Media in the Political Maze
Lebanon is currently ranked 100 of 180 countries in Reporters without Border’s World Press Freedom Index. Political control over media ownership is a major concern, and contributes towards a much politicized and polarized media landscape, undermining impartiality and pluralism. Our findings discuss the issue of political affiliations of the media, and ask how such affiliations may translate into biased and one-sided information within the Lebanese media, but also shift their finances. It examines the general risks associated with political affiliations, analyses the operating legal framework, and illustrates the current picture in terms of the political affiliations of the media.
Is there a risk?
Media ownership has a significant bearing on media content, and thus, plays a crucial role in shaping public opinion. In the hands of politicians, the media could be used to serve their own interests through partial reporting, boosting their political mileage, and ridiculing rivals. Privately-owned media houses are no exception to this pattern, as they may be just as politically affiliated as state-run outlets, serving the vested interests of their owners and allies.
The views of owners almost invariably dictate the editorial line of the covered media outlets when they are directly affiliated to political forces or families. There are nonetheless exceptions to this. As an example, in 2015, Salah Salam, the owner of the daily Al-Liwaa, did not receive Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s endorsement for the presidency of the Lebanese Press Order, and led a rival list to Saad Hariri’s during the 2018 Parliamentary elections in Beirut. This has not deterred his newspaper to keep supporting the Hariri-led, anti-Syrian regime, March 14 alliance. L’Orient-Le Jour can also be considered as an exception as its pro-March 14 editorial line contrasts with the views of its main owner, former Minister Michel Eddé, who maintained a moderately open stance towards the Syrian regime.
For other media outlets, the editorial line might be affected by two elements:
- The general balance of power in the country: After 1994, when the Lebanese Forces (LF) party was banned by the pro-Syrian regime government, several pro-Syrian figures became shareholders of LBCI, the channel once established by the LF. This development provided political cover to the channel at times when political life in Lebanon was controlled by the Syrian regime’s security apparatus. More recently, when the Lebanese Forces agreed to support Free Patriotic Movement leader General Michel Aoun in his presidential bid in 2016, MTV became one of the main supporters of the rapprochement between the two historically feuding political parties.
- The real source of funding: Lebanon has a history of political funding to media outlets. Lorenzo Trombetta, in his 2016 report on the Lebanese Media Landscape, writes: “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. (…) 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 crisis and the new channels of the Gulf, that money has been inexorably vanishing.”
In fact, funders of media outlets and nominal shareholders are not necessarily the same. If Charles Ayoub’s plea to Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad is an example, suspicions of partial or total foreign funding of other media outlets are widely echoed among pundits. But, with the absence of hard evidence, the research team would rather quote the infamous “You might very well think that; I couldn't possibly comment.”
What are political affiliations and why is it relevant?
Political affiliations in ownership can manifest in several, more or less tight forms ranging from
- (a) direct ownership of media organizations by the state and current Members of Parliament or people holding a position within the government;
- (b) direct ownership of media organizations by former Members of Parliament, candidates for Parliament, or people formerly holding a position within the government;
- (c) direct ownership of media organizations through political parties.
The Media Ownership Monitor (MOM) team applied categories (a), (b), and (c) to the 37 outlets studied. The findings are listed under each respective media sector.
What’s the current situation?
Print – Nine out of ten of the covered print outlets are directly politically affiliated. Six are owned or co-owned by currently active politicians (category a), two are owned by former parliamentary candidates (b), and one is directly owned by a political party (c).
Radio – Seven out of the eight radio stations are directly politically affiliated. Three radio stations belong to political parties (c), and four belong to the state or currently active politicians (a).
Television – All nine TV stations covered are directly politically affiliated. Six TV stations are owned or co-owned by the state or currently active politicians (a). Two TV stations are owned or co-owned by former political figures (b), and one belongs to a political party (c).
Online – Four out of ten of the covered websites are politically affiliated. One belongs to an active politician (a), one to a parliamentary candidate (b), and two are directly owned by political parties (c).
