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Lebanon's media: divided and unconquered


Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri's Al-Mustaqbal newspaper recently published a front-page story on how the American Harris Corp. had won a $96 million contract to refurbish Iraq's official media. However, that was of less interest to the paper than one of Harris' partners in the venture—the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation International (LBCI), which will train Iraqi anchorpersons.

Though Al-Mustaqbal ran the story without comment, local readers understood the implicit message: LBCI is collaborating with the American occupation of Iraq, while Hariri's own Future Television station is not.

The moral Hariri sought to draw was interesting in light of the fact that he recently ceded his shares in the leading Lebanese daily Al-Nahar, allegedly under Syrian pressure, after his rival, Lebanese President Emile Lahoud, insisted it was unseemly for the prime minister to have a stake in a newspaper considered "anti-Syrian." Whatever the truth, these incidents, as well as a number of other recent happenings in the Lebanese media, all suggest that the terrain for elite rivalry in the country has more than ever been transferred to the airwaves and broadsheets.

Is that a good thing? In a way it is. For too long people have failed to understand that divisive political rivalries can loosen government restraints on the media, particularly in Arab societies where news is so controlled. The relative freedom of the Lebanese media has highlighted this phenomenon. When television stations and newspapers are enlisted in inter-political rivalries, it usually means dirt will fly. Much of the time the leaked information is revealing enough to merit its release, even if it is shaped in a way destined to blacken an enemy.

Some might legitimately argue that a politically manipulated press is not necessarily a free one. Indeed, but amid the changes in Lebanon's media landscape, one reality stands out: It is governed by the elastic rules of a balance of power, when the information environment in the rest of the region is usually defined by, at best, a benign form of democratic centralism, or, at worst, stifling submission to imposed orthodoxy. In that message is also a statement on the advantages provided by Lebanese political society.

The case of the French-language daily L'Orient-Le Jour is enlightening. The newspaper was originally two rival publications—L'Orient, which, under Gabriel Khabbaz and George Naccache, was a staunch critic of Bishara al-Khoury (the first president of independent Lebanon) and the Constitutionalists; and Le Jour, founded by Khoury's bother-in-law Michel Chiha, which became a Constitutionalist mouthpiece. The newspapers were products of a cutthroat political order and, more interestingly, of inter-Christian competition. Yet they wrote great moments in the Mandate and post-Independence press. To this day, for example, Naccache's commentaries are as blistering as anything ever written in a muckraker tabloid.

By the same token, LBCI's venture into Iraq, whatever the maneuvering involved to build a consensus around such a politically tricky deal, was a testament to the politicians' inability to restrain the media's appetite for gain. In a week when Saudi Arabia's new official satellite station Al-Ikhbariyya sought to prove it could compete with such rivals as Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya despite its reluctance to address domestic Saudi issues, LBCI's inroads into Iraq showed the advantages of downplaying the region's ambient political sensibilities.

Does this mean Lebanon is a barometer for what the region's future media should become? Yes and no. Yes, in that Lebanese satellite stations are the ones that have best blended politics and entertainment, in what must be an ideal model for any company in search of a future. And no, in that the austere politicization of such stations as Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya will continue to be profitable for as long as Arab viewers seek outlets that can best express their anger.

In other words, even as some Arab stations transgress ideology in search of profit in an ecumenical market, there will continue to be those stations holding on to their market share of committed Arab nationalist and Islamist ideologues.

In a way, this dichotomy between an ideological and post-ideological media is due largely, though not exclusively, to the existence of the Lebanese satellite stations. That seems natural, inasmuch as the Lebanese stations, much like the country's press and radio, reflect their society's inability to take seriously political and religious dogmas that belie Lebanon's confessional pluralism.

So, are social and political cleavages good for the openness of the Middle East's media? Drawing such a conclusion may be a bridge too far in many Arab countries, even if in so proscribed a system as Saudi Arabia's the press is interesting almost solely because of the domestic political rivalries it exposes. However, cleavages are good for Lebanon; and the Lebanese media, through their diversity, wily manipulation, ambition, greed and discomfort with the doctrinaire, have certainly been good for the Arab media.