-- A visual orgy. A human tsunami. A numbers game. Observers
ran out of labels to describe Lebanon's made-for-TV intifada
against a three-decade Syrian presence and attempts to counter
it by Damascus' allies.
In a bid to sway public opinion for or against the government
and its Syrian patron, a battle of visuals, symbols, and slogans
swept Lebanese media following the seismic February 14 assassination
of former premier Rafiq al-Hariri. Never had cameras in Lebanon
been overwhelmed by such a sea of flags, signs, and other manifestations
of popular uprising and counter-measures, as pro-Syrian supporters
engaged the opposition in what quickly became a game of media
The Numbers Game
The massive "Lebanon Spring" demonstration on March
14, 2005 capped a month of rallies by the opposition, calling
for complete withdrawal of Syrian troops and Syrian intelligence
services from the country and resignation of key intelligence
and security officials in Lebanon whom the opposition held responsible
for al-Hariri's death. Encouraged by TV coverage of earlier
peaceful demonstrations, Lebanese émigrés even
flew back to participate in the event.
Key TV stations had
already provided near-blanket coverage for weeks as hundreds
of thousands of protesters demanded freedom from Syrian tutelage
and the truth about Hariri's brutal murder in unprecedented
rallies in Beirut's Martyrs' Square and around the ex-prime
While Western media
dubbed the uprising the "Cedar Revolution," in reference
to the national emblem on Lebanon's flag, analysts cautioned
that Lebanon was not Ukraine or Georgia and that color-coded
clichés didn't fit the genuine home-grown revolt.
As Lebanese turned
to their own media to make sense of the historic moment their
country was experiencing, they had a choice of channels offering
competing interpretations, coverage, and analyses. Nielsen,
the TV ratings company, would have been stumped to measure Lebanese
viewership following the Valentine's Day massacre given the
speed with which many viewers zapped from channel to channel
to watch news, analyses, talk shows, and massive pro- or anti-government/Syria
Broadcasting Corporation International (LBCI) TV gave up the
lion's share of its advertising revenue to dispatch its satellite
and ground news teams to cover all related events. The original
founder of LBCI was the outlawed Christian Lebanese Forces militia
that thrived during Lebanon's 15-year civil war, but the station
has since become the property of a group of businessmen including
Pierre El-Daher, Najib Mikati, Issam Fares, and Saudi Arabia's
Prince al-Walid bin Talal.
Hariri-owned Future TV (FTV), spearheading the opposition's
advocacy of an international inquiry into the blast that left
18 other people dead and dozens wounded, has since February14
focused its programming on al-Hariri's life and accomplishments,
shedding its commercially successful entertainment shows to
pursue the new mission. Future TV was founded by Rafiq al-Hariri's
family and is considered a Sunni stronghold, but has become
the voice of pro-democracy activism during the recent crisis.
New TV (NTV) and
Arabic News Broadcast (ANB), relative newcomers to the local/regional
scene, played a respectable second string to the more established
LBCI and FTV in providing live coverage from the early hours
of the March 14 rally. Backed by Christian and Muslim entrepreneurs,
ANB is considered pro-democracy, while NTV was founded by a
former al-Hariri rival and Sunni from the same southern port
city of Sidon. Following the former premier's death, however,
the latter moderated his tone.
pro-Syrian stations National Broadcasting Network (NBN) and
Hizbullah's Al Manar limited their air time to the actual event
-- ignoring the hours-long buildup and the human avalanche pouring
in from around the country -- and provided in-studio commentary
and voice-overs on split screens to minimize the impact of the
swelling numbers. NBN is tied to Parliamentary Speaker Nabih
Berri, head of the Shiite Amal movement.
The two stations
had played up pro-Syrian sentiments during a massive rally organized
by Hizbullah a week earlier in nearby Riad Solh Square and reported
that the crowds at that event totaled up to 1.5 million, a figure
that was disputed by the opposition. The two channels also focused
on a pro-Syrian rally in the southern town of Nabatiyeh. Numbers
and visuals there paled, however, when compared to the opposition's
media-savvy organization, whose logistics were handled in part
by PR and advertising experts.
