more than one million Syrian refugees are hosted in Lebanon, which is approximately one fourth of all the people living in the country. At the same time and for more than two years, since President Michel Suleiman’s mandate finished in May 2014, until October 2016, when the parliament eventually elected Michel Aoun as his successor, a power vacuum paralysed Lebanon’s political institutions.
Not only have the local media been deeply influenced by this dangerous polarisation, but they have gradually become sharp tools of propaganda in the hands of opposing Lebanese political and sectarian groups, pursuing their specific political agendas. Today none of the newspapers, TVs and radios can be described as immune to the ongoing conflict, and very few attempt to maintain a neutral attitude. The Lebanese press corps has also suffered many casualties over recent years due to targeted attacks and armed conflicts, mostly connected to the war in Syria and its counter effects in Lebanese areas close to the porous border.
With the 1996 implementation of the Audiovisual Media Law (no. 382 of 1994), Lebanon became the first Arab State to authorise private radio and TV stations to operate within its borders (although a few private channels have existed since 1975). However, a huge number of small radios and TVs were subsequently declared "illegal" and thus closed, with the new licenses – due also to their extremely high fees – being given to corporate conglomerates linked to influential politicians.
According to the Internews Network Report of April 2009, many media institutions suffer from a lack of human resources, written job descriptions, organisational policies and regular performance appraisals and rely heavily on part-time staff. Moreover, 40 percent of Beirut-based media has no mission statement or organisational chart.
While about 45 percent of the surveyed organisations has over half of their staffs made up of women – notably in broadcast media – few of the women are admitted into the male-dominated areas of political journalism. Interestingly, 29 percent of the organisations do not employ women at all.
Politicians account for up to a third of many media boards of directors and often use these outlets as tools to promote their platforms, influence public opinion and seek public support. Overall they have the power to shape the entire media system: From the hiring process, to content development and internal governance. It comes as no surprise that in the majority of the cases when journalists are sued for defamation, the plaintiffs are usually politicians. Journalists charged with defamation or dissemination of false information are normally fined, but a prison sentence is still legally possible. The Internews report also found that most of the larger Lebanese media “proved to be very opaque and resistant towards revealing information about their internal operations and management.”
In addition to all this, a Censorship Bureau within General Security controls the content of the information outlets. However, being its regulations vague and lacking clear standards, a high level of inconsistency and subjectivity characterise the whole censorship system. (MARCH, a Lebanese NGO, has researched and compiled cases of government censorship since the 1940’s in an online “Virtual Museum of Censorship”).