Home / Culture & Society / In Defence of National Television: A Personal Account of Eclectic Lebanese Media Affinities

In Defence of National Television: A Personal Account of Eclectic Lebanese Media Affinities

Anyone who visits Lebanon will be struck by the excessive Lebanese use of space: Urbanisation literally is filling the space perpendicularly, up into the skies and the mountain ranges, and horizontally, as sprawling resorts or “developments” eat up huge chunks of the coast in Beirut and Doura, where two dumps are being transformed into high-value, high-rise real estates. While rampant and uncontrolled urbanisation is the lot of most Arab countries, the observant visitor to Lebanon soon will discover that no other country can compete with it as a land of political and communal symbols. Political symbols take up whatever is left of unused space—the top of a hill for yet another stone cross, a side street for the picture of yet another martyr. While many Arab countries adorn themselves with government-imposed portraits of presidents, national leaders and martyrs on their avenues and boulevards, the Lebanese splatter their political and communal symbols all over the place, with no need for a central propaganda machine to entice them to do it. This makes Lebanon the country most saturated in political and communal symbols.

In such a context, it is no wonder that the virtual space, or the ether, is both communally and politically monopolized. Apart from the music FM radio-stations, all Lebanese TV- and radio-stations are the advocates of a certain communal or political agenda, universally recognisable by listeners and viewers.

The Lebanese Media Landscape: Political Plurality or Monopolised Communal Representation?

At first glance, Lebanon's media landscape seems diverse, vibrant and less controllable and censored than in other Arab countries. The Lebanese never tire of emphasizing the historic role Lebanese journalism has played in the making of the Arab press since the second part of 19th century. A long tradition of liberal journalism made Beirut the hub of the Middle Eastern press (and of rumours, plots and spin). It was a place where what could not be said from Baghdad to Rabat could be splashed as a headline and where journalists, like the late Samir Kassir, were prepared to pay the ultimate price for standing up for "the truth." It was also a place where for the right price a piece of "news" could be planted and subsequently denied just as easily. In no other Arab country do truth and lies live face to face as in greater Beirut, where one media source’s absolute truth is declared a lie a few blocks away.

The Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990) interrupted the most promising Arab experiment in the freedom of the press. Slowly yet surely, newspapers, radio and later television channels, the reporting of which ostensibly was driven by references to universal cross-communal ideologies—the right-leaning, liberal daily Annahar versus the leftist, pro-socialist Assafir for example—transformed their allegiances to thinly disguised communal causes. The leftists turned discreetly to championing the cause of the Muslim community, while the rightists turned into outright defenders of the Christian cause. This development should be condemned not because championing a communal cause as such is less moral than championing a universalist ideology like liberalism or socialism; rather this war-time advocacy journalism reduced the scope of the public to which the concerned media tried to appeal. It also de-motivated any effort toward critical assessment of the sectarian sub-societies, to which all Lebanese media, willingly or unwillingly, were reduced to serve.

The post-war effort to reorganise the media landscape resulted in the 1994 media law. In spite of its intention to clear up the sectarian inheritance of the war, when many media outfits acted as voices of communal militias, the law legalized a new media scene that gave each major community at least one radio or one TV station. As in most Arab countries, TV stations are the most effective media actors in the political sphere in Lebanon. This article will focus on this media form, the so-called al-fada'iyat, or “satellites,” which not only cover the national territory but also transcend it, reaching into the Arab world.

The Lebanese Satellite Landscape

LBC and its satellite channel LBC I-Al Hayat are run by Sheikh Pierre Daher and owned by a group of Lebanese-Saudi investors. LBC is the major media outlet for the Maronite/Christian community. Until its closure by the pro-Syrian government in September 2002 following its controversial coverage of the parliament elections, it played this role with Murr-TV, which is owned by the Greek Orthodox opposition figure, Gabrial al-Murr, . Murr-TV reopened only after the uprising of 14 March 2005. Al Mustaqbal TV, the outlet of the Sunni community, is part of the media empire owned by the late Sunni Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri. In spite of NEW-TV, owned by a maverick Libyan-backed Sunni businessman who never missed a chance to insult Rafik al-Hariri, Al Mustaqbal TV managed to virtually monopolise the Sunni representation. NEW TV is not a competitor with the same communal affiliation, appeal or identification. The Shi'a community has two major TV stations: the NBN, nicknamed after its supposed patron the Shi'i Speaker of the Parliament as Nabih Berri Network, and Al Manar TV, which speaks for Hezbollah, the other partner of "the Shi'i duo," which lays claim to overall representation of Lebanon's largest community.

