The Re-feudalization of the Public Sphere: Lebanese Television News Coverage and the Lebanese Political Process
By Nabil Dajani

(A draft of this paper was presented at the New Media in the Middle East International Conference for Contemporary Middle East Studies at the University of Southern Denmark in November 2005.)

The Republic of Lebanon is a curious, small state situated in a politically unstable region. Currently subjected to confused and complex national political circumstances following a long and costly civil war, Lebanon is a state suffering from contradictions as a country characterized by extreme pluralism as well as deep and complex sectarian divisions.

The Lebanese media, and particularly television, reflect and reinforce the characteristics and contradictions of Lebanon’s political and tribal confessional society. Television has both helped maintain the divisions that exist within the society and contributed to the alienation of the average individual. Indeed, inasmuch as Lebanese television typically appeals to individual sects and ethnic groups within the country, it helps to sustain the condition of sectarian and ethnic division.

Unlike in all other Arab countries, television in Lebanon was introduced by business executives and not by the government. Lebanese television began with two private commercial television stations that were licensed by the government. Both had links to foreign companies. The first station was backed by the French communication network (Sofirad), and the second by a US network (ABC). During the Lebanese civil war, both companies came to the verge of bankruptcy and appealed to the government for help. The government merged the two ailing television institutions into a new company, in which the government provided liquidity by purchasing 50 percent of its shares.

When the civil war escalated, weakening the central government, some of the warring factions established their own pirate television stations. By the end of the civil war, some ten pirate stations were broadcasting with 36 others planning to go on the air. This situation generated public debate and consequently, in 1994, the parliament passed an audio-visual law organizing broadcasting in the country.

At present, six licensed television stations are on the air. All operate as both terrestrial and satellite broadcasters. These are: The Lebanese Broadcasting Company International (LBCI, formerly LBC), which speaks for the Maronite Christians and represents the views of the right wing Lebanese Forces; Future Television, which addresses the Sunni Moslems and is owned by the family of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri; The National Broadcasting Network (NBN), representing one faction of Shi'ite Muslims and owned by the family and supporters of the speaker of the parliament; Al Manar, organ of the Shi'i Islamic Hezbollah Party; New Television (NTV), which began as an organ of the Communist Party, but is presently owned by opposition politicians; and finally, Tele Liban, which is managed by a board appointed by the government.

Television dominates the flow of information in Lebanon. According to recent figures by an authoritative study, about 65 percent of Lebanese adults view two to four hours per day, and about 82 percent of the population views television on a daily basis, while 95 percent watch television, but not regularly.(1) The majority of viewers (71 percent) watch television during prime time (7-10 p.m.), which is the time of the main news programs, as well as news talk shows. It is estimated that the average household in Lebanon has two television sets. Television content is distributed mostly via terrestrial broadcasting. In 2003, terrestrial television penetration was at approximately 99 percent of all households. Cable television penetration is among the highest in the world, and is estimated to be as high as 79 percent of all households.(2)

A large share of Lebanese television programming consists of political news programs, which are the most viewed genre. Television news is usually self-consciously very serious, but pays more attention to domestic politics than to issues of public service. For all stations, any television coverage of "social distress" is perceived to be negative, in the sense that the presentation of information about hardships is intended to expose “the other group,” and not oriented toward public service. An example is television’s coverage of the economic crisis in the early 1990s, when many stations overstated the threat of a financial crisis, leading to the resignation of the government and a huge depreciation of Lebanese currency.

Because of the high degree of politicization of Lebanese society, current political events are covered in a way that supports the views of each television station with no respect for professional codes and ethics. An early published version of the report by the UN international commission to investigate the assassination of Rafiq Hariri noted that “certain Lebanese media had the unfortunate and constant tendency to spread rumors, nurture speculation, offer information as facts without prior checking and at times use materials obtained under dubious circumstances from sources that had been briefed by the Commission, thereby creating distress and anxiety among the public at large.”

A study of the content of television news shows that political figures, who are the main sponsors of television stations, also are the main actors in a relatively high percentage of the local news items. "Sects" are the main actors of another small but significant group of local news items. This reflects the political environment in Lebanon, which is torn by sectarian grievances.

The following sample of the first fifteen minutes of the evening news on Tuesday, October 11th, 2005 on the six national Lebanese television stations provides a clear picture of the agenda of each.

The government-managed Tele Liban led their broadcast by highlighting three important political issues: First, that the Syrian PM has ignored repeated telephone calls by the Lebanese counterpart; secondly, the safety precautions taken by UN establishments and their employees in Lebanon; and thirdly, the question of disarming Palestinian refugees in Lebanon.

