Following the assassination attempt against Defense Minister Elias Murr last month, Lebanese newspapers placed on their front pages a photograph of the “reconciliation” between Michel Murr and his brother Gabriel. Beyond what that meant politically, or filially, the episode prompted reflection about what it would mean for MTV, the television station closed down by a government writ after a 2002 by-election in the Metn, for having allegedly broken the law on political campaigning.
With so many priorities on the agenda of a new Lebanese government, little attention has been paid to media matters, though in many respects that is one of the paramount issues that will define Lebanon in the future. In a Middle East where media are becoming increasingly competitive, will the country become a leading regional media hub? Can Lebanon compete with the likes of Dubai, and if so what are the political implications of an otherwise sensible strategy?
In all likelihood, and presuming the Murr brothers can agree, the MTV issue will be resolved in the foreseeable future, since the politics leading to the station’s closure were made superfluous by recent transformations in Lebanon. However, there is as yet no sense of the wider media role Lebanon can play; or how the local media market must change to accommodate the new realities of a post-Syria Lebanon.
The most fundamental problem is one of entry into the marketplace. Both the audio-visual and print media are walled in fields where outsiders, except those with considerable money and influence, are unwelcome. When the airwaves were organized in the mid-1990s, station licenses were conveniently distributed to the major political actors and their allies. This was financially advantageous to the owners, because it created a cartel. But it also had political advantages by imposing conformity on how news would be covered, especially on news related to Syria.
The same exclusivism governs the issuing of political licenses to newspapers (which, simply, authorizes them to cover politics). However, under the Syrians, the newspaper market was less controlled politically than the audio-visual media, partly because it is much smaller. Though the newspaper licensing law authorizes any investor to buy a new license, in reality the government will not issue any, obligating budding press barons to purchase an existing idle license from an owner. This inflates prices tremendously, so that a license may cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, providing a major disincentive to those seeking to enter an already saturated press market facing declining advertising revenues.
Making matters worse, this filtering process is quietly backed by newspaper publishers. While such duplicity makes self-interested economic sense, it does taint the principled protests of those owners who lament limits on press freedoms, since opening a newspaper is as significant a freedom issue as is what publications are allowed to say.
Lebanon’s media market must open up to more competition. In post-Syrian Lebanon, there is also no reason for the market to be artificially divided between political grandees, many of whom don’t have the clout they once did. If that means some outlets close down, then so be it; several papers, for example, survive because of cash payments to influence certain news coverage, and that practice would be curbed.
At the same time, freer political licensing would allow for a much wider variety of publications – cheaper-priced political tabloids, satire publications, mixed political-cultural publications, etc. At the moment, the market is dominated by expensive political broadsheets, and the laws in place are inflexible when it comes to pricing.
There is also the question of Lebanon’s media destiny. The country is better placed than most to be a regional media center. The political climate is relatively free, the media sector is well developed and professional, and Lebanon needs to economically diversify. While no legislative, financial or logistical framework yet exists to allow Beirut to compete with Dubai’s Media City, now is the time to remedy this. A prerequisite, however, is domestic reform. One thing that means is appointing visionary information ministers who are more than mere government spokesmen.
The real question, though, is political. Is Lebanon willing to accept the political price of hosting free media? This is a tough question – one highlighted recently by Syrian efforts to ensure that Lebanon not purvey anything that might weaken the Syrian regime. Absolute freedom may be a pipe dream, but any media capital, to be successful, must defend its independence.