Media situation in Lebanon
More than most countries in the Middle East, the media law and policy in Lebanon today cannot be understood without taking the historical context in which they evolved into account.
The Maronite Christians were the largest religious or ethnic group in Lebanon in the 1940’s and were joined by members of the Greek Orthodox Church in their desire for independence. The Christians secured the Presidency of the Republic, as well as the directorate of general security and command of the armed forces. The Sunni and Shia Muslims, in return for supporting the Maronite Christians’ push for Lebanon’s independence and separation from greater Syria, were given the Prime Minister’s position and the Speaker’s seat in Parliament, respectively. Thus, in the very process of gaining its independence, Lebanon established what is generally referred to as a “confessional” system of government, a system that allocates political opportunities in the national government and equivalent controls over media resources among the various religious and ethnic groups in the country.
This confessional system extended and currently extends to all the remaining political appointments and to members of parliament. As part of the negotiations leading to independence, official recognition was awarded to 17 different religious or ethnic groups and each was assigned a fixed number of parliamentary seats. The country was then divided into several multi-member constituencies, most of which contained people from a multiple number of groups.
From independence to 1974, the confessional system worked well enough to allow Lebanon to modernize and prosper economically as the key sectors of its economy - banking, commerce, tourism and light industry - expanded. During these same years, the presence of well-organized religious and ethnic groups within Lebanon contributed to the tradition and development of relatively free and independent print media as each demanded and received licenses to publish their particular criticisms of the government and promote their special interests and goals. The various press laws that were adopted between 1948 and 1962 also facilitated the efforts of journalists and editors to develop unions and establish professional standards.
Problems came to a head in the mid-1970’s and contributed to and prolonged Lebanon’s civil war included Syria’s continued involvement in Lebanon’s internal affairs and the 1978 invasion of the Israeli army in southern Lebanon. It was not until the Lebanese factions signed a peace agreement in 1989, known as the Taif Agreement, that the Civil War began to come to an uneasy end. By then, of course, it had seriously damaged Lebanon's economic infrastructure, cut its national output by half, and all but ended Lebanon's position as a Middle Eastern entrepot and banking hub.
The media policy environment is a direct reflection of efforts to recover from the civil war, compounded by the geopolitical complexities of Lebanon in its relationship to Syria, the rest of the Middle East, including Israel. To achieve their objectives, the parties and groups established – under government license – their newspapers, magazines, radio and television stations which varied from “quality mainstream media” to the “cheapest scandal sheets or stations.”
The proliferation of broadcasters -- the factor that gave rise to the 1994 Audio- Visual Media Law, arose from the following set of circumstances. Except for two unlicensed private stations, both of which transmitted for a few months in 1958, Radio Lebanon remained the country’s sole radio station until the mid-1970s when the Civil War triggered an outburst of private stations and brought the state’s monopoly of radio broadcasting to a dramatic end. Between 150 and 300 unlicensed radio stations, many quite local, went on and off the air between 1975 and 1989.
A similar history of pre-1994 proliferation affected television. The Lebanese Television Company (La Compagnie Libanaise de Television), started broadcasting in 1956, and Television of Lebanon and the Orient, started broadcasting in 1962. Each was a private television station that operated under a 21-article agreement with the Lebanese government. Both agreements prohibited programs that “would threaten public security, morals, religious groups, or enhance the image of any political personality or party.” Both agreements further provided that all programs be limited to education and entertainment except that each station had to broadcast, free of charge, news programs and official bulletins submitted by the Ministry of Information.
Initially, the two television stations lost money. They, therefore, sought and obtained the government’s agreement to coordinate their marketing and programs with the result that, by 1975 -- just before the Civil War -- the two stations had become quite profitable. In 1976, the stations were occupied briefly by militias. One group, mostly Muslim, ran the news program in the west Beirut station and the other, mostly Christian, ran the news in the east Beirut station. Shortly later, when the hostilities had decreased somewhat, the government, under a December 30, 1977 legislative decree, agreed to merge the two companies into a single company, the Lebanese Television Company (Tele-Liban). The government injected money into the new station in exchange for obtaining 50 percent ownership and six places on a new 12-person Board of Directors.
