How do the Lebanese print media survive?
The word survive is very accurate. Before the war, the Lebanese media was flourished in terms of sales and advertising revenues. Unfortunately, during the war we had to spend all our reserves and now we are surviving. The print media market is depressed not just in Lebanon but worldwide has fallen by something like 25% to 30%, the broadsheet media and the dailies, that is. But because of the political and economic situation in Lebanon and the region, the advertising market has dropped – by something like 35% to 40% for television and 25% for the print media. We face a major problem with all our budgets, short-term, mid-term, and long-term. At the end of 2003, we had lost something like $1.5 million in advertising revenues. That’s a big amount in the print media.
How do you cover your losses?
Our first step, years ago, was to increase the price of the newspaper, from LL1,000 to LL2,000. Then, we increased the capital of the company that publishes An Nahar. We knocked on the door of people who were interested. We integrated them into our family. And of course, in buying the shares, they paid a different price than the normal price. We’ve been able to bring in something like $10 million, just to cover all the losses of the war, to ‘clean’ everything, and to prepare the budget for the next six years.
Has your dependence on investors interfered with the paper’s independence?
In our case, no, because in the charter of the company it is written very clearly that the policy of the paper is decided by the journalists and the Tueni family – because it’s a family business – based on the mission set out in 1948 by my grandfather, Gebran Tueni, concerning the role of An Nahar, the defense of press freedom, and the defense of the integrity of Lebanon. Anyone who buys shares in An Nahar must agree to this.
Is there an advertising monopoly?
I don’t oblige advertisers to advertise in An Nahar. And our prices are high. There is no monopoly of advertising. People can compare and choose.
Why has Prime Minister Rafik Hariri relinquished his 34.5% stake in An Nahar?
I don’t know but I’m happy. He has his own reasons. I had mine for buying back the shares. A lot of people told me I was stupid, but I said: No, no, no, when you want to pay for your freedom, it costs you a lot. I don’t think he was very happy to give them up. I was very happy, but you should know that the price was very high. I can’t tell you how high. But it was a very high price, a really high price. He did good business. But I think politically it was good for An Nahar. A long time ago, I asked him to sell me back the shares, but he didn’t want to at the time. Now I think he feels that the policy of An Nahar for the time being is very independent and maybe he thought that he cannot exert pressure to change that policy. Maybe he thought that it was too much for him to support.
Is there any truth to the suggestion that he relinquished the shares under pressure, indirect or otherwise, from Syria because An Nahar espouses an anti-Syria editorial line?
That is pure fantasy. That would mean that today, I can thank the people I attack in my newspaper for exerting pressure on someone to sell me shares, so that am now more independent. It was a very positive point for the readers also who wrote to congratulate me. Now I’m going to sell shares with the new philosophy that no one person can own more than 30% of An Nahar.
Why was it so important to you to get Hariri’s shares back?
It is very important for a journalist to feel that they are completely independent, that they are not dependent on the money of someone, that no one can say to them: I am a partner, especially when your partner is not always on the same political line.
Did Hariri ever try to exert pressure?
Frankly, yes and no. The relationship was comfortable, though. He endured much more from me than I endured from him, because he knew that he couldn’t exert pressure.
Does Antoine Choueiri have an unfair grip on media advertising?
How? Ok, he represents An Nahar, L’Orient Le Jour, As Safir, but I chose him, he didn’t choose me. Nobody obliged me to go to Choeuiri. I went to Choueiri because I think he is doing very good business. It’s a business contract between him and me. I chose him to manage my ads because I don’t want to create an advertising department in my newspaper. If someone has a newspaper or television station and cannot attract advertising, that’s not my fault. Let him improve his product, convince people that he is number one. Either we are in a free economic system, a free market, or not. This is not dumping. Before [we dealt with] Choueiri, we used to have our own in-house ad department, and it didn’t work. We had the problem then of going out into the market to collect payment. We need a cash flow.
Are the orders of the press and of journalists doing their job as they should?
They are doing the minimum and the minimum is never enough. In this business it’s never enough. With respect to major problems regarding press freedom, they are doing their job. We were able, through the Orders, to get the press law amended. Now, Lebanon’s press law – and I am against any press law – is a good press law. The government can no longer send someone to prison as they do with the audiovisual law, which is a very bad law. But none of the TV owners has presented an amendment of this stupid law, which allows the government to close down TV stations.
How did you feel about the arrest of New TV owner Tahseen Khayyat?
I’m against the arrest of any journalist, of any owner of a TV station or newspaper. I think the TV law in Lebanon is a very bad law. I can tomorrow morning say you are an Israeli agent and put you in jail for 24 hours.
So Tahseen Khayyat’s arrest constituted harassment?
I think it was a form of harassment.
Is this good for Lebanon’s image?
It is very bad for Lebanon’s image, for people to see, as well, that MTV is still closed because our government, our president, was upset with MTV’s policy. The government is trying to bring us back to the Middle Ages. It affects the credibility of the government, of the president, of the prime minister, of the general assembly.
Why is this happening?
Because we don’t have politicians in Lebanon. This is not an independent state. These people have been designated to do a certain job, by the Syrians.
What is your reaction to Walid bin Talal’s purchase of a 49% stake in LBC International?
It’s good. It’s good to see that Lebanese television can attract the interest of foreign investors. If it was a bad TV station, bin Talal would not have invested in it. It’s good for the sector, of course, good for the brand name of Lebanon, good for the whole industry.
What is your evaluation of Walid bin Talal’s newly-formed 24-hour Rotana music channel?
It’s good because I think that Walid bin Talal will be able to help a lot of Arab artists, who do not have the money to produce clips. I hope that we will have real artists and not popcorn artists and video-clip artists.