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Politics

A deeply rooted reputation of liberalism leads to the assumption that the media enjoy more freedom in Lebanon than in any other Arab country.

The Key to Politics: Sectarianism

Lebanon’s political system, classified as democratic and parliamentary, is in fact a hybrid regime. The need to respect “confessional balance” is often an excuse to deviate from general democratic principles and practices. Lebanon’s consociational regime was endorsed by the unwritten 1943 National Pact, which was set to share political power and executive positions between Christians and Muslims, the top ranks being allocated to a "troïka", the President, a Maronite Christian, the Speaker of the Parliament, a Shiite Muslim, and the Prime Minister, a Sunni Muslim.

This verbal “understanding” was supposed to reduce the tensions between the co-existing minorities and maintain the fragile stability of the country. It developed into a distribution of authority between clans and dynasties, ranging from influential feudal chiefs (zaïms) and ex-warlords to heirs of powerful families. Paradoxically, this pattern of co-existence was and still remains both a remedy and main reason for conflict.  The 1989 Taif Agreement destined to end a fifteen year long civil war (1975-1990), systematized it, perpetuating sectarianism as a key element of Lebanese politics, the media scenery being a mere reflection of this reality.


Using Media as a Political Mouthpiece

Almost all political parties and militias mounted their own media panoply responding to their imperatives of communication. The first two were Sawt Lubnan (Voice of Lebanon), the radio of the Phalange (Kataëb) Party in 1958, and LBC, the TV station founded by the Lebanese Forces in 1985. While many print outlets were legally put up within the framework of the 1962 Press Law, all commercial radio and television stations were created outside any legal framework, eventually breaking up the monopoly attributed to the two state-run outlets Radio Liban and Télé Liban. Not only did each media outlet promote the sectarian views of a local military/political/religious faction, but often served as the mouthpiece for foreign Arab stakeholders who backed up Lebanese protagonists financially. This external support dropped significantly after the toppling of several Arab dictators, most notably Saddam Hussein in Iraq in 2003 and Muammar Gaddafi in Libya in 2011. Funding from Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and other Gulf countries continued but has also been reduced in the last five years.

Neighboring Syria, being the hegemon of Lebanese politics for over thirty years (1975-2005), manipulated the media among other “tools” (political leaders, public institutions, and security apparatuses…). The Audiovisual Media Law No. 382 of 1994 was adopted by a Parliament where pro-Syrian parties had an overwhelming majority. Lebanon became the first Arab State to authorize private radio and TV stations to operate within its borders. However, a number of them – which were operating before the law was adopted – were unable to obtain licenses due to extremely high fees. They were declared illegal and subsequently closed. Licenses were granted to corporate conglomerates linked to prominent politicians that were openly or discreetly loyal to the Syrian regime. Self-censorship became the dominant feature of media performance especially when it came to tackling the Syrian presence. Several attacks on freedom of expression occurred, the most prominent being the closure of Murr TV (MTV) on September 4, 2002.


Polarization of the Media Scene

After the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri (February 14, 2005), the Cedar Revolution (March 2005) and the Syrian withdrawal (April 2005), Lebanon was split into two opposing camps: the pro-Syrian March 8 alliance and the US-Saudi backed March 14 coalition. March 14 was supported by the Annahar newspaper, the francophone daily L'Orient-Le Jour, the Al-Mustaqbal daily and Future TV (organs of the Future Movement), and the NOW Lebanon website. March 8 enjoyed the support of the Assafir and Al-Akhbar newspapers and of audiovisual media such as Al-Manar run by Hezbollah, Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri’s NBN, OTV – closely related to the Free Patriotic Movement – and, to a certain extent at the beginning, Al-Jadeed (New TV) pleading a leftist obedience though owned by businessman Tahseen Khayat.

In this context, attacks against the media culminated with the assassination of Annahar columnist Samir Kassir on June 2, 2005 and Annahar CEO and MP Gebran Tuéni on December 12, 2005; as well as the assassination attempt targeting then-LBCI news host May Chidiac on September 25 of the same year.

Seen as weapons, front line battlegrounds, and arenas, all media grew increasingly polarized. To attack one is to attack a “symbol” of a religious community and/or political party, consequently provoking a nationwide crisis. On May 7, 2008, tensions between Sunni and Shiite militant escalated. Future TV, owned by the Hariri family, was put off the air by Hezbollah and Amal combatants who stormed its studio. Since then, recurrent incidents continue to cause media outlets being caught in the crossfire.


The Challenges and Changes after the October 17 Uprising   

Recent developments, particular since the October 17 uprising, have put forth new opportunities and challenges for independent media to raise funds, grow, build sustainable and professional business models, and mobilize in a dynamic and transformative manner. During the popular demonstrations, violence targeting activists, students, and journalists were frequent. Furthermore, dire economic challenges justified the need for bold research on the causes and remedies of the crisis. This further induced a contentious and polarizing debate about a variety of topics and conversation, constructing the need for alternative media which do not necessarily have the co-opted considerations and limitations of traditional outlets, whether in television or newspaper format. 

The August 4, 2020 Beirut port explosion added another layer to this. Whether in terms of its wider political implications or the direct damage it caused, the explosion induced a change in discourse for how large sections of the media address the country's socio-political reality. This applies to both the challenges faced by the local population and the antagonism directed at the authorities and the sectarian ruling establishment. Zooming in on the media sphere, alternative outlets such as Megaphone News and Daraj Media as well as shows with a renewed angle on traditional outlets such as Al-Jadeed, launched a new trend of investigative reports attempting to demonstrate the origins and background behind the explosion and the economic collapse. In other words, this response suggested new and creative ways media workers can perform their jobs to enrich the national public debate.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Metadata

Consociationalism is a form of democracy which seeks to regulate and stabilize a society comprised of diverse groups. More

Sources

Samir Kassir, “La guerre du Liban. De la dissension nationale au conflit régional”, Karthala, Paris, 1994.
Kamal Salibi, “A house of many mansions. The history of Lebanon reconsidered.” University of California Press, 1990.
Jamil Abou Assi, « Les médias libanais. Entre confessionnalisme et recherche de crédibilité », Confluences Méditerranée 2009/2 (N°69), p. 49-59. DOI 10.3917/come.069.0049
Democracy Index 2016 - The Economist Intelligence Unit.

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