After nearly seven years, the tape came off MTV’s mouth last month, or so an advertising billboard told us before the April 7 relaunching of the television station. MTV was closed after Gabriel Murr, the station’s owner, won the 2002 by-election in the Metn. Subsequently, Murr, who had won thanks from voters opposed to Syria and to Lebanon’s pro-Syrian president and government, was denied both his seat and his station, which was officially closed for violating laws on political advertising.
The reopening of the station comes at a crucial moment before parliamentary elections this June. It is an open secret that those behind MTV’s revival are, in part, keen to ensure that Christian voters will not have their opinions determined solely by the leading television station, the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation (LBC). To their minds, this could turn to the disadvantage of the March 14 coalition, even if others argue that the LBC is unlikely to take a strong position against the coalition.
Electoral politics aside, however, what does the fate of the station tell us about Lebanese media in general, especially at a time when the finances of media outlets everywhere are so tight?
To own a media outlet in Lebanon today is a luxury. Whether it is a newspaper, or a television or radio station, the advertising market and/or subscriber base are rarely enough to make a media outlet fiscally sustainable for very long, let alone profitable. That is why most outlets have largely become political instruments, kept financially alive by politicians wanting to get access to the airwaves, or maintained by newspaper owners able to get money from politicians or funders with little concern for a financial return on their investment.
In that sense, it is almost impossible to speak of truly independent media in Lebanon. But does that necessarily mean that everything the media say or write is political manipulation? And does it mean that viewers, listeners, or readers, facing a cacophony of information, are uninformed, or cannot discern the truth when it comes to news?
The answer to both questions is, surprisingly, no. In many respects, it is the very cacophony of the media that makes manipulation difficult. That there are so many news outlets in Lebanon, and so many funders, waters down the influence of individuals seeking to shape news in their favor. Most outlets have become houses of many mansions, kept alive by numerous sources of money, so that the individual funder will be able to tweak this item or that in his or her favor, but only as part of a wider effort at news shaping.
Then there is the question of truth. One complaint often heard is that there are too many media outlets in Lebanon for such a small market. Based solely on business parameters, that assessment would be true. But the reality is that the plethora of outlets, particularly partisan outlets, has its benefits. If we assume for a moment that the ideal model, media independence, is unachievable in such a tight market (and alas it is), then the next best thing is to have enough information out there to at least reach a reasoned evaluation of what is going on in the country.
This is where partisanship comes in. If you were to read a range of newspapers and hear a variety of television or radio stations, from one political persuasion or the other, you would get a fairly accurate sense of what is happening in Lebanon. What one side refuses to say, the other side will. And if the public remains potentially vulnerable to the manipulation of the many, this is better than a smaller number of sources, which would make it vulnerable to the manipulation of the few.
Some may frown on this effort to make the best of a bad situation. In fact, Lebanese media pretty much functions like any normal market. Because access to the market is restricted, media owners try to find a way to get around this, usually in ways that preserve their margin of maneuver — many funders balancing each other off, instead of just one. The nature of the Lebanese media may mean information is often filtered and tendentious, since the audio-visual market, when it was organized in the early 1990s, was mainly divvied up between the political leadership. But the partisanship at its core also offers the antidote of choice, in order for outlets to appeal to a variety of partisan audiences.
Lebanon is far from a perfect media world. Most Lebanese do not read all newspapers and watch all television stations. The ability of the media to bend opinion is consequently high. Journalistic standards leave much to be desired, and in the absence of independent media, there are many journalists willing to profit from their coverage. However, there is also diversity in Lebanon, as opposed to the deadening uniformity of media in most other Arab countries. That allows for at least an approximate reading of political truth, which is nothing to frown upon.