This typical Lebanese solution of a station for every sect—for some an illegitimate sectarian division of spoils and for others a legitimate communal representation—did not result in a static, sub-nationally divided media scene, where each communal media outlet appealed to and monopolised a communally defined public. The Lebanese stations do not reproduce the same monotonous official coverage which national television usually delivers. By examining the way the Lebanese public relates to media coverage and the way viewers use television, we can understand the complex dynamics that force the Lebanese media to strive for a cross-communal appeal while trying to establish communal representation. In the tension between these two exigencies, the poles of communal representation and cross-communal appeal, the Lebanese media develops a diversity of opinions, critical coverage and the dynamic of competition. The competitive dynamic and "encroachments" on one another's communal turf creates the need to influence other media actors and their viewers and in turn to be influenced by these competitors' coverage and the wishes of their core viewers. It is this competitive dynamic, I believe, that explains the central role that Lebanese media played in the popular mobilisation behind the 14 March mass demonstration, the largest politically motivated movement of people seen in the Arab world in recent years.

A View from the Terrace: Eclectic Media Affinities

In spite of the different social, cultural and religious characteristics which distinguish the 18 officially recognised communities in Lebanon, the passion for watching television, or rather, the addiction to having a TV set on all the time, is shared by all. In addition to this widespread TV “abuse,” Lebanese of all communities share an addiction to the news. Because of Lebanon's over-eventful recent history, the Lebanese are pulled to the screen whenever an important event occurs. Seventeen years of civil strife, an ongoing, low-intensity war with Israel, and the ups and downs of the Syrian-Lebanese relationship are the most salient themes making appearances on the screen of the common Lebanese consciousness.

I recall vividly the voice of my mother calling from the kitchen during the long war years: "It is a quarter past, put the radio on Voice of Lebanon,” only to see her come out of the kitchen half an hour later to grab hold of the radio and say to herself, "Let's try to get Radio Monte Carlo, and see what they are saying about this bombing." Even before remote-control “zapping” was prevalent, Lebanese mastered the art of surfing the radio waves when the only television station was the official Lebanon Television. In those years, we would re-tune every 15 minutes because the radio stations avoided slotting their news bulletins at the same time and we wanted to hear all aspects of the news. In the end, we very often settled for the story we preferred to believe in. Today, habitual viewers of LBC have no doubt that the Syrians murdered Bashir Gemayel, as the viewers of Al Mustaqbal are equally certain that the Syrians also killed Rafiq Hariri. Similarly, the viewers of NEW-TV are convinced that Israel is behind the Hariri assassination. Some of the core viewers of these three TV channels watch the channels of “the others” to know their take on these events. This need to know the view of the other side is a product of the war years, during which no one could afford to rely blindly on one source of information. The knowledge of what street was hit by snipers or what road between the divided city was safer was a matter of life and death. The “need to know” also was shared by the media, who would refer to what other radio stations had reported. This pattern of news hunting, born of the result of the survival instinct of targeted civilians, made the Lebanese a cynical people. We were well-aware that news lies, and this awareness continues in the age of post-war Lebanon’s multiple television stations.

For the last 10 years, I have regularly spent my summer holidays in my mother's village Ghalboun, in the mountain ranges above Jbeil/Byblos in the heartland of the Christian Mount Lebanon. Sitting on our terrace overlooking the village, I can see how the shifty blueish light of TV sets fills the evening sky. From nearby terraces and open windows their sound wafts out. In the beginning, I expected the neighbours to tune only to the popular LBC, which I grew used to watching on the TV sets in Jbeil's public places. But my prejudice mislead me: the invasive noise made it clear that my neighbours tune into more than one TV station during the evening, watching different news bulletins, debates and other popular programs. I recognised Marcel Ghanem's popular political talk-show The Talk of People on LBC, or Ali Hamadeh's Al Istihqaq on Al Mustaqbal. My surprise was even greater when I distinguished Al Manar's distinct jingle, later learning that this was the best source of news for that day as the heated confrontation in the South had sent Israeli aeroplanes into Lebanon's northern skies. Al Manar is the source for the latest news, especially during the day, (where they have a more CNN-style of news coverage). I suddenly regretted my effort to lower the volume whenever I tuned into Al Manar, fearing that my staunchly Maronite neighbours may mistake my professional interest in the Lebanese Shi'a community, for sympathy for their views. It is telling that this eclectic use of media sources is found in one of the most communally homogeneous and self-conscious districts in Lebanon, where the Maronite nationalist leader General Michel Aoun swept all seats in the last parliamentary election.

