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With the wind in their sails

by Alexis Baghdadi

While the Lebanese Media, Publishing, and Content Creation industry appears to have been largely resilient to the disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, it has had to review its operational models and strategies under pressure from an economic slowdown, inflation, and lack of government support. Yasser Akkaoui, Executive Magazine’s editor in chief, notes that in the past two decades, the industry has outgrown its domestic borders – a key factor in its survival. The industry has succeeded so far in maintaining its reputation as a pool of talent and quality in the region, despite important technological and financial advantages its neighbors possess. On the journalism front, Thomas Schellen, Executive Magazine’s editor-at-large, mentions the most recent World Press Freedom Index that showed Lebanon in a higher position than other countries in the Middle East. But this competitive edge needs to be carefully looked after and nurtured by the very professionals who forged it and wield it at home in order to preserve its core strengths, namely quality, creativity and freedom, before it can be thrust in new directions and markets to reap benefits. 

Laying the tone for the discussion, Akkaoui says: “We can think outside the box to outsmart hopefully the situation and the establishment and to be able to make sure that this space has a chance to strive and continue to be, a success story, a Lebanese success story around the world.”

Participants seem confident in the skillset of Lebanese talent, a skillset that can be leveraged to develop promising opportunities. It is worth noting that media and content professionals invested themselves in acquiring their skills and knowhow to offset the limited capacity-building opportunities locally and the near-total absence of government support for the industry. As an example, Gabriel Chamoun, chief executive officer of The Talkies, cites the growing number of talented writers developing their skills through script writing workshops and study abroad programs. “This was lacking for a long time, I wouldn’t say today that we have a huge pool of good writers but we’re getting there,” he enthuses. This type of self-development is essential to grab an early share of what seems like a promising Arabic-speaking content creation market. Despite Arabic being one of the fastest-growing languages on the internet, the language is extremely underserved, and in varying degrees of quality. “While 7 percent of Internet consumers are Arabs, only 1 percent of Internet content, or less, is in Arabic,” says Eli Khoury, chairman of Quantum Communications. “International media companies are ‘arabizing’ their content while every study in the world, including the EU report, show us that people like localized content, they don’t want translated content anymore,” adds Alia Ibrahim, co-founder of Daraj Media. In her view, taking advantage of relatively lax censorship laws and combining this with talent can help produce much-desired high-quality content in Arabic whether in terms of journalism, arts, marketing or communication. Even if local talent is unavailable, it has become much easier for the media and content production industry to work remotely with best-in-class professionals, noted Ibrahim. The COVID-19 global lockdown provided just the right conditions to jump headfirst into this model. Additionally, inflation in Lebanon has resulted in a relatively low cost of living for professionals earning “fresh dollars,” which could help media companies with access to this type of income attract top talent to Lebanon – provided the country can offer one day present enough incentives in the form of security and safe living conditions. This will allow Lebanon to compete globally and sell productions to services like Netflix and Amazon.

Rocking the boat

After painting such a rosy picture, one might be tempted to think that the industry has a bright future ahead of it, but the reality is that getting there will not be entirely smooth sailing. Several factors threaten the cruise if the self-appointed navigators do not plot their course smartly.

First among the common challenges faced by the industry is the loss of income, brought about by the economic crisis, and consequently of operations and growth capital. Traditional media suffered from the drying up of advertising revenue, increased printing and production costs, and the loss of subscribers who either left the country or didn’t renew their subscriptions. Additionally, the relatively well-established traditional media outlets and production companies, either fall under direct political ownership or rely on political funding from local or regional political forces or advertising agencies linked to these forces. “All these models are today in a deep crisis,” argues Ayman Mhanna, executive director of Skeyes, as most of them are unable to think in terms of creative business models and build creative links between quality and monetization. The near absence of dedicated investment funds have further aggravated these dire straits, forcing companies to downsize and turn to external markets and fresh dollars to ensure their survival. The issue of revenue is slightly more complex when it comes to journalism proper. “Initially journalism as we all know is very expensive and it’s very unlikely to make any profit. So our business model right from the beginning was based on the idea of creating content that can be monetized to fund our journalism,” says Ibrahim. Uniquely within the industry, traditional print journalism incurred additional income losses from the COVID-19 pandemic as newsstands closed down due to lockdowns and movement restrictions, forcing these outlets to move to online-first or online-only models – a strategy that wasn’t necessarily well-planned ahead.