The top news report was the meeting between Saad Al Hariri, the Lebanese majority leader and son of the assassinated former Lebanese Premier, with the Maronite Patriarch in Rome. The second news item reported the call by the Lebanese president for freedom and the strengthening of the judiciary system. This was followed by a report about the return of the Lebanese Speaker of Parliament from an official visit to an Arab country. The activities of the Lebanese Prime Minister were then hurriedly reported. In fact, the entire news report on Tele Liban was rather hurried and brief.

Future Television, organ of the family of the assassinated former Prime Minister Hariri, began with the usual short editorial after announcing that the day was the 240th after the assassination of Hariri. The anchorwoman, in her blue memorial ribbon and Hariri pin, then announced that “all eyes are on Mehlis’ report.” The second item in the editorial was that Syrian newspapers have criticized the report and have dedicated several pages to attacking MP Saad Al Hariri and the Lebanese Prime Minister. The report played up the Syrian Prime Minister’s refusal to answer three calls from the Lebanese PM as well as an official Syrian statement declaring that “France and the US now run Lebanon” and that “Red hell will open on Lebanon if they pursue this path.”

Another five minutes were then spent on MP Hariri’s 45-minute retreat with Lebanese Maronite Patriarch, after which MP Hariri issued a statement acknowledging the Patriarch’s importance in seizing what he called “Lebanon’s golden opportunity.” Al Hariri also emphasized the importance of Mehlis’ report in bringing justice to his father’s assassination, and gave details about his plans for the next few days. The blue-ribbonned anchorwoman subsequently reported the visit of a high US official and the US ambassador to a pro-Hezbollah Lebanese minister.

The anti-Syrian organ of the Maronite Lebanese forces, LBC, began with the tense relationship between Syria and the impending Mehlis report. Over five minutes of air time was dedicated to Syrian newspapers’ condemnation of Saad Al Hariri and the Lebanese Premier, as well as the Syrian denunciation of the Mehlis report and the US. This last statement was repeated twice (by the anchorwoman whose pin paid tribute to a smiling May Chidiac, another LBC anchorwoman, who was the victim of a terrorist attack). The visit of a high US official to Lebanon was the second item. The return of the Speaker of the Parliament from an official visit to an Arab country also was reported, with emphasis on the fact that he denounced US claims of Syrian interference in Lebanon. LBC reported (in far from positive tones) the Speaker’s claim that Syria in fact supports Lebanon, and that the responsibility for the Hariri assassination falls on an “unknown third party.”

NBN, the channel of the Speaker of the Parliament, led with a report about the latter’s return, and read the statement he issued regarding the Mehlis mission. Following that was the President’s call for independence of the judiciary system. The third item was a brief account of progress made by the Mehlis report, and immediately after, the threat of the bird flu. NBN then covered Condoleeza Rice’s announcement that Syria was en route to isolating itself diplomatically.

New TV, a station opposing MP Hariri and supporting the pro-Syrian President, began the news with an unmistakably skeptical statement announcing that as the Lebanese await the results of Mehlis’ report, Mehlis himself has relocated to the port city of Larnaka, Cyprus, citing security reasons. This report was followed by an item about the arrival of a high US official and Lebanese Minister of Justice’s approval of Mehlis’ work. New TV was the only station to report a congratulatory letter sent by the President to the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency for winning the 2005 Nobel Prize for peace. This was followed by a report on Speaker of Parliament’s return and statements. Only then was MP Hariri’s visit to Rome mentioned.

The Shi'i Al Manar TV, organ of Hezbollah, began with a critical account of Saad Al Hariri’s whereabouts and views. They then reported Israeli planes had violated the Southern Lebanese air space. Al Manar TV cited a Syrian newspaper as saying that “it is clear that Lebanon and Syria are the targets of a grand plot and that the UN probe is led astray by false testimony.” The next items were those of the President, the US high official’s visit, and the return of the Speaker of Parliament. Al Manar was the only station that night to report that the US detention center in Guantanamo Bay had ordered the release of an Egyptian man crippled by torture.

Lebanese television today is encountering a multi-faceted crisis that is perhaps more serious than any crisis faced by other Lebanese institutions. Lebanon does enjoy relatively more freedom from government institutions than many Third World countries. However, this freedom has thus far not been transformed into a productive democratic practice, and effective accountability is not possible. In the absence of a properly functioning central government, the tribal sectarian authorities dominate the management of the country’s affairs, including the operation of the media. Consequently, Lebanon does not have a free press.

