The ongoing protests in Lebanon have divided the country’s media along new lines and placed further stress on an already struggling industry – but also offered opportunities for new platforms to emerge.
“One camp supports the revolution, and the other still conveys the narrative of the ruling power,” said Matthieu Karam, the head of the web journalism department at the Beirut-based French-language publication L’Orient-le Jour, at the Wajih Ajouz award ceremony on December 2.
This is a new dividing line in the country’s media landscape, which previously reflected the divide that emerged in 2005: between the March 14 Alliance, which opposes Syria’s interference in the country, and the pro-Syrian March 8 Alliance, made up of Hezbollah and the Free Patriotic Movement of current President Michel Aoun.
“The fracture line [in Lebanese media since the protests began] is less clear, as we can now see a firm opposition between the media outlets that support the revolution and those that are completely opposed,” explained Ayman Mhanna, Executive Director of the Samir Kassir Foundation, named after the Lebanese journalist and intellectual that was assassinated in 2005.
News channel like MTV, LBCI and New TV have embraced editorial lines that clearly support the protesters, while media outlets like the Hezbollah-led al-Manar or al-Akhbar have expressed their support for the government.
While some journalists have been able to criticize the political elite while working for elite-controlled media, others have been forced to resign. Al-Akhbar in fact saw two of its journalists resign in the first weeks of the protests on account of the paper’s position on the nationwide social movement.
As Lebanon remains in political deadlock and nears economic crisis, the media is also struggling. Since October 17, journalists have been working over-time, but advertising revenue has been dropping drastically, leaving the actors of the industry under stress.
The financial pressure has already cost the jobs of 300 employees from Future TV, former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri’s channel – inherited by his son, Saad Hariri – that closed in mid-September due to economic reasons. Earlier this year, Hariri already had to let go of his newspaper al-Mustaqbal.
This closure is seen as a reflection of the unsustainability of the current media model, which has resulted in unpaid salaries, increasing dependence on unpaid interns, and the dismissal of staff. Outlets such as The Daily Star have experienced high numbers of resignations, with many of the remaining staff striking on Wednesday, December 5, in protest against months of late pay checks.
A staff member on strike told Al Arabiya English that, “what broke the camel’s back really was the dismissal of [their] colleague Benjamin Redd, quite abruptly in a way that [they] felt was unjustified.”
In a Twitter post, Redd announced that he was let go on December 4 due to his implication in the “[organization of] a strike because workers are owed up to half a year‘s salary — despite the paper being owned by Lebanon‘s billionaire [former] prime minister [Saad Hariri].”
Journalists have also been the target of several attacks since the beginning of the uprising.
The Samir Kassir Foundation’s Center for Media and Cultural Freedom has reported cases of online harassment or damages on vehicles and buildings owned by media enterprises, raising the question of journalists’ security in the coverage of the protests.
Journalists have also been harassed in the streets, as was the case with MTV staff members Joyce Akki and Christian Abi Nader, who got their cameras broken by protesters in downtown Beirut during the first days of the protests.
Challenging elite control
While traditional Lebanese media may be struggling, new forms of grassroots journalism have sprung up in line with the protests challenge to the status quo.
Traditionally, political elites have controlled the media in Lebanon, a process with roots in the Lebanese civil war (1975-1990).
“[The wartime government gave] licenses to media outlets created by militias, militias who then converted into political parties and controlled the post-war political arena in Lebanon,” explained Mhanna.
As the law does not prevent any MPs or Ministers from holding shares in media, media watchdog Reporters Without Borders – which ranks Lebanon 100 out of 180 for press freedom – estimates that 78.4 percent of the media outlets are politically affiliated. From that number, a quarter are directly owned by active politicians.
But the protests have encouraged grassroots journalists to produce their own platforms.
On November 28 the first edition of the 17 Teshreen newspaper was published. Named after the October 17 Revolution, the print was created with the aim of “documenting the experiences and achievements of the Lebanese street,” according to its director, Bashir Abu Zeid.
In his first editorial, the young director also claims that the initiative was financed solely by donations collected during the protests - a rare feat in a country where the media’s economic structure is based on private ownership or donations from either political leaders or their parties.
Already existing outlets such as Megaphone, Daraj and Raseef22 also saw their popularity rose, giving some commentators optimism about the future of Lebanese media.
“These protests strongly helped independent, progressive and secular media, especially online publications,” said Mhanna, who sees hope in the new platforms.
As protesters continue to voice their anger on social media, these new channels of communication might become “the reference for all the young revolutionaries that don’t recognizes themselves in the traditional media treatment,” he added.