Throughout my frequent visits during the last 10 years to Haret Hraik, the area where I lived during the last years of the war, the thing that is most clear in my memory are the very few occasions when I sat in my friends’ drawing rooms and watched the TV set tuned to Al Manar! No doubt Al Manar is popular, watched, and trusted by large number of Shi'is, yet it cannot claim to be the main source of news and entertainment in most Lebanese Shi'i households. The popularity of Al Manar that I witnessed among Palestinian refugees in the Bourj al-Barajneh camp a Sunni island in the sea of Shi'i neighbourhoods with a bloody history of communal turf wars between the Shi'a militia of Amal and the Palestinian fractions is another instance of communal fence-crossing. However, for any viewer of Al Manar the reason is clear: The pro-Iranian Shi'i TV boasts an extensive coverage of the Palestinian conflict and a wide net of Palestinian correspondents in the occupied territories. For the Palestinian refugees of Lebanon, with more limited access to satellite television than any other social group in Lebanon, the appealingly recalcitrant Al Manar easily became the main source of information for this marginalised group on events in their homeland.

The frequent cross-sectarian use of communally monopolised TV channels has interesting effects when the TV channels themselves begin to exercise communal fence-crossing. Which TV-channel gained the exclusive scoop of a two-hour interview with Hezbollah's Hassan Nasrallah, where—from a secret place in August 2005—he talked for the first time about his childhood, his political beginnings, his breakaway from Amal, and his studies in Najaf ? Al Mustaqbal. How does one explain the appearance of Al Manar’s iconic leader on the screens of Al Mustaqbal, the prime instigator of the 14 March "revolution"? Why did this interview air on Hariri’s own channel. The answer is obvious: The Islamist leader Nasrallah needed to speak to Al Mustaqbal's increasingly anti-Shi'a Sunni viewers while Hariri's Al Mustaqbal needed to counter the accusation that it had betrayed the Arab cause in appearing to side with the Americans. Almost a week after Nasrallah's interview, LBC's Marcel Ghanem scored his own scoop: a two-hour interview with Michel Aoun in his secured headquarters in East Beirut. But what is worth noting here is that while Nasrallah was shown from his most flattering angle on his arch-rival TV, his counterpart Michel Aoun, the most popular Christian leader, was given a live first-degree grilling from his Christian interlocutor on the Christian TV to "a full house" (the streets of East Beirut were almost empty of all traffic, as it used to be in the days when the American soap opera Dallas mesmerized the nation). The tough face with which Aoun was met on LBC could partially be explained by Ghanem's sympathies for Aoun's Christian rivals, the Lebanese Forces. On the other hand, even the most partisan Lebanese viewers expect and enjoy a good fight.

These are not isolated phenomena, but examples of a conscious effort by competing television stations to, on the one hand, transcend the limitations of clear communal identifications and recruit new viewers from other communities, while at the same time maintaining their communal credentials within their own core-community, including a critical, "disloyal" core of viewers. The limited success of Pan-Arab satellite TV channels such as Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya in recruiting core Lebanese viewers and in influencing Lebanese political debate, especially during the critical period following the murder of Hariri on 14 February 2005, is evidence of the success of this strategy. These Pan-Arab networks are perceived as the main source of independent coverage by most Arab viewers, whether the news is about Palestine, Iraq or Lebanon. However, inside Lebanon, the most prominent role of Pan-Arab media’s leading channel, Al Jazeera, was to act as the post office for the video tape by the group Abu Adas, claiming responsibility for Harriri’s assassination.