The Civil War totally altered the landscape of television broadcasting as well, beginning with LBC television in 1985. By the end of the Civil War, between 40 and 50 unlicensed television stations were, or had been, broadcasting to portions of Lebanon. Two factors contributed to the proliferation of these unofficial stations. First, the government-run television station, just like its radio counterpart, failed to report accurately and thoroughly on the political and social issues that caused the Civil War. Second, once the war started, most of the different factions felt that their political perspectives needed to be broadcast electronically as well as articulated in the print media.
The Taif Agreement (also known as Taef), signed in 1989, signaled the end of the Civil War and presented a blueprint for national reconciliation. It recognized that the large number of unlicensed radio and television stations were a mixed blessing insofar as some of them did not comply with international rules and regulations governing the use of broadcast and reception equipment, channels, and frequencies and many lacked the techniques, methods, and professional competencies of modern media institutions. But, the Taif Agreement did little to solve the problem. Instead, it simply stated that “(a) the information media shall be reorganized under the canopy of the law and within the framework of responsible liberties that serve the cautious tendencies and the objective of ending the state of war.”
The new media laws have limited the number of media with licenses to publish news and the licenses that have been allocated were awarded, at least in part, to the political interests that dominate the confessional system of government. Further, the Maronite president, Sunni prime minister and Shia parliamentary speaker, as well as cabinet ministers representing other Christian denominations and the Druze, owe their positions to Syrian backing. To remain in power they are required to consult with the authorities in Damascus on all matters to do with running Lebanon. Whereas the Lebanese media have a degree of license to criticise their own government, protest against Syria’s role in Lebanon is out of the question. This is particularly true of the broadcasting stations, many of which are owned by those who condone the Syrian presence.
In addition, there are multiple layers of censorship that persist beyond the control that Syria exercises over Lebanese affairs and limitations on free speech found in the Penal Code, the Press Law and the 1984 Audio-Visual Media Law
(I)ndividual stations impose unwritten restrictions of their own. Maguy Farah, a presenter with Future TV, told a Lebanese magazine during Selim al-Hoss's premiership that she had "absolute freedom" in her position. Yet she conceded that the link between Future TV and Mr. Hariri meant she would be unlikely to host Mr. Hoss on her show. Meanwhile, Mr. Hoss's cabinet, fearful of partial election coverage by private stations, evoked a storm of protest in early 2000 by introducing a bill to forbid all such stations from reporting on parliamentary election campaigns.
The introduction to the current Lebanese Constitution provides that Lebanon is a parliamentary democratic republic based on respect of common liberties, including freedom of expression and belief, as well as social fairness and equality in rights and duties among all citizens, with no preferences or favoritism shown to one group at the expense of another. Article 13 contains the only other provision affecting the media and it provides that “(f)reedom of expression, oral or written, and publishing...are protected by law.”
The Press Laws
The Lebanese print media have been governed by a series of press laws, most of which promoted the organization of journalists and publishers. These post independence laws and regulations include:
1) The Press Law of 1948, which regulated the affairs of print media and organized the journalists into one union;
2) The Press Law of 1952, which organized journalists into two unions – one for publishers and one for editors – and set the stage for the granting of new newspapers licenses; and
3) The Press Law of 1962 which clearly defined the profession and the practice of journalism.
The 1962 Press law, which remains in force today, also requires that any newspaper or periodical that wants to publish news on political events must first obtain a legislative decree granting it a Category 1 license. That resulted from the fact that the number of “political” publications had risen considerably in the 1950s.
There are currently 105 Category 1 licenses for publications, comprising 53 dailies, 48 weeklies and four monthly magazines. In an attempt to reduce the number of print media with Category 1 licenses, the government ceased granting new licenses and required a publisher wanting to start a daily newspaper to acquire two existing licenses from publishers who were going out of business. There is, therefore, a market in Category 1 licenses, with the price for any particular license varying according to the name, history and goodwill associated with the publication that is up for sale. A weekly title is estimated to cost $300,000 to $400,000 and the cost of daily newspapers is double these sums. The cost of launching Al-Mustaqbal (The Future), a daily owned by Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, is said to have exceeded $300,000. Hariri bought two titles: one owned by the Najjadah Party, a defunct Arab nationalist organization, and another from Sawt Al Uruba (Voice of Arabism). Most media executives in Lebanon consider these sums to be prohibitive.
