Out of Lebanon: Moves against the messengers


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The Independent Online

The Shia family turned up on the Corniche around 8pm, parked their car next to the traffic island below our window and set out plastic chairs beneath the palm trees.

A television set, plugged into the car battery, was solemnly placed on the bonnet while a woman brewed tea on a picnic stove. Their four children ran up and down amid the motorcyclists and the evening parade of motorised wedding parties, all fumes and car horns and screeching cassette sellers. After war comes peace.

Or so it seems. All day, Lebanese television carries live coverage of the first international soccer games to be held in Beirut in 20 years, opened by the billionaire Prime Minister, Rafiq al-Hariri, with the assertion that the World Cup matches prove 'the civil war is over for good'.

Not every television station in Beirut will be reporting on the matches, however. The International Communications Network (ICN), a private Christian station in east Beirut that has been flirting with the anti-Syrian policies of exiled General Michel Aoun - the dark shadow of opposition that haunts President Hrawi's very pro-Syrian government - was closed last week.

Michel Samaha, the Information Minister, had claimed that ICN had broadcast 'tapes, news and images that undermine national unity . . . by instigating confessional passions and conflicts among various sects.'

Even the leftist As Safir - a friend of Syria if ever there was one - denounced the closure as a blow to Lebanon's over- trumpeted press freedom, while the portly Mr Samaha could be seen standing on his balcony exchanging insults with Henri Sfeir, ICN's owner, who lived across the road.

A day later, a Lebanese prosecutor ordered the temporary closure of Mr Sfeir's daily newspaper, Nida al-Watan, provoking the anger of just about everyone from the Lebanese Communist party to Sheikh Mohamed Fadlallah, the spiritual leader of the pro-Iranian Hizbollah. Government prosecutors are now demanding a minimum year's imprisonment for the paper's director, Mohamed Shamseddin.

His sin was to have published a preposterous report that Mr Hariri intended to 'Islamicise' Lebanon by buying up land from Christians. It so happened - in another symbol of post-war reconciliation - that Sheikh Fadlallah appeared on government television only a day later, debating with Ghassan Tueni, Lebanon's former (and Christian) ambassador to the United Nations. Lebanon, Fadlallah said, was not going to be an Islamic Republic.

No-one believed that it was. What concerns Lebanese journalists is Mr Samaha's intention to introduce a law that will 'regulate' - his word - the media. From his exile in Marseilles, Gen Aoun insists that Syria lies behind this and other Lebanese legislation. New security arrangements with Syria have been augmented by new trade deals and an agreement that virtually merges the two countries' tourist industries. The countries have now agreed to merge their border posts at Masnaa. The Syrian army, of course, is still in Beirut.

If Beirutis want to forget such realities, they have only to visit the Piccadilly Theatre in Hamra where Of Pride and Stubborn Folk, the latest play of Ziad Rahbani - son of that most magnificent of Lebanese singers, Fayrouz - is playing to packed houses.

It is set in Beirut in 1998, a city of animal-infested ruins. Rahbani plays a lone general in Nazi uniform who tries vainly to sort out the bickerings of the few Lebanese to have stayed on. The Israeli and Syrian armies have already gone home. Turks are bombarding northern Lebanon, attacked by Lebanese Kurds and Armenians, while Ivory Coast and Argentine aircraft bomb Sidon and Batroun to prevent further Lebanese emigration to Africa and Latin America.

A Christian and a Muslim embrace each other throughout, uttering implausible promises of eternal affection. The city is taken over by creatures that feed on electrical cables and claim to possess a new religion. It might not make good television for the Shia family on the Corniche but Rahbani's message is a serious one. 'Each person here lives alone,' he says. 'We don't have a group of people in Lebanon. Just individuals. That's what brought the Israelis and Syrians here.'

Needless to say, the only minister spotted in the audience so far has been - Mr Samaha.