Robert Fisk: End of an era for Lebanon's free press

Once a bastion of journalistic independence, Beirut's newspapers are losing their edge

Share
Related Topics

For decades, Lebanese journalism has been applauded as the freest, most outspoken and most literate in the heavily censored Arab world. Alas, no more. Beirut's best-read daily has just shed more than 50 staff and LBC, one of the country's best-known television stations, has just fired three of its most prominent presenters. The Lebanese media are being hit – like the rest of the world – by the internet and falling advertising revenues. But this is Lebanon, where politics is always involved. Is something rotten in the state of the Lebanese press?

Is it by chance that An Nahar's culture editor – whose supplement campaigned against assassinated prime minister Rafiq Hariri's plans for rebuilding downtown Beirut – has been fired after the paper cosied up to the politics of Hariri's son Saad, now the Lebanese prime minister designate? Is it a coincidence that the three senior presenters on LBC represented the last supporters of the old Lebanese Forces (of civil war infamy) still working at the channel?

Neither An Nahar nor LBC are saying anything. But the Lebanese are waiting to find out which of their more than 20 dailies will be the next to shed staff for "economic reasons". Will the old lefty As Safir find that it has politically recalcitrant staff (unlikely) or will the lovely French-language daily L'Orient Le Jour – whose 18th century French is Royalist rather than Republican – have a battle with those writers who still love ex-General Michel Aoun, Maronite Christian ally of the Hizbollah?

The problem is not so much the politics of Lebanon but the feudal state of the press. You cannot start a newspaper in Beirut – you have to buy an existing title from someone else. This costs money. So the rich own newspapers. Not much different, you may say, from the rest of the world. But the system in Lebanon is archaic; there are families in Beirut who own newspapers but don't publish them – they are still waiting for a buyer.

As Elias Khoury, the sacked culture editor of An Nahar, a prize-winning novelist and academic and one of 53 men and women fired by the paper, puts it: "Newspaper owners were originally journalists – and with capitalism, the system did not change. Television in this country are not the press – they are propaganda, owned by confessional groups or parties. It's the papers that are real journalism."

But "real" journalism is sometimes hard to come by. When the Syrian army was still in Lebanon, An Nahar was as careful as the rest of the press in making sure than no boats got rocked. Indeed, when the Syrian military first arrived in Beirut in 1976, its offices were raided – to make sure that its journalists realised that they would have to be as compliant as their colleagues on Al-Baath and Tichrin, those titans of Baathist journalism across the mountains in Damascus.

But, along with As Safir, An-Nahar had an edge about it. It poached a wonderful analyst called Jihad Zein from As Safir, and under boss Ghassan Tueni it upheld independent journalism. "Tueni offered me the cultural supplement," Khoury says, "and if he was still in control, none of this would have happened." It is now his granddaughter Nayla who is in charge. Along with Khoury, Edmund Saab, co-editor in chief, Saha Bahasin and Georges Nassif also lost their jobs. They were told to collect their dismissal notes from a Lebanese postal official on the pavement outside the paper's central Beirut office.

"One journalist came to work at 6pm on a Friday – when the postman had left," Khoury adds. "He worked the Friday night and on Saturday and Sunday – and read in our rival paper on Monday that he had been fired! This reveals things about our work and about Beirut. The formula that our supplement is independent – that we can say what we want – is no longer acceptable. I didn't fit. My supplement campaigned against Solidere [in which Rafiq Hariri held 10 per cent of the shares] and we got journalists and architects to write about how the company was destroying Ottoman Beirut and saving only the French colonial buildings. No-one stopped us. I could play the role of a leftist intellectual."

No more. Nayla Tueni's involvement in the majority March 14th movement, led by Hariri's son Saad – who himself runs a rather dull daily called Al-Mustaqbal – means An Nahar has taken on a distinctly pro-government flavour.

At the same time, LBC has dismissed three of its best-known journalists, apparently because they were the final remnant of the Lebanese Forces on the channel. Diamond Rahme Geagea, Denise Fakhry and Vera Abu Munsif were sacked along with dozens of fellow staff members, including one woman who was six months' pregnant, a fact which would normally make her un-dismissable under Lebanese law. Even the Christian Maronite patriarch, Nasrallah Sfeir, has expressed his concern.

The Lebanese journalists' union has no mandate to help unemployed writers. "Who protects the rights of journalists?" L'Orient Le Jour asked last week. In Lebanon, it seems, the answer is no one.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This full service social media ...

Recruitment Genius: Data Analyst - Online Marketing

£24000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We are 'Changemakers in retail'...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Residential Conveyancer

Very Competitive: Austen Lloyd: Senior Conveyancer - South West We are see...

Austen Lloyd: Residential / Commercial Property Solicitor

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: DORSET MARKET TOWN - SENIOR PROPERTY SOLICITOR...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Letter from the Deputy Editor: i’s Review of the Year

Andrew Webster
RIP Voicemail?  

Voicemail has got me out of some tight corners, so let's not abandon it

Simon Kelner
A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all