A second challenge is the state’s neglect of the industry, reflected in an antiquated legal environment and zero state-led initiatives to support the sector. Intellectual property laws are largely insufficient, for example. “When it comes to feature films and big international productions, the role of the state or the government is very important. And no country has managed to develop this without an active role from the public sector,” says Chamoun, citing examples from Morocco, such as the Centre Cinématographique Marocain (the Moroccan cinematographic center) and the Royal Film Commission in Jordan which offers a 25 percent cash rebate incentive to international productions filming in the Kingdom. For news journalism, the repercussions are on freedom of speech again. “Defamation laws, libel and slander are written in an extremely vague way that is interpreted by the judicial bodies based on the political balance of power of the moment,” comments Mhanna.

To be fair, the state has paid some attention to some aspects of the media sector, which brings us to the third challenge: the threat to freedom of expression. This asset is one of the pillars of the industry, without which creativity and quality analysis – but also accurate information – cannot exist. True, Lebanese media professionals enjoy relatively better leeway than their Arab counterparts, but this a statement we should be wary of, warns Mhanna: “It is that very statement that our authorities use to justify new limitations on freedom of speech, arguing that we are ‘still better’ than Egypt, Jordan or Turkey […] That’s an argument we will never accept.” In the past two years since the start of mass protests in Lebanon, attacks on freedom of speech have intensified, he laments, painting a dark picture. “Unfortunately, we had to wait for a tragic event, the assassination of [journalist and activist] Lokman Slim, to understand that we live in a country governed by impunity at every single level, not only when it comes to killing journalists or writers, but also impunity in terms of financial management,” he says, adding that figures from 2019 to March 2021 showed an unprecedented increase in the number of attacks on journalism and freedom of expression, not matched even at the height of the Syrian occupation and other crises since 2005. Speaking on behalf of Executive Magazine, Akkaoui states, “We are independent in our journalism, and we have been paying the price quite dearly for the last 20 years, the frequency and intensity of attacks has increased. And we see and feel that oversight.” Limitations on freedom of expression are not restricted to journalism, but extend to other related industries, not least of which in the Arts and Culture fields, noted Mhanna. Theater productions have been denied a stage – literally – since the COVID-19 lockdown and have therefore not come under the radar, but other forms of artistic content have been the target of censorship and attacks by polarized media outlets and so-called electronic armies.

Finally, the fourth challenge concerns the Lebanese talent pool itself and the infamous “brain drain.” One problem that aspiring media professionals face is the shortfall of academia and training centers when it comes to equipping them with up-to-date and in-demand skills. In a country facing a severe economic crisis, with limited local employment opportunities and insufficient investment in media companies, many fresh graduates and even seasoned professionals are left with the choice between expatriation and freelancing with overseas clients in order to secure “fresh dollars.” This is a highly competitive arena and getting there requires the right connections but most importantly the right skills which, as mentioned above, many Lebanese look beyond the borders to acquire. In journalism, the issue is twofold. Some universities do not offer their students enough quality education and tools. “In the context of journalism, the content creation that journalism does in Lebanon, leaves a lot of room for quality improvement and it has been so for many years,” echoes Schellen. Other universities fall short in terms of preparing and adapting them to the Lebanese context. “They become the local correspondents of the largest newspapers from the United States because they know how to write really well, and they master the tone that appeals to foreign audiences, but they don’t actually have such a strong connection with the ground in Lebanon,” says Mhanna. For Khoury, the talent pool in Lebanon is in danger of drying up: “The ones who remain are three kinds: those who are not really up to it and therefore have no chance to leave; the diehards who love the country and are willing to stay here; and those who don’t have the means to move. Otherwise, the good talents, I’m afraid are almost about to finish.” Chamoun adds that over 50 percent of people in the production field are now in the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Qatar or elsewhere.

A safe harbor?

Some coastlines promise safe harbors for Lebanese media, publishing, and content creation companies, and consist primarily of niche markets targeted to the Middle East region. Dropping anchor in these ports will require collective efforts on the parts of the private sector. Alexis Baghdadi, Executive Magazine’s managing editor, addressed the panelists saying “It’s time to pass the torch of pioneering journalism and by running media content, content creation to another generation while you take on another role, which is not very different from your role, but more advanced, as guides.” Speaking for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), Georges Frenn reasserts the importance of the sector in terms of the objectives set by donors, namely quality job creation for Lebanese and economic support and diversification. “Usually donors focus on agriculture, manufacturing, tourism, rural tourism and environment, but the [media, publishing and content creation] is very much interesting and this is why we are analyzing this and USAID is putting this sector as one of the sectors to partner with and support with partnerships,” he explains.