The 1962 Press Law provides that nothing may be published that endangers national security, national unity or state frontiers or that insults high-ranking Lebanese officials or a foreign head of state and Lebanon’s criminal code contains sanctions to be imposed upon violators. These provisions were rarely enforced before the Civil War and were ignored with even greater impunity during the Civil War.
In 1994, the government passed new, more formidable controls over the print media that included the right to detain and impose fines on journalists and publishers for slandering the Lebanese president or other heads of state or inciting sectarian strife prior to their actual conviction of any offence by a court. The Lebanese press objected to the changes, just as it had objected to the prior restraint provisions contained in the 1977 Press Law. The government responded to the objections by eliminating both the pre-conviction penalties and the provisions that would have allowed the government to suspend a publication’s license pending a court’s decision. The government also reduced the level of fines to be imposed on convicted violators from £Leb500 million ($298,000) to £Leb 200m ($118,000) and amended the legislation so that the criminal penalties applied only to offences cited in the penal code.
Radio and Television Broadcasting
In October 1994, the Lebanese government, in an effort to gain control over the plethora of unlicensed stations that had begun broadcasting during the Civil War, enacted Law 382/94, known as the 1994 Audio-Visual Media Law. The law ended the state’s theoretical monopoly over electronic broadcasting and made Lebanon the first country in the Middle East to establish a regulatory system for permitting private radio and television broadcasting to be both produced and distributed within its borders. And, as with the Press Law governing the print media, the 1994 Audio-Visual Media Law distinguished between Category 1 licenses, which allowed for the broadcast of news and political programs, and Category 2 licenses for television stations that did not intend to broadcast news. Different licensing fees were to be charged for each category.
The 1994 Audio-Visual Media Law establishes a “licensing board” known as the National Audio-Visual Media Council, or AVMC. Its 10 members were politically selected along confessional lines, half by Parliament and half by the Cabinet, but they also were recognized for their intellectual, literary, scientific and technical backgrounds and experience. Their mission according to the 1994 Law was to 1) review license applications submitted by the Minister of Information, 2) verify that the applications meet the requirements of the law, and 3) advise the Cabinet on whether it should approve or reject the application. The Cabinet was then to make the final decision. Actual implementation of the Audio-Visual Media Law took several years, but by 2002, Lebanon had reduced the number of private radio stations broadcasting news to 16, four on AM and 12 on FM, and the number of private television stations licensed for terrestrial broadcast to six.
According to the 1994 Audio-Visual Media Law’s prescribed procedures, a television station, among other requirements, had to broadcast for a minimum of 4,000 hours per year, with 40 percent locally produced programming, and to transmit those programs though all of Lebanon. The legislation further anticipated that applicants for licenses would be given a provisional permit to operate for a year, at the end of which they would be granted a full 16-year license if they had abided by all conditions pertaining to shareholding, assets and programming. There were 63 applications for licenses in the initial round. In practice, once the cabinet was informed by the AVMC that a particular application met the terms of the law, the applicant was either denied a license or granted a 16-year license No provisional permits were issued.
Some applicants whose files were not in order were allowed to resubmit. There were 36 applications in the second round, compared with 63 in the first. Some stations were given a grace period before they had to close down their operations. Others, such as the Islamic stations of Sheikhs Subhi Tufayli and Said Shaaban, were forcibly closed in mid-1997 by Internal Security forces.
While the 1994 Audio-Visual Media Law requires that the private stations must have shareholders from all religious communities in Lebanon, in practice the stations tend to be identified with a specific religious or ethnic group. Of the four private AM stations, Voice of Lebanon and Radio Free Lebanon are allied with Christian groups; Sawt al-Shaab, although it describes itself as “secular left” has Sunni backing, notably wealthy businessman and contractor Tahseen Khayyat from the southern port city of Sidon; and the National Broadcasting Network (NBN), like its television counterpart, is indirectly owned by Nabih Berri, the Shia speaker of the Lebanese Parliament.