What does the law say?
Currently, there are no legal provisions preventing Members of Parliament and government ministers or their family members from holdings shares in media organizations. Owners are also not obliged to declare their political affiliations or any conflict of interests on the forms submitted to the Commercial Register. In the absence of such legislation, political ownership of the media appears to be a technically ‘legal’ pattern within Lebanon’s media landscape.
(a) Direct ownership of media organizations by the state and current Members of Parliament or the executive
- Radio Liban and Télé Liban belong to the Lebanese State.
- Radio Orient’s main owner is Member of Parliament (since 1992) and former Minister of Education (2008-2009) Bahia Hariri, and is closely linked to the Prime Minister Saad Hariri.
- Sawt El-Mada’s main owner is Member of Parliament (since 2018) and former Minister of Education (2014-2016) Elias Bou Saab, and its CEO is Minister of State for Presidential Affairs (since 2016) Pierre Raffoul.
- L’Orient-Le Jour newspaper’s main shareholders include Minister of State for Planning Michel Pharaon, as well as former Minister Michel Eddé.
- The Daily Star newspaper’s main owner is closely linked to incumbent Prime Minister Saad Hariri.
- Annahar newspaper's shareholders include current Minister of Education Marwan Hamadé, current Prime Minister Saad Hariri, additionally its CEO and Editor-in-Chief is former MP Nayla Tuéni.
- Al Mustaqbal newspaper’s main shareholders are current Prime Minister Saad Hariri and his relatives.
- Al Akhbar newspaper has current MP Moustapha El Husseini as minority shareholder.
- Al Joumhouria newspaper’s owners include current MP Michel Elias Murr, current head of the Metn Federation of Municipalities Myrna Murr, and former Deputy Prime Minister Elias Murr.
- Future TV’s main shareholders include current Prime Minister Saad Hariri, current Minister of Interior and Municipalities Nohad Machnouk, MP Bahia Hariri, former MP Salim Diab, and several former ministers.
- OTV’s main owners are President of the Republic Michel Aoun and his family, including Minister of Foreign Affairs and Emigrants Gebran Bassil.
- NBN’s main owners are relatives of Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri and officials of the party he leads.
- LBCI’s shareholders include MP and former Prime Minister Najib Mikati, former Deputy Prime Minister Issam Fares, the family of late MP Nabil Boustani, as well as former Minister Bassam Yammine, allied to the Marada Movement.
- Télé Lumière and Noursat’s shareholders include MP Neemat Frem, former MP Naamatallah Abi Nasr, and former Minister Jean-Louis Cordahi.
- Lebanon24 website is owned by MP and former Prime Minister Najib Mikati and his family.
(b) Direct ownership of media organizations by former Members of Parliament or the executive and former candidates for Parliament
- MTV's founder Gabriel Murr ran for parliament in 2002.
- Two of Al Jadeed’s main shareholders, Nizar Younes and Abdallah Zakhem, ran for Parliament respectively in 2000 and 2018.
- Addiyar newspaper’s main shareholder Charles Ayoub ran for parliament in 1972 and 2009, the minor shareholder Leila Solh (aunt of Saudi Prince Waleed Bin Talal) is a former Minister of Industry (2004-2005).
- Al Liwaa newspaper's owner Salah Salam ran for Parliament in 2018.
- Janoubia website’s owner Ali Al-Amine ran for Parliament in 2018.
(c) Direct ownership of media organizations through political parties
- Al Binaa newspaper belongs to the Syrian Social Nationalist Party through three formal co-owners who sit on the party’s top leadership.
- Radio Liban Libre and Lebanese-Forces.com belong to the Lebanese Forces
- Voix du Liban 100.3 belongs to the Phalange Party
- Al Nour radio and Al Manar TV belong to the Hezbollah
- Sawt El-Shaab radio belongs to the Lebanese Communist Party
- Tayyar.org belongs to the Free Patriotic Movement