Lebanese journalist Riad Kobaissi had his moment in the sun. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken decided to award him and another half-dozen journalists the International Anticorruption Champions Award, as part of the virtual Summit for Democracy organized by U.S. President Joe Biden earlier this month. The honor was bestowed on Kobaissi, who works for the private Al Jadeed television network, for his many investigations – and mainly his exposés on the decisions that led to the massive explosion at Beirut’s port in August 2020.
Kobaissi, like many Lebanese journalists, has been under threat since he published his findings; in September his car windshield was smashed. But Kobaissi, like his wife, journalist Josephine Deeb, who works for the same network, are undeterred. “I am the one who knocks,” Kobaissi quoted the famous “Breaking Bad” scene, in which Walter White responds to his wife, who fears that someday someone might come knocking on their door and open fire.
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But in Lebanon, a journalist knocking on the door no longer scares the residents. The corrupt system is stronger than any revelation or exposé, especially since there are few journalists left who are willing to risk their lives for a cause as hopeless as uprooting corruption. Good, professional newspapers, like As-Safir, Al-Hayat and most recently the Daily News – the oldest English language newspaper in the country – have folded. The An-Nahar newspaper has cut over 150 journalist positions.
Most newspapers, including Al-Mustaqbal, which was launched by former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, have done away with their print editions and moved online, as have TV networks, which are struggling to deal with the age of social media and the drastic reduction in advertising volume. There are journalists who haven’t been paid in months. “Once a journalist could have earned $3,000 a month. Now, with the plummet of the Lebanese lira, he makes $200,” explains a Lebanese journalist. He says that journalists who don’t work for party outlets have to hold several jobs to make ends meet, or take bribes from politicians or businessmen in return for positive coverage.
In theory, the Lebanese media is organized into two trade unions, or syndicates, one for newspaper owners and one for editors and journalists. But over 75 percent of these professionals avoid the syndicates, which operate more as extensions of the government than as worker protection organizations. This month, elections were held for the editors and journalists’ syndicate, with veteran reporter Joseph El-Kosseifi, best known for the good services he provides to the rich and powerful, elected once again as leader.
But this year, Kosseifi was confronted by an initiative of disaffected journalists who in 2019 founded the Alternative Journalists’ Syndicate. Its members are mostly younger, more militant journalists. They sought to participate in the election with the goal of carrying out far-reaching reforms in the official syndicate, but were turned down for membership under various pretenses. Kosseifi sued them on behalf of the syndicate, demanded that the members of the alternative syndicate or their organization be banned from publishing any stories in any media outlet in Lebanon, and to punish any offenders with a $65,000 fine per violation. Social media had a laughing fit, mocking the union boss for going to war against journalists and “wagging his tail” at the leaders.
The journalistic arena is but a reflection of the political battle heating up ahead of the upcoming elections at some unclear point in the future. Lebanese President Michel Aoun decreed that they shall be held “in the spring.” Prime Minister Najib Mikati declares that they will be held March 27, as determined by parliament. Aoun wants the election held in May, “before the current parliament’s term ends May 22.” We must prepare well, Aoun explains. Nothing will happen if the elections are postponed by another two months. Lebanon’s siesta must not be disturbed.
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Mikati and others who oppose the delay believe that a lot can happen in these two months. For instance, it is a crucial time period for the president’s son-in-law, Gebran Bassil, to prepare the ground for his own presidential run. As it is the parliament that elects the president, Bassil and the 88-year-old Aoun will make all efforts to ensure that new candidates “understand” what they must do if elected. If they do not succeed, they can at least divide parliament so that the new president’s election is postponed. That way, Aoun can remain in office until they reach a consensus, as he has already vowed “not to leave a void upon retirement,” which means he’s in office until the parliamentarians agree on a new president. Such an agreement may take weeks, if not months, to achieve.
Until the election, Bassil and his cohorts can employ the media affiliated with them to dim the anti-Aoun discourse, if only somewhat, and especially the harsh criticism against his son-in-law. They can open more and more supportive Twitter and Facebook accounts, and produce more optimistic polls.
It is no coincidence that Aoun and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri were so quick to congratulate Kosseifi for his victory in the