Additionally, the imposition of entertainment values on the profession of journalism by television’s commercial management has prompted this medium to focus on scandals, fabricated sources, fictional events and the overall tabloidization of mainstream news. Wealth, power, and sectarianism are intertwined intimately in the Lebanese media, and facts often play no mediating role. As a result, Lebanon faces a media muddle that facilitates meddling by foreign elements and citizens remain ignorant of how their political affairs are handled. Because of their ignorance, they are powerless. Consequently, we are today witnessing in Lebanon a media situation that in fact contributes to the re-feudalization of the public sphere.

The Lebanese situation is characterized by a lack of balance in the way television handles the three basic forces that operate on this sector and interact within it. These forces are 1) the interest of the public sector; 2) the interest of the tribal and sectarian-dominated institutions of the state; and 3) the interests of the private sector. While we observe that state institutions and many private sector institutions influence and operate television channels to serve their interests, we note the absence of the public interest in television content. What we find today in Lebanese television is a distinct imbalance between public interest and the interest of the political, financial and economic forces in the country. While the free flow of accurate knowledge is essential for a well-informed people, we find that the public sphere has been grossly distorted and “restructured” by today’s television.

Together with the inability of the state to implement or even draft communication plans and policies founded on public interest, this lack of balance has allowed Lebanese television institutions to advocate conflicting values and identities that further divide the population politically as well as socially. Unrestrained television channels are crowded with political leaks, void of professional ethics, and pay little attention to covering basic public concerns, while political dogma and cheap entertainment dominates their content. While people are indeed agitated by television news, they nevertheless no longer trust the news media as it has become clear that this medium is a resource controlled by a select few and that there is virtually no genuine exchange of ideas in television’s sphere. Clearly, the purpose of television news is not to inform the Lebanese people or serve the public interest. One need only to examine what is not on television news: corruption cases, the enormous financial public debt, and a long list of other serious public issues that require urgent discussion and resolution by the Lebanese people.

The Lebanese mass media generally do not take into consideration their accountability to the people. While television falls under the jurisdiction of a relatively reasonable audiovisual law, it operates independent of and beyond the authority of government, as different stations are guaranteed protection by powerful tribal and sectarian authorities. Television’s news divisions advance the larger agenda of these authorities, of which they are a small part. They have less independent judgment, more vulnerability to influence by their sponsors, and more dependence on sectarian sources and groups similar to them. Consequently, hate-promoters fill the Lebanese airwaves and journalistic public interest standards are doomed.

What is lacking is not only the reliable communication of information but also the ability of the Lebanese media, and particularly television, to contribute information directly to the flow of socially and politically constructive ideas. What we see in Lebanon is a social system that gives opportunities and advantages to people on the basis of their wealth and seniority within a tribal-sectarian system. The concentration of control over this powerful one-way medium by a select few who are driven by narrow interests carries with it the potential for damaging the democratic process.

Lebanese media pay little attention to the development of genuine dialogue between the ruler and the public on the one hand, and among the people themselves on the other. The media sector is dominated by a market mentality that gives little thought to social responsibility. As a consequence, there is confusion between the freedom of the media to inform the people, their freedom to propagate tribal-sectarian dogma, and their freedom to seek material profit. The problematic nature of television and other mass media in Lebanon lies in a flawed visualization of the meaning of freedom. It does not lie in the issue of censorship or lack of a free media environment. This distorted visualization of freedom plays into the hands of private interests that both override and overwhelm social responsibility. Censorship is no longer the most useful lens through which to focus on the subject of freedom of expression. A better means of focusing on freedom of expression is the subject of human rights, particularly the right of the individual to communicate in order to improve the quality of her or his life and to practice true democracy.

True democracy requires the active participation of citizens in public debate as well as involvement in decisions that concern public affairs. Freedom of expression by the media does not bring about democracy except when access to all media channels is made possible for all Lebanese groups. True democracy cannot be achieved when the media serve as advocates, limiting access to some factions and denying it to others.

Television institutions cannot guarantee their freedom unless they agree to be held accountable for their role in defending the rights of citizens. Their ethical right to freedom of expression must be indelibly tied to their acceptance of this accountability. Their legal right for this freedom may not be denied as long as they continue to fulfill their ethical role towards society. The moral right of television to freedom of expression has to be linked to its accountability.

Nabil Dajani is a professor in the department of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the American University in Beirut.

[printer friendly version]

Copyright 2006 Transnational Broadcasting Studies
TBS is published by the
Adham Center for Electronic Journalism, the American University in Cairo and the Middle East Centre, St. Antony's College, University of Oxford, UK
E-mail: TBS@aucegypt.edu