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Are Lebanon's Media fanning the flames of sectarianism?

Issue 2, Summer 2007

By Paul Cochrane

May, 2007. Politics have become so divisive in Lebanon, on the streets and


Opposition media gave  Hariri's memorial demo minimal coverage.

on TV screens, that the national media council chief urged the media in January to curb "tense rhetoric" that could instigate violence among the country's religious sects.[1]

Lebanon was plunged into a power struggle on December 1, 2006 when the Hizbullah-led opposition, consisting of Shiite Muslim parties and Michel Aoun's majority Christian party, camped out in downtown Beirut to call for the overthrow of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora's pro-US government.[2]

The situation reached a climax in January following two separate clashes between pro- and anti-government supporters that left seven dead and 190 wounded.

Purchases of automatic weapons have also reportedly risen, from $100 to $1000 for an AK47, and with the government seizing a cache of arms intended for Hizbullah in March, concerns were raised that the sectarianism of Lebanon's 15-year civil war, which ended in 1990, could return.

The Lebanese media has played its role in the current crisis, with the National Media Council president, Abdel-Hadi Mahfouz, blaming the media for stoking sectarianism and engaging in political insults.

"Media institutions are strongly asked to ease tensions and avoid transmitting news that might lead to strife," said Mahfouz.

Although the situation has calmed down in the past two months, the opposition is still occupying much of downtown, political discussions are at an impasse, and the divisions still hold, fuelled by the country’s sectarian media.

The two camps

Lebanese TV channels are split into two camps: on the one hand, Hizbullah-backed Al Manar TV, the National Broadcasting Network (NBN) and New TV pro-opposition, and on the other hand, Mustaqbal (Future) TV and the Lebanese Broadcasting Company (LBC) pro-government.[3]

"Every Lebanese TV channel has a propaganda leaning. Some try to be balanced, but all have their agendas. It's pretty clear from the content they produce," said Habib Battah, Managing Editor of the Beirut-based Middle East Broadcasters Journal.

Lebanon's media has long reflected the country's political and religious divisions, but sectarianism has arguably become more pronounced following the war between the militant Shiite group Hizbullah and Israel last year.

"The interesting thing is during the July war the same footage was used on many channels, supporting Hizbullah. So sectarianism has gotten more divisive, more apparent," said Battah.

Nabil Dajani, a communications professor at the American University of Beirut, said the media were deliberately inflaming sectarianism, but believed the blame does not lie solely with the media.

"You can't only blame the media – who is behind the media? Politicians. And it's the government's fault for allowing the media to get away with it. There is an audiovisual law that prohibits sectarianism, but this government is delinquent and doesn't step in," he said.

A further example of the government’s Janus face revolved around the arrests of New TV journalists Firas Hatoum and Abdel-Azim Khayat on December 19 for entering the Beirut apartment of Mohammed Zouheir Siddik.  A leading prosecution witness in the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, Siddik was away in France at the time.

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[1] “Media council chief cites perils of 'tense rhetoric,'” The Daily Star, January 30, 2007

[2] As of going to press, the opposition is still camped out in Martyrs’ Square.

[3] The TV landscape reflects that of the sectarian political system: Future is a Sunni channel, LBC is Christian, Al Manar is backed by Shiite political party Hezbollah, and NBN is partially backed by Shiite parliamentary speaker and head of the Amal movement Nabih Berri.

[4]New TV journalists held for past month on theft charges,”Reporters Without Borders, 19 January 2007  - http://www.rsf.org/article.php3?id_article=20486

[5]Two TV journalists freed on bail after 44 days in prison,” Reporters Without Borders, 31 January 2007 - http://www.rsf.org/article.php3?id_article=20486

[6] Martyrs’ Square is divided in two by barbwire and army checkpoints, with the upper half and the Riad El Solh square area occupied by the opposition.

[7] No comparison can be drawn with Al Manar’s headquarters as it was completely destroyed in the July war. Operations are now divided into several  underground locations. Security has also been seriously upgraded, with biometric hand scans for employees on entry

[8] Nadim Munla has been replaced by Samir Hammoud, an executive at Bank Med, also controlled by the Hariri family; see “Radio Orient goes global with landmark plan to begin satellite broadcasting”, The Daily Star March 3, 2007

[9] See “The ‘Lebanonization’ of the Iraqi Media: An overview of Iraq’s television landscape,” P. Cochrane, Transnational Broadcasting Studies, Volume 2, Number 1.