Change and National Television: 
The Need for National Dynamism

During the dramatic months between 14 February and the last day of elections on 20 June 2005, the general view of the role of the Lebanese media was that they indulged in rampant communal mobilization. Many observers pointed out that in a time of crisis, the Lebanese—once again—returned to the communal fold. Christian viewers watched LBC, the Sunnis and Druze followed mostly the mobilizing coverage of Al Mustaqbal, the Shi'a tuned to NBN and Al Manar. But this clear identification between the public and the choice of media was a requirement without which the mobilisation behind an agenda of political change would be impossible. In spite of the exaggerated importance attributed to Pan-Arab satellite TV stations as agents of political change and the near-neurotic fixation of the American administration on Al Jazeera, these TV channels have yet to show a single case in which they played a major role as the vehicle of change, a case where the Pan-Arab media was the catalyst for a radical political transformation—as the Lebanese media did in the un-making and remaking of the Lebanese system in 2005.

If the Lebanese media often are criticised for being sectarian and thus divisive of the holy "national unity," they succeeded (in the same way the equally sectarian political system succeeded) in creating a democratic space, of establishing a greater relationship of trust and identification with the fractured Lebanese public than any Pan-Arab TV is able to establish with the national sub-divisions of their Pan-Arab public. In Syria, where the roof tops are crowded with TV antennas and satellite dishes, most Syrians can now follow Al Jazeera's or Al Arabiya's coverage of the Iraqi conflict. But the level of this Pan-Arab coverage mostly will remain too “macro” for it to appeal as a sole source of news to a Syrian viewer who still needs near, micro and free coverage on Syrian and Lebanese issues. In this case, however, Syrian censorship plays a role in preventing Pan-Arab TV from delivering at this level however. Consequently. The man on the street will not be heard, journalists are more easily intimidated or enticed to cooperate, the level of detail is too high and the issue too specific and distant to interest 95 percent of Pan-Arab viewers.

The Pan-Arab satellites strive to fill this gap with a variety of programs focused on social issues, politics, sports and entertainment that appeal to viewers from certain Arab states, yet the gap is never bridged. To reach and touch a Moroccan viewer usually means loosing an Omani viewer. To reach both at the same time requires “macro” issues, such as the Palestinian or Iraqi conflicts, American interventions or Islamic terrorism. Another aspect of the unbridgeable distance between the viewers of the different Arab countries and the Pan-Arab satellites is in the more aloof, detatched air projected by presenters on Pan-Arab TV stations in contrast to the “idol” or “activist” status accorded to national presenters like Marcel Ghanem or May Chedyak in Lebanon, who could send hundreds of students of all communities into the streets of Beirut to protest the cowardly attempt on their lives. Contrast the spontaneous, universal reaction of solidarity with May Chedyak's ordeal (started by her own university students) with the lack of real popular interest in the cause of Al Jazeera’s Tayseer Allouni, in spite of that network’s considerable mobilizing assets, which were used to back him against the recent Spanish court decision that condemned him for cooperating with Al Qaeda .

The role of the Lebanese national television stations in contributing to the popular protests which ensured one of the few relatively peaceful “regime changes” in the Arab world is not easily replicated, but it gives us grounds on which to reconsider the way we discuss and think about how and which media are vehicles of change. The Pan-Arab TV stations have played an important role, especially in breaking state monopoly on mass media. They are useful in pressing these states to begin a process of media liberalisation. But if real social and political change and reform are to be achieved, there is a need for a national media dynamism. Such dynamism may be sustained and complemented by the Pan-Arab mass media, but they cannot do the job alone. The 2005 Egyptian presidential election was a case in point. In spite of extensive and critical Pan-Arab coverage, the overall TV coverage on Egypt channels clearly was celebratory of and biased towards a president who has been in power for over 24 years. The toothless, subservient and substanceless Egyptian media bears a clear responsibility for the pitiful popular participation in the election (only 26 percent of the electorate voted—only 7 million out of a total population of 75 million). In spite of this, the election was trumpeted not only as "the first ever democratic election with multiple candidates," but in a typical twist of the Egyptian media's hyperbole, even the low turnout was presented as a unique success—better than the one held, as one commentator proudly boasted on national TV, "in the mother of all democracies, America."

About Hanna Ziadeh

Hanna Ziadeh is a senior researcher at The Danish-Egyptian Dialogue Institute in Cairo.

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