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Lebanon: ‘I am someone because I own this newspaper’

Three prominent Lebanese daily newspapers printed in Beirut, namely Al-Nahar, Al-Safir and Al-Liwa, leaked internal memos informing their staff of their inability to settle their monthly wages, asking them to brace for more turbulent times ahead. Is this an end of an era?

It was not that long ago that Lebanon was revered by many as a beacon of democracy and freedom of expression. Pioneering individuals from Lebanon and the Levant made this legacy possible through inaugurating Arabic-language newspapers at home and in neighboring Arab countries.

People of the likes of Jurji Zaydan, the publisher of the famous journal Al-Hilal, or Bishara and Salim Taqla, the founders of the Egyptian daily Al-Ahram, and other innovative figures, gave Lebanese journalism its much-earned reputation.

This status was further augmented with the rise of totalitarian regimes around the Arab world, which did not take lightly to criticism or difference in opinion. Starting as early as the 1950’s, many of the local Lebanese dailies assumed regional fame as they were reporting on the many coup d’états and conflicts around the region with relative discretion.

The trailblazing journalists, Kamil Mrowa, the founding editor of the pan-Arab Al-Hayat newspaper, would pay dearly for this liberalism. An assassin, who was believed to be commissioned by the Egyptian president at the time, Gamal Abdel Nassar, made his way to his office and gunned him down in broad daylight. This perhaps could be viewed as a watershed mark in the history of Lebanese journalism, as it was a warning and a message of the need of all media agencies to conform to a wider regional consensus. While many challenges have plagued Lebanese media over the years, a more threating menace stands to put this sector to the real test.

Just recently, three out of the 13 daily newspapers published in Beirut, namely Al-Nahar, Al-Safir and Al-Liwa, leaked internal memos informing their staff of their inability to settle their monthly wages asking them to brace for more turbulent times ahead. A few of them also indicated their willingness to stop their print editions and go exclusively online.

It is certainly not the first time that these newspapers, or any others for that matter, claimed to be approaching bankruptcy. However, this time a number of external and internal factors make the possibility of their closure an approaching reality rather than a fundraising gimmick.

The plummeting global prices of oil, which has reached a low of almost $US27 a barrel, has greatly impacted the region’s economy and other related aspects. The tensions between the Gulf oil-producing countries on one hand, and the Iranian-Russian axis on the other, has aggravated this situation, as the former is trying to use the economy to break its adversary, while harming itself in the process.

Saudi Arabia, which for years invested heavily in the reconstruction and empowering of the Lebanese state, has recently stopped a US$3 billion grant to the Lebanese Armed Forces because of Hezbollah’s continued use of the Lebanese government as a shield, but more so because their own allies, The Future Movement — founded by the late Rafik al-Hariri, has failed yet again to respond to these challenges adequately. This in turn has greatly cut down on the influx of funds to Lebanese political parties, including many of the local media outlets who rely partly or totally on these subsidizes, which mostly either come from the Gulf states or Iran, depending on the paper’s allegiance.

Furthermore, the flaring of the Sunni-Shia schism and its direct repercussions, be it in Syria or Yemen, has rendered the influence of Lebanese media somewhat useless and thus unworthy of substantial political funding by these patrons. More precisely, both Saudi Arabia and Iran now possess their own media outlets, which can clearly adopt their talking points and more importantly have a wider regional outreach, something none of the Lebanese media groups can claim.

It is worth mentioning that many of the traditional sources of income that used to fund these media agencies have totally ceased to exist. Many of the decaying dictatorships around the Arab world, which subsequently fell with the Arab Spring, such as Libya, Tunis and Egypt had been longtime backers of many media outlets.

While these regional factors certainly can put a newspaper out of business, the real reason for this abysmal financial situation remains more intrinsic and localized. Many of the media ventures in Lebanon and the Arab world operate as family businesses rather than sound media corporations with a clear financial plan.

Most, if not all, of the funding that both Al-Nahar or Al-Safir “fundraised” for were channeled into the private accounts of the owners or their extended families, instead of being invested in growing the institutions and making them ready to transition into the 21st Century.

For more than a decade now, it was no secret that print media worldwide was going through a financial crisis, prompting many of the leading newspapers to adjust and prepare their platforms for digital content. Some news organizations, such as the prestigious Christian Science Monitor, decided to stop its print edition and go exclusively online.

In a frail attempt to adapt to this global trend, Lebanese newspapers made inadequate improvements to their online sites. In many cases, they opted for posting the print material online as is, without any real adaptation to suit the readership pool of online media.

The traditional Lebanese media has historically failed to play its role as a watchdog over the other three branches of government, but has fallen prey to the Lebanese political arena. The late Ghassan Tueni and his son Gibran, and the current publisher of Al-Nahar newspaper, Nayla Tueni, were elected to parliament at various times. This lust for power and recognition transformed many of these publications into soapboxes that various factions across the political spectrum have used and abused, ultimately leading to their structural decay, or their inability to stand their ground in the midst of political turmoil.

In this famous novel, Black Mischief (1932), English writer Evelyn Waugh writes about Azania: a fictional African island in the Indian Ocean. Basil Seal is an Oxford graduate, who was assigned to help the English-educated Emperor Seth of Azania to modernize his country. A conversation takes place between Seal and the owner of the Courier D’ Azanie, the somewhat mediocre one-page publication. The publication’s longtime proprietor, Mr. Bertrand, refuses Seal’s offer to buy his paper and replies with a very revealing remark, which is somewhat fitting for Lebanon’s newspapers. “I am someone because I own this newspaper and if I accept to sell it to you, I will become a no one.”

Regardless of where one stands on the potential closure of the papers, one is left with the obvious and blatant question: Why would Lebanese media be better than the corrupt and sectarian system which it inhabits and perpetuates, and why should one be supportive of any of these failed experiments?

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Makram Rabah