Going back some 30 years, many Lebanese will recall that their civil war, which began in 1975, was mostly understandable to them through three mediums: newspapers, radio, and the more immediate experience of gunmen fighting in their streets. Television was far behind when it came to informing the public, or shaping its views.
There was a great leap forward in the mid-1980s, when the Lebanese Forces created the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation. The television station not only allowed the militia to control an influential information platform when no one else did; it also (for those days) offered good entertainment, increasing the station’s popularity. It was a brilliant political gambit; but, most importantly, it was a brilliant financial one too. LBC brought much money to the Lebanese Forces, until the Hariri government’s new law on the audio-visual media in 1994 and the arrest of Samir Geagea formally took the station out of the former militia’s orbit.
Images equal political power
The audio-visual media law represented belated recognition of the political power inherent in owning a mass media outlet. The law effectively divvied up of the audio-visual landscape between major political leaders or institutions, who were granted directly or indirectly the means to get their message across. Prime Minister Rafik Hariri had his Future station, while Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri established NBN. Powerful politicians who didn’t own stations of their own invested in existing outlets, or maintained influence over stations owned by family members, such as Michel Murr in the MTV station controlled by his brother. The official Télé-Liban was gradually downgraded, though not eliminated, because President Emile Lahoud wanted his station.
In fact, Lebanon was going through two processes—both revolutionary in the Middle East: its leaders were embracing a potent new political medium, whose power was greatly enhanced by the expansion of Arab satellite broadcasting in the late 1990s; and they were doing so through private ventures. It was hardly ideal capitalism, since the audio-visual media law was oligopolistic, but it was vaguely capitalism nonetheless. And for all its faults, the audio-visual media sector was far more stimulating than what was on display in most other Arab countries.
But it was not democratic. The most remarkable example of television’s political potential came in 2002. In the Metn by-election that followed the death of parliamentarian Albert Mukheiber, MTV played a central role in mobilizing the then-opposition against a candidate backed by Lahoud and by Interior Minister Elias Murr. The election was a family affair, since MTV was used to support the candidacy of Gabriel Murr, against his niece Myrna, who was backed by Michel Murr, at the time Gabriel’s foe. But beyond that, the by-election was a referendum on the power of Syria and its allies in Lebanon. In voting for Gabriel Murr, many Metn voters were really voting against the Syrian-dominated order. MTV played the role of unifier between the diverse groups that formed the opposition coalition.
Taking mass media seriously
Gabriel Murr won the election, but this was reversed under political pressure. Murr’s victory was a red line that could not stand. The government’s harsh backlash showed how seriously it took the incident—or at least that part of the government allied with Lahoud, which saw Myrna Murr’s defeat as a personal affront. MTV was closed down, never to be reopened. There were obvious limits to what free media meant.
During the 2005 “Independence Intifada,” television stations again played a mobilizing function. That said, the old parameters of what was acceptable were basically respected. The audio-visual media were by and large conciliatory, reflecting the calculations of the members of a political class who did not want to break off contacts with each other. It was not until last year, following the summer war between Hizbullah and Israel, that media became more divisive—dangerously so.
The downside of privatization of the audio-visual media is that stations have become weapons in Lebanon’s internecine conflicts. During the rioting on Thursday, January 25, both Hizbullah’s Al-Manar and the pro-Hariri Future station fueled the worsening crisis. The essence of media liberty, no matter how imperfect, is to remain as objective as possible; or at least to avert violence. However, for Lebanon’s stations to become mere propaganda organs is precisely what capitalist culture in media, but also Lebanon’s best instincts of sectarian compromise, are supposed to avoid.