Consensus seems to be the need to produce quality content. Chamoun finds it necessary to reiterate the need for additional investment in content creation, “I think there should be an investment fund developed in Lebanon. When it comes to TV series, development is very important. It’s the name of the game. How to develop content from a concept, from an idea, and having what we call ‘a bible’ that could be then taken by Netflix, Amazon and the other big streamers.” Commenting on the small quantity of Arabic content online, Ibrahim finds that it is mostly of poor quality, and identified this as an opportunity for Lebanon.  “Today the production that makes money is drama, where we cannot compete on the production level because everyone is doing it,” she says, “We have an edge in what we’ve always been good at, becoming, or re-becoming the hub of the best writers, the best archivists and researchers and storytellers, and produce high quality content for this type of production. I genuinely believe we would first be contributing to closing this gap of Arabic content that is very sellable to international audiences, we can even do it in English.” While Arabic is important, Khoury notes that content should not be exclusively in Arabic. “Out of 10 million pages roughly consumed on the internet, 54 percent are in English. So I wouldn’t shackle myself with language. I would push for the authenticity and locality of the story, irrespective of the language.” Mhanna mentions the availability of international funds for quality content and journalism that could be targeted by local companies, asking “[Are] the owners and CEOs of the very established TV stations in Lebanon ready to actually introduce some real new type of content that is truly high quality journalism even if it would put [them] at odds with some of [[their] previous friends and sponsors.”

Mark Daou, chief executive officer of RPR, leads the exploration of examples for collaboration within the sector. Among those are “free zones,” such as in the United Arab Emirates, which could give creative industries room to develop their financial capabilities, offer them financial and legal facilitations, and probably create new employment opportunities. Another idea he discussed involved infrastructure and technology clusters that would solve a lot of technical difficulties for players in the industry. “Those centers will create a lot of knowledge that will create impact and it will allow a lot of young people to aspire to belong to a community that is physically present or at least virtually present,” he says.

For Dany Richa, chairman and chief executive officer of BBDO Middle East, Africa, and Pakistan, winning at the future of the industry requires having the necessary future skills: “You’d be surprised how talented the people that we have are. We don’t have enough of them, and this is where we need to work with universities to graduate more people in neuroscience, in data, analytics, coding, instead of grooming them unfortunately for the jobs of the past that we’re trying to hang on to.” Daou agrees that the private sector should actively engage educational institutions. “We should make sure we continue to get the flow of talent into our institutions to be able to flourish, because the reality is, we will not be able to recruit from abroad to Lebanon.” Here Akkaoui is prompt to point out that in the absence of public policy and safety net, “the disparity between professionals with access to “fresh dollars” and those still getting paid in Lebanese pounds will increase, and with it the misery.”

The public sector remains very largely absent from the discussion, amidst calls for more collaboration with the sector. “We need to contribute to building a strong public sector but we don’t have the luxury of time for it. We have been trying to push cultural actors to start thinking in terms of policies for the sector instead of only asking for money for their performance,” concedes Mhanna. Akkaoui adds: “We’re not as disappointed as the primary, secondary and tertiary industries, who depended on public policy, or public initiative […] which allows us to get organized, it’s most probably the industry where we can see much more cooperation between different stakeholders.” Ibrahim intones, “We need a strategy because, we’re really functioning in a vacuum; there’s no state, there’s a failed state and we’re literally doing the job of the state so this could also be an opportunity. Money alone will not solve the problem [we need] an overall strategy to educate properly and to keep them in the country, create an ecosystem where they can function. With some strategizing, it’s doable.” According to Richa, Lebanese people around the world are willing to help by commissioning work to Lebanon and employing Lebanese outside Lebanon. “It’s really encouraging that the diaspora is creating a platform where like-minded people can closely collaborate with one interest in mind, the interest of our people, because honestly we’re the only ones thinking about our people, our government aren’t thinking about our people, they’re thinking about staying in power and it’s sad, it saddens me,” he concludes. 

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Alexis Baghdadi

Alexis Baghdadi is co-founder of the SOILS Permaculture Association – Lebanon, and a communications consultant for agroecology donors and grassroots movements

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