LBCI and FTV, for
their part, had limited the number of hours dedicated to airing
the pro-Syrian show of force. Future TV and Al Manar were on
opposite ends of the seesaw with FTV reporting that the Beirut
rally's numbers were beefed up by Syrians bussed in the night
before -- something Al Manar denied.
Crowds drove to Beirut
on March 14 from across the country, while cameras on highways
and buildings recorded the event. When roadblocks initially
blocked all vehicles, protesters walked. When stumped by traffic,
residents of coastal towns rented fishing boats to reach the
capital. It was Reality TV meets Hollywood epic.
which had been mocked for their alleged foreign allegiances,
were not to be upstaged. They mustered over a million followers
in Martyrs' Square, with spillover into Riad Solh and every
street feeding into them. In a country of about four million,
it was an audiovisual victory par excellence. "Spring comes
a week early," trumpeted LBCI, adding that the Lebanese
calendar had changed numbers.
Most channels used
split screens to show crowds converging on Martyrs' Square via
Riad Solh, where the earlier Hizbullah gathering took place.
The panoramic scenes from cameras perched atop buildings and
tower cranes in downtown Beirut were gripping.
Critics later accused
anchors and reporters of allegedly reflecting partisanship in
their commentaries. Traditionally Christian media were tagged
for zeroing in on pro-Christian demonstrators while Muslim-owned
stations were said to have veered toward Syria.
The climactic March
14 event came on the heels of a weekend chock full of visual
symbolism and photo opportunities. Over 10,000 people formed
a human Lebanese flag in Martyrs' Square on March 12 by holding
up color-coded cards in red, white, and green. The following
evening thousands held a candlelight vigil in the same spot
and created the words "The Truth" in Arabic and English,
demanding that al-Hariri's assassins be brought to justice.
The World Watches
Meanwhile, US officials'
chorus of support for freedom and democracy, echoed by European
and international demands for implementation of UN Resolution
1559 that Syrian troops leave Lebanon without delay and Hizbullah
be disarmed, added to the frenzy as world media turned their
attention to the unfolding story.
A historic milestone
was crossed February 28 when opposition legislators launched
tirades against the government in an incendiary parliamentary
session carried live by local, Arab and international satellite
channels. Although the prime minister had earlier said he would
secure a vote of confidence, he stunned the chamber and cheering
crowds outside by submitting his resignation on-camera.
NBN showed only the
parliamentary session, almost ignoring the long noisy rally
outside. Equally absent in most coverage was state-run Tele-Liban,
which seemed set on another planet.
Other channels had
a field day with the deliberations inside.
Trauma at FTV
FTV journalists could
not hold back tears on learning that al-Hariri had been brutally
murdered, presumably in a bid to silence him and others contemplating
criticism of the country's ruling elite and their backers.
challenge was in covering the event, its aftermath, and its
ramifications under extreme pressures of grief, anger and the
need to broadcast accurate and balanced reports. Exacerbating
matters were the countless mobile phones and landlines that
went dead following the explosion that rocked Beirut and was
heard in eastern mountain towns overlooking the capital.
FTV seemed hesitant
and reluctant at first to air news of the patron's injury, or
worse, his demise. It was too incredulous.
When the painful
truth sank in, it was an endless rerun of the grisly charred
corpses, fires being put out in still burning vehicles of the
ex-premier's motorcade, dazed onlookers recounting what they
had heard, seen and felt, and footage of al-Hariri just hours
earlier in parliament or stopping at a downtown café.
FTV, Hariri became a "martyr" for Lebanon, a term
all other media soon used to describe him and members of his
entourage who perished in the blast.
Ironically, the attack
occurred on the eve of FTV's twelfth anniversary. The following
day on-air reporters and anchors were clad in black and appeared
without makeup. A black strip cut across the station's blue
When FTV reporters,
editors, anchors and producers finally came to grips with the
reality, there was a mad scramble to dig up archival footage
of al-Hariri in parliament, with his family, visiting construction
sites in downtown Beirut (which he is largely credited with
having rebuilt after the war), as a devout Muslim visiting the
holy sites in Saudi Arabia, and replays of interviews he had
granted foreign media.
from the Scene
By then most local,
Arab, and foreign TV channels had jumped into the fray and were
jostling for air time, uplinks on different "birds,"
positioning themselves on buildings to capture different angles
of the crime scene, fighting the crowds that gathered in front
of and inside the American University Hospital where al-Hariri
and his companions were taken and seeking "talking heads"
to interview or from whom to solicit analyses about the earth-shattering
Lebanon's NTV scored
a scoop with scenes of al-Hariri's private medic in a futile
attempt to stay alive while his body was in flames as he made
his way out of a burning vehicle. The footage was rebroadcast
by Arab and Western channels.