The FM stations tend to broadcast mainly music with commentary by a mixture of Arabic-, English- and French-language presenters. The music includes American and European popular hits on Radio One and RML; French singers from the 1960s on Radio Nostalgie; and light religious songs dedicated to Jesus and the Virgin Mary (Radio Pax). Three of the FM radio stations (Radio Scope, Nostalgie and RML) are a part of the media conglomerate owned by the Greek Orthodox Murr family, which also owns Murr TV. Sunni Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s Luxembourg-based company, Techniques Audio-visuelles, holds the license for Radio Orient, along with Future TV. Radio Orient is a pan-Arab station that broadcasts to Europe and the Middle East from both Paris and Beirut.
In addition to the private radio stations, the Ministry of Information has continued to operate the state-owned Radio Lebanon. Radio Lebanon has benefited in the past from considerable assistance from the French government, in the form of programs, transmitters and studio equipment. Lately, however, the station has lost listeners to other stations, particularly the Voice of Lebanon, and since Lebanese listeners had shifted from political news to entertainment after the civil war ended.
The initial five private Category 1 licenses to be allocated were, as might be expected under the country’s confessional system of government, awarded to specific political interests. One of the six licenses was allocated to Murr Television (MTV), a company that is owned by Gabriel Murr, brother of former Interior Minister Michel Murr.
Two other public figures are shareholders in Murr TV. One is Walid Jumblatt, (Druze), and the other is Fares Boueiz (Maronite). The widely known Saudi entrepreneur, Prince Al-Walid bin Talal is also a shareholder. The 1994 Law prohibits foreign investors from holding shares in Lebanese media companies but Prince Al-Walid is said to be a special case because his maternal grandfather was a Lebanese premier and the prince was granted Lebanese citizenship. Murr TV had established high-tech studios in the Beirut suburb of Naqqash and joined LBC and Future TV on Arabsat. Murr TV also had exclusive rights to French programming from TF1.
MTV folded in 2002 after being taken to court and charged with promoting a parliamentary candidate, its owner Gabriel, in a June 2001 by-election and violating rules prohibiting campaign advertising in the final stretch of an election race. Gabriel’s main opponent in the race was Michel’s daughter and Elias’ sister, Mirna Murr. The result: the controversial Gabriel’s station was shut down and its staff left unemployed. The lucky staff members managed to land jobs in other stations such as LBCI, FTV, MBC and Al-Arabiya.
Another license was allocated to Future Television, a company owned by Sunni former Prime Minister Hariri’s family. The third license went to the National Broadcasting Network (NBN), a company owned primarily by the Shia Parliamentary Speaker Nabih Berri’s family. The fourth license went to Al- Manar Television, part of the media arm of the Syrian- and Iranian-backed Shia resistance group, Hezbollah. Bassem Sabaa, also a Shia, is a former minister of information who played a part in ensuring that both NBN and Al-Manar received licenses. The fifth license was allocated to LBC Television (now LBCI), a company whose major shareholders include Greek Orthodox Christian former Deputy Prime Minister Issam Fares.
Each of the five stations described above broadcasts terrestrially and has satellite channels as well. Since then, a sixth television station, New TV (NTV), received a Category 1 license, although it broadcasts only by satellite. NTV was initially denied a license but finally received one in 2000.
The satellite television stations are governed by Law 531 of 1996, in addition to the provisions in the 1994 Audio-Visual Media Law. Law 531 places supervision of satellite television entirely in the hands of the Cabinet. The AVMC plays no role in the licensing of these channels. In early 1998, the Cabinet evoked Law 531 and ordered LBC and Future TV to stop broadcasting news and political programs on their satellite channels. LBC responded to the ban by increasing its talk shows and retransmitting news from CNNI and ABC and from French television. It has since dropped ABC News from the lineup.
