Lebanon pulls plug on rampant `coat-hanger' piracy

Click to follow
The Independent Online
"When the war in Lebanon ended, the war between the TV stations began," said Ali Jaber, managing director and chief executive officer of the Sunni Muslim television station Future TV.

Since the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation (LBC) was launched in 1985 as a mouthpiece for the Christian Phalangist movement, breaking the 27- year monopoly of the state channel, Tele Liban, Lebanon has become the launch pad for anyone with a coat-hanger and a satellite dish to set up their own television station.

All that is now coming to an end - in theory. On 16 September, the Lebanese government agency approved four national broadcast licences, ending 10 years of channel explosion and rampant piracy which made Lebanon the Wild West of the broadcasting world. The following day, the Prime Minister, Rafiq al-Hariri, endorsed the decision and banned more than 100 renegade radio stations and somewhere between 38 and 57 pirate TV stations, which serve the country's 3.4 million population. They have until November to close down.

Although most of the larger stations have developed into sophisticated and commercial businesses, most started from partisan roots. The latest decision gives each of the major religious and political factions a piece of the audio-visual pie. Three of them have been operating illegally for up to 10 years: Future TV, a station part-owned by Mr Hariri; LBC, Lebanon's leading commercial broadcaster; and MTV, an Orthodox Christian station owned by the estranged brother of the deputy prime minister, Michel al- Murr. The only start-up station to have its application accepted is NBN, set up by the Shia leader, Nabih Berri. But the story does not end here. The decision to slash back the media has caused a storm of protest among opposition leaders who accused Mr Hariri of curbing press freedom. Most vocal among these is the Hizbollah-backed station Manar TV, which, against expectations, did not receive a licence.

Manar TV is the fifth-largest station in Lebanon in terms of revenue. Mohammed, a producer, says the station is no longer owned by Hizbollah; it is now sponsored by the party. "The station is the voice of the Islamic resistance," he said. "Manar TV talks about the poor people and their problems, and because it represents a great party, they can tell the truth ... The way to free our country is to tell the Islamic resistance to free it from the Israeli army."

Rather than upset the delicate political balance, Mr Hariri granted Manar special dispensation to continue broadcasting without a licence "as long as Israel occupies Lebanese lands". It was a smart fudge. But this mandate was revoked on 20 September when the cabinet responded to opposition protests, and reconsidered licence applications. As a result the government imposed a news blackout on Manar, until the Council of Ministers meets today.

Given their track record, it is unlikely many of Lebanon's other renegade stations will go quietly. Last year delegates from the Motion Pictures Association of America (MPAA) travelled to Lebanon to shut down a station called Kilikia, after its owner was discovered buying the latest Hollywood movies from the local video store and rebroadcasting them. As soon as the MPAA left, he started again, claiming to be resisting American imperialism.

This rally of U-turns and contradictions is typical of the past two years, during which Mr Hariri has attempted to push through a media Bill to put an end to piracy, limit political interference and legislate for satellite expansion. Last year he sold his majority stake in Future TV, and passed a law in May restricting any individual from owning more than 10 per cent of a station. "The Prime Minister has a real obsession with trying to make the ownership of Future TV a model," said Ali Jaber, of Future.

The big three stations have spent the past year shaping up for the new law. "Everyone has had a year to prepare for the changes," said Pierre El Daher, the president of LBC, which now has a 50 per cent market share, and has invested $17m (pounds 11m) in new equipment this year.

To compensate for the loss of its monopoly, the state broadcaster Tele Liban received a 16-year tax holiday. It has spent $9m on equipment, and has pumped much of its programme budget into its soap opera, The Tempest Always Rises Twice.

International expansion through satellite is the next step. During the Israeli invasion in April this year, the largest stations (LBC, Future TV, Tele Liban, MTV, New TV) put aside their commercial and political differences in order to produce joint satellite news broadcasts. LBC has since circumvented the satellite law, which has been delayed in parliament, by uplinking its new satellite channel, LBC SAT, from Rome. Meanwhile, Future TV unofficially went on air this summer, using part of a satellite leased to Lebanon's Ministry of Information.

Fouad Naim, of Tele Liban, secretly believes that vested interests will ensure that Lebanon's media Bill is never fully ratified. Not that this will prevent any of the stations expanding their businesses. Entrepreneurial rigour is the signature of Lebanese TV. Today's judgment on the future of the Hizbollah-backed Manar may muffle the voice of Islamic resistance. But not for long.