NTV's founder had
long been opposed to al-Hariri but his station's position was
professional and non-confrontational during coverage of the
subsequent condolences at the Hariri residence, the funeral
and burial, and, the daily vigils around his grave, which turned
into a shrine.
LBCI was also among
the first at the blast scene with breathtaking footage of charred
remains and eyewitness reports. It was a throwback to Lebanon's
dark civil war days. "Christian" LBCI TV even aired
verses from the Koran, which radio and TV stations traditionally
broadcast in Arab countries at the death of a leader.
and NBN interspersed their news programming with Koranic verses,
while LBCI also fell back on classical music to fill in the
news holes. By the second day, everyone on air was appropriately
dressed in black.
Al Manar and the largely Maronite church-financed Télé-Lumiere
joined in the national outpouring of grief and provided comprehensive
coverage of the event.
Despite these different
takes, Lebanon's media exercised a modicum of responsibility
and maturity rarely seen during the preceding months of political
mudslinging and finger pointing in the run-up to May's parliamentary
This was in sharp
contrast to Qatar's Al Jazeera TV which viewers slammed for
repeatedly airing a seemingly fabricated tape by a self-styled
Islamist who claimed responsibility for al-Hariri's death. Other
stations had broadcast the tape but were more skeptical about
strange juxtaposition occurred March 5, when Lebanese flag wavers
by the tens of thousands converged on Martyrs' Square calling
for immediate Syrian troop withdrawal from their country while
Syrian cheerleaders with their flags, egged on by apparatchiks,
massed outside parliament in Damascus to support their leader's
LBCI TV aired Syrian
president Bashar al-Asad's address to parliament announcing
he would redeploy troops to the Syrian border, minus a fixed
timetable and specification on which side of the frontier they
It also showed split-screen
footage of thrilled crowds watching on giant monitors set up
in Beirut's newly-named "Freedom Square" demanding
that the pullout be complete and that it include countless security
and intelligence operatives. The media themselves were becoming
part of the story.
Analysts agreed that
events imposed themselves on the media, which could only embrace
the inevitable coverage. Lebanon, with its long history of vibrant
and free media (compared to other Arab countries), may be regaining
its rightful place following years of Syrian meddling and competition
from pan-Arab outlets in the Gulf.
The heady days of
recent political events have, once again, brought Lebanese media
to prominence and are bound to have an impact on their regional
Once the flag waving subsides, it will be interesting to see
if Lebanon's TV channels blaze a new trail for media freedom.
raised or voiced during pro-democracy rallies
- This crowd made in Lebanon
- Down with the security and intelligence state
- Free Lebanon from mafia killers
- Lahoud nominee, Shame Academy
- Zoom in, we're all Lebanese
- History begins today
- The truth hurts, moo (Syrian for "right")?
- We're not Ukraine or Georgia, we're Lebanon
- Freedom, sovereignty, independence
- United colors of Lebanon
- No shalom (Hebrew for "hello"), no shlonak
(Syrian for "hi"), for your eyes Hariri
- No more moo
- We've had it
- Independence 05, all for Lebanon
- No Asad, no Bush, no problem
- You're leaving, moo?
- We surprised you, moo?
- We called it the Damascus Highway so you wouldn't get
- Deep cleaning
- They can take our lives
but they can never take
- Zoom out and count
- (Lebanese President Emile Lahoud, avid swimmer) Swim,
Lebanon leaks; tan, Lebanon burns
- The demonstration is obvious, moo?
- Can't you (ophthalmologist Bashar al-Asad) see?
is director of the Institute for Professional Journalists at
the Lebanese American University and a 25-year veteran of international
media in the US and the Middle East.