Lebanese advertisers, journalists and content producers who took part in the Media, Publishing and Content Creation roundtable discussion organized by Executive Magazine in partnership with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) were unanimous in agreeing they have a strong competitive edge over their regional peers, but also warned against the risk of losing this edge due to the continuous brain drain and the difficulty of accessing finances amidst an increasingly inhospitable business environment.
Tapping into the Lebanese diaspora and international donors were among the solutions proposed at the roundtable to finance operations. Following the discussion, Executive talked with Eli Khoury, chairman of Quantum Communications and a veteran of the media landscape in Lebanon, to pick his brain about more or less concrete proposals the sector needs to align behind and join efforts to achieve.
Do you have any comments on the Media, Publishing and Content Creation roundtable by Executive Magazine in which you participated?
The gathering was nice and pertinent, and I thank you for it. If there is one thing that left me hungry, is the fact that the discussion revolved too much on preserving the industry itself and not the challenges we have to contend with in this country, to maintain any kind of industry; from destroyed purchasing power to utilities and other basic needs. It is easy to get stuck in our comfort zone and maneuver through the difficulties to get by. I would say that, to ensure our survival we only need to spend around 25 percent of our efforts on the industry, and 75 percent on fixing the damn place.
What are the specific competitive talents that Lebanese professionals have in the media, content, and publishing industries among their regional peers? Why do they have this edge?
Traditionally, we have dominated the communications and media industry in the region for generations, even during the civil war. The later Gulf boom metamorphosed it into a combination of Lebanese and British knowhow. While they brought in the technical skills and a global language, we brought in an almost seamless multicultural sense due to an indigenous and intuitive “marketeer” DNA that we seemed to possess. Today we may have lost our edge but not necessarily our fundamentals. However, we are fast running out of time.
Do you think, given the reduced access to education and tools as a result of the financial situation, that the local talent pool will be able to continue to evolve its skillset and retain its competitive edge?
I keep telling students and newcomers that the lack of facilities in academic institutions is not an excuse, especially since the Internet offers so many answers. When we were learning our trade back in the days, we too faced magnificent crises and wars – I wish we had the Internet back then, we had to learn through the limited press articles and books we could find or afford. Today, those who really want to learn and perfect their skills can easily do so, as long as they have the will to do it.
What is needed at the local institutional/vocational training level for the Lebanese talent pool to continue growing its skillset?
The issue is twofold in my view. We now have an unprecedented brain drain at both levels; the faculty and the students. Many of the best teachers, mentors and professionals are either already gone or they are not as available as before because they are busy surviving. Additionally, many potentially kick-ass students, those who are dedicated to learning their craft, have already “swum” abroad or are awaiting the first chance to do so, for they have access to the best universities and scholarships offered by embassies. Even the best of mentors, professionals or students who insist on staying, are not able to produce, train and progress properly due to the environment which is not in the least conducive to retaining talent.
There is a stated need for a community or hub of professionals to close ranks and support the sector. How do you see the role of such a hub concretely?
Any good deed nowadays is certainly most welcome, even if it just means fixing a window after the Beirut Port explosion. Any good citizen is bound to contribute wholeheartedly to any initiative. But I must admit that I am somewhat against such an approach, as I increasingly feel as if we keep doing it in vain. Intruders run the place to the ground, we rise to patch it up, only for them to destroy it again, and so on – and it gets worse every time. The thing is, we as a society and a republic are not bankrupt, we have all the capital and assets that this wonderful country, our long history and our hardworking parents have endowed us with. We are merely a cashless hostage. We media professionals, for instance, remain very well equipped with the knowledge and tools, even now, but to be really effective, we must agree on one diagnosis, we might not agree on the remedy, as good doctors sometimes do, but we must agree on the assessment at least, if we ever want to truly relieve the environment and go back to a lasting normality.
We must let go of personal and communal egos and stop beating around rotten ideological bushes – or avoiding them altogether. The one and only reason why we cannot agree on the diagnosis, remains the fact that we do not agree on who we are. If we, one day, tackle this core issue, we can then rain hell on those who destroyed our country and those who might wish to in the future. The remedy may be disputed left or right, but the diagnosis cannot be, else the patient dies. Some may justifiably lack the courage to grab the bull by the horns, that’s fine, but let them not pretend they are doing the best they can. I will go farther and say that more of us should have the balls Executive showed, when it published with a black cover or with nothing but blank pages. We need guts.
Do you believe in the power of the diaspora to support local or Lebanese professionals in the media, content, and publishing industries. Are we talking about individual access to markets and funding only? Can you think of examples?
I might sound controversial, but I will say that COVID-19 gave me hope. It transformed us into a Zoom and online society. Today, not just in Lebanon, people around the world are connecting online to discuss how to reshape the world we live in. With enough momentum, this can create a gigantic power. We can collect millions from the diaspora, we can support the industry and other industries, while over the head of the corrupt government without letting it lay its bloody hands on a single penny. But again, we need to stop giving out fishes and start giving out fishing poles. We do not need Band-Aid we need ER.
Are there larger-scale ways the diaspora or the hub can support these industries, with policy reforms for example?
If we as civil society don’t do something to fix the problem, nobody else will. But for that, you need a local anchor, not only the diaspora, and large scale action – all conditions considered. There are many good, small and large but fragmented attempts by the diaspora and NGOs; though varying in focus, as a result of varying in diagnosis, hence with little to no effects, and sometimes damaging ones. Otherwise, yes a lot can be done and at worthy scales.
To recap, is there a concrete plan to help the sector?
We need to lobby and continue fighting for our rights, on the streets or with the tools of our trade. That is a given. I would also propose building a center that defies the situation and provides the basic needs for professionals, from electricity to technical facilities, tools and access to multinational or even bitcoin financing. My guess is that there are many who would be willing to back such a project, including embassies. I read of several funds calling for [requests for proposals] for such kinds of projects. But one must tell people how one wants to be helped.
Might the diaspora or international community withhold support to large-scale initiatives in these industries, or impose stringent conditions due to the political crisis and government mismanagement of the economy and other factors?
It all comes down to why someone wants to help us as a nation, how they see us. There are some who want to help preserve the simple things they hold dear in this country, like the food, nightlife, beauty or freedom, etc. It is a love affair with many ingredients; but when the ingredients that make it up get degraded, there comes a time for one party to end it. If their heart is in the right place, then they will continue to help, but we also have to put in the work and give them hope. This isn’t always easy. Many, myself included, almost lost hope after the August 4 explosion, but I am not ready to give up yet. I guess it becomes instinctively unavoidable for some.
Do you believe there is hope for the sector yet? Does this hope extend to the rest of the country?
People have often accused me of over optimism. I believe there is big hope, and for a reason I will explain. Our problem is one of identity. Today, there are those who would like us to believe that before sects and ideologies, Lebanon was nothing but a void or a negligible fragment of anything but a nation. This is what is wrong first. This is why our constitutions have never been respected or implemented, like any decently successful country. This is why unwritten or written pacts don’t last and get broken at the first sign of change in balance. To deconstruct one’s tradition and history for any rational or emotional reason, be it mythical or cast-in-stone factual, is not modernism – in fact quite the opposite. A rich multicultural mosaic that thrives on the exchange of ideas, values, art and assets, this is who we were and still are and will be. History speaks louder than politics. Decades of regional conflicts didn’t end us. 30 years of war didn’t end us. Our nation and history seem to be stronger than religion, ideologies and tyranny, most importantly, despite many of its own people.