Free speech in Lebanon: Is it all down to Hezbollah?

Martin Jay

Published: Updated:

Talk show hosts, comedians, journalists and even poets are now being charged by Lebanon’s autocratic Hezbollah-led government, since Michel Aoun took office as president in October 2016, for so-called defamation crimes. What was once a beacon of liberty and free speech revered by the entire Arab world has now become a third world country in every sense.

In the cases of some of the TV hosts, some might argue it’s encouraging that the state is taking some responsibility for them mocking top figures in neighbouring countries (as was the case with one leading talk show), given Lebanon’s track record of loose talk – and how this plunged this tiny country into the darkest depths of its recent failing economy, with public debt now in excess of 150c percent of its GDP.

When regional powers encroach themselves so much on the day-to-day running of the country, this measure might seem reasonable. In the past, Lebanon was always a country which prided itself on being an offshore media hub which could chastise other countries in the region without fear of state opprobrium, let alone regional super powers turning up the heat.

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It was also a country where politically-installed journalists were given free rein to slander rival groups and their leaders. But now, with pressure on it to show that it is taking steps to try, even symbolically, to remove itself from regional conflict, plus also to stifle all accountability of its establishment, running up to parliamentary elections, there is a clear crackdown which is gaining pace, according to Human Rights Watch.

It’s as though the state powers don’t believe that fair elections, followed by peace in Lebanon, can be achieved if the normal liberty afforded to the country’s editorialists is allowed leading up to the polls.

And yet, there is a dichotomy of logic and paranoia at play here, which, despite a recent sentencing against a DC-based anti Hezbollah Lebanese hackette shocking many, leads me to suspect that it is not Hezbollah who is leading this latest subterfuge.

If these legal cases continue, a “new media group” of insurgent commentators will establish themselves outside of Lebanon

Martin Jay

High quality journalism

Lebanon’s media is also at fault. Once, considered to be a kaleidoscope of high quality journalism, in just a period of a little over a decade, the giants of Lebanon have become a joke. In just ten years, the leading titles – some who have prominent buildings which drape philosophical messages for a captive audience of those stuck in downtown traffic – have become a parody of journalism.

Checkbook journalism run by the political blocks, the rapid emergence of internet and to some extent the Syrians pulling out of Lebanon in 2005 have all lead to their demise. They too, like the elite which this new group of commentators are targeting, have become a target of vociferous ridicule.

Annahar newspaper, which once called itself the ‘New York Times of the Middle East’ is these days not even a leading newspaper in Lebanon itself – not even in the Christian belt. Assafir, a Hezbollah-leaning broadsheet, not wishing to go the click bait route with tawdry sex stories or copy/pasting high traffic articles from Buzzfeed or Huffington Post, did the decent thing and shut down altogether.

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Interestingly, because these giants sunk to such low levels in recent years, in particular Annahar, which was run like a political party – corrupted by owners with no media savvy who indulged themselves in an almost crack addiction to nepotism and towing the party line – a new generation of political commentators emerged. Talk show hosts, bloggers, comedians, poets took over and did the job which media should have done. And did it better.

Subsequently, Lebanon’s media has reached an all time low, with a President who has such a contempt for local journalists that he refuses to be interviewed by any, which, arguably, is replicated by the general public, who have long since migrated to this new group – or reading reports about their own country from foreign reporters based there, such is the disdain for Lebanon’s press.

The wholesale failure of Lebanese broadsheets to adopt higher standards and to break away from the political model has given birth to this new cabal of commentators.

Moreover, the security services and the elite of Lebanon have become increasingly aware that unlike disciplined media – where a respected dialogue can take place and articles can be corrected, if inaccurate – the new generation of feral commentators are beyond the control of traditional state tools.

Their strength, subsequently has woken up Michel Aoun’s increasingly autocratic government to how powerful they can be when their style and message can have such an edge to it – the same edge that Lebanon’s own broadsheets lost in 2005.

A broader audience

And being raw just makes them even more attractive to a broader audience, hence the recent arrest of poets posting messages on Facebook about religious icons or an Islamist who allegedly ‘defamed’ the President.

The chat show host, who shamelessly copies the Jon Stewart format, is essentially a comedian. Yet satire is a dangerous thing to a paranoid elite who for years controlled what journalists write about them and who don’t really understand the tenet of how a western democratic model of state [-verses-media functions.

In fact, Lebanon’s elite doesn’t even really understand what defamation law is as the country’s leaders, not content with cracking down on free speech, believe that the real fly in the ointment is “free thinking”.

The Lebanese analyst in DC who was charged with defaming the Lebanese army is a bit of a joke, legally speaking. In defamation law in the UK for example, it is impossible to defame an institution and so belittling the Lebanese army doesn’t even register. The case against her has just made her a bigger hitter in Washington and will make her a legend when, inevitably, her six-month prison sentence is dropped and she can visit her own country.

But increasingly, since Mr Aoun took office, we are witnessing Lebanon dangerously veering towards a vile media crackdown which is more akin to Sisi’s Egypt and it is Lebanon’s media who I blame for not stepping up to the mark and setting the example when it had the opportunity. The danger is that a younger generation of establishment journalists don’t know any better.

In 2016, when Mr Aoun was sworn in as President, I was kindly warned by journalists who supported him for referring to him as a “war lord” in an Oped, pointing out that special laws protect the president from journalists’ criticism. There was no sense of irony or embarrassment from them, when they told me this which speaks volumes about how naive and ignorant media is here and is really the last institution to talk about free speech.

And an ignorant media which has taken the king’s shilling will only encourage the state to exploit its hold even more. Recently, the New York Times asked the justice minister here to comment on the crackdown, a triumph of futility akin to asking a blind man for directions, many would argue, as he dismissed the assertion outright.

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Others might go further and salute the minster for even agreeing to be interviewed in a country where government ministers steer clear of unscripted interviews altogether. In Lebanon journalists proudly declare themselves “political activists” on their twitter bios as well as “journalist” with no shame.

What we are witnessing now is a crackdown which will only backfire on those who conceived it. If these legal cases continue, a “new media group” of insurgent commentators will establish themselves outside of Lebanon and then it will be down to the state to inevitably block website URLs.

And for the ones who do jail time, they will be made iconoclasts beyond their wildest dreams. It may well be that the hundreds of millions of dollars that were rumoured to be put aside for a giant media subsidy for Lebanon’s failed media giants, could be dusted off after all by Mr Aoun after the elections. But then wouldn’t that place those two failed broadsheets in his pocket for keeps?
Martin Jay is a Beirut based journalist who in 2016 won the highest press award given by the United Nations for his reporting on Syrian refugees in Lebanon. In Beirut he has worked on a freelance basis for Al Jazeera, DW, Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, Mail on Line, The National and regularly appears on TV commentating on geopolitics. He can be followed at @MartinRJay.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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