In 2002-03, Future TV echoed former Prime Minister Hariri’s strong denunciation of rival Tahseen Khayyat who was barred from airing a program critical of Saudi Arabia. The station faced possible closure. In addition to the six private networks, there is one station run by the Lebanese government, Télé-Liban which is probably lowest ranked in audience viewership and prestige with its declining popularity also attributed to the proliferation of foreign satellite and cable stations. In 1998, the Lebanese government compensated Télé-Liban for its loss of exclusive broadcasting rights with a lump sum payment but the station is still not on sound financial footing. A few other examples illustrate the politics behind the allocation of the licenses. The NBN license was issued before the network existed, while established and profitable operations such as NTV were initially denied licenses on the grounds that their applications were not in order. Al-Manar’s application for a license was denied, then granted on a restricted basis, then rescinded, and then awarded permanently.
© Foreign radio and television
The Lebanese have always had access to French radio and television programming which has been supplied in recognition of France’s special relationship with the country. This process of access has accelerated with the cabling of apartment blocks. Today, the Lebanese also receive all the satellite channels transmitting from Arabsat, Eutelsat, Intelsat and others. Of these, the most widely watched Arabic language channels are Al-Jazeera; the more recent addition Al-Arabiya; the two Lebanese satellite ventures, Al-Hayat-LBC and Future TV; the Saudi-backed Middle East Broadcasting Center (MBC) now located in Dubai; Abu Dhabi TV; Orbit; and Arab Radio and Television (ART). CNN, BBC World Television and Sky News, all in English, also compete with popular French channels TV5, Arte, La Cinquieme, TF1, and TF2. A subscription to the full ShowTime package provides The Movie Channel, the Discovery Channel, Style, TV Land, Nickelodeon, Bloomberg Television and several others. The competing Orbit package meanwhile includes the Disney Channel and various offerings from Star, including Sky News. Educated Lebanese viewers are also keen to receive Euronews which broadcasts in various languages, along with a mixture of regional Arabic-language stations, Turkish, Iranian, Cypriot and East European fare. Viewers with strong digital satellite dish receivers can also pick up a cocktail of West European, African, Asian and sometimes Latin American stations which are not encrypted.
Mechanisms of legal and political control
Lebanon's 1994 broadcasting law formally ended the state's legal monopoly on the airwaves and paved the way for the licensing of privately owned radio and television stations and acknowledged “the pluralistic nature of the expression of ideas and opinions.” But the new law included new and important constraints. Specifically, it banned live broadcasts of unauthorized political gatherings and certain religious events. It also prohibited the broadcast of “any matter of commentary seeking to affect directly or indirectly the well-being of the nation's economy and finances,” and material that “is propagandistic and promotional,” or “promotes a relationship with the Zionist enemy [the State of Israel].” According to Human Rights Watch, “such broad and vaguely worded proscriptions appear designed to stifle dissemination of a wide range of news, information, and ideas, well beyond the restrictions permissible under Article 19(3) of the ICCPR.” The prohibitions in the Press Law and the 1994 Audio-Visual Media Law also
revealed the political world within which the Lebanese government worked.
The Audio- Visual Media Law provides that only TV stations with Category 1 licenses can broadcast news. But the government made an exception for Hizbullah's Al-Manar and the Catholic Church's Télé-Lumière. Al-Manar was allowed to continue to broadcast news after September 18, 1996, if it limited its domestic news coverage to information about the resistance in southern Lebanon. Télé-Lumière, which does not broadcast news but had no license whatsoever, not even a Category 2 license, was allowed to remain on the air in order to balance Al-Manar, which is perceived as a Muslim station. Thus, when former president Elias Hrawi declared that Al-Manar was not broadcasting any news whatsoever, his conduct appeared to be a transparent effort to win Christian sympathy. It was only after the late president of Syria, Hafez Al- Assad, intervened and argued the decision was detrimental to the resistance that the Lebanese government allowed Al-Manar to resume broadcasting.
The enforcement of the media laws and related acts and decrees is carried out through the media syndicates, councils and the court system. Article 35 of Act 382/94 presents a scenario on how such a mechanism works. If a television or radio corporation does not conform with guidelines stipulated by the law, it may be penalized under the following conditions:
a. For a first offence, the Minister of Information, at the recommendation of the Audio-Visual Media Council (AVMC), may bar the corporation from broadcasting for a maximum of three days.
b. For a second offence -- committed within a year of the first -- the Cabinet, at the recommendation of the Minister of Information and the AVMC, may bar the corporation from broadcasting for a period varying from three days to a month. The AVMC may meet on its own initiative or at the Minister of Information’s invitation. In the event the AVMC does not respond within 48 hours of the Minister’s request for a meeting, he may
proceed and disregard any later advice the AVMC may offer.
c. A television company may appeal any decision by the Minister of Information and the AVMC to the courts and if a court reverses the decision, the company may seek compensation of up to £Leb10 million ($6,635.) for every day of stoppage for a television station and up to £Leb3 million ($1,990) for every day of stoppage of a radio station.
d. Television and radio stations may also be liable under the Lebanese penal code, press law, and other relevant laws on the books. Such penalties may be harsher, in accordance with Article 257 of the penal code. The term “radio and TV corporations” is added where necessary in the above-stated laws.
Accordingly, broadcasting is considered the equivalent of publications, as stipulated in Article 209 of the penal code.
Other Political Controls
It is confessional thinking, not the law, which dictates that the head of the Journalists’ Union should be a Christian, while the head of the Publishers Union (or Press Syndicate) should be a Muslim. And it was a mixture of confessional and power politics that determined that licenses would be allocated to six television channels and dictated who would be the beneficiaries; there are no technical grounds for this decision.
Lebanon’s media laws have also worked to buffer excessive governmental or corporate interference in the media’s affairs. Under the laws’ protection, the media have won several court cases against politicians and businesses. In this context, the leading Lebanese dailies “An-Nahar” (The Day) and “As-Safir” (The Ambassador) have challenged the harassment – and sometimes censorship – by taking their cases to the courts and safeguarding their rights.
The country’s current media policy environment is a direct reflection of efforts to recover from the Civil War, compounded by the geopolitical complexities of Lebanon in its relationship to Syria and the rest of the Middle East, including Israel. In this and other respects, the current media scene is not as free and varied as it might first appear. Obstacles confront any aspiring newspaper publisher and, since its implementation in 1996, the 1994 Audio-Visual Media Law has been applied, unevenly, to prune the chaotic proliferation of small broadcasting stations that mushroomed during the Civil War, while ensuring that the country’s dominant political leaders have television channels and radio stations of their own. In short, what some perceived to be an “oasis of freedom,” others viewed as inappropriate chaos arising from the country’s weak central government. The 1994 Audio-Visual Media Law reduced this chaos by dramatically relicensing, reducing competition and rationalizing the system, motivated in some part by the need to bring a greater degree of order to the airwaves. It is also undisputed that while the Cabinet allocated the licenses according to law, it also did so by an unarticulated formula that in practice reflected the distribution of power within the country: one station for the Christians, one for the moderate Shia Muslim Amal movement and another for the more militant Hezbollah, another for the Sunni Muslims, and so on.
The interplay of satellite signals and geopolitics will provide a substantial challenge to the existing confessional system and the seemingly delicate balance between media outlets and political pluralism. Few states in the region have such a pluralistic structure reflecting the extraordinary history and demography of Lebanon.
Murr TV and Future TV began operations in 1992 and 1993, respectively, and had been vying for third place among the private television stations in terms of audiences. Future TV, because it started a satellite channel as well, had moved ahead of Murr TV although within Lebanon it was less popular than LBC and generally puts up little competition in terms of news.
Berri’s associates in NBN included Shia former economy minister Yassin Jaber.
Hizbullah resisted the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon, provided welfare to the inhabitants of that area and Beirut’s southern suburbs and represented them in parliament. Al-Manar TV was initially granted a temporary license and permitted to broadcast only “muqawama” (resistance) news. Eventually, it obtained a regular Category 1 license and today is considered a useful vehicle for reaching low-income households in many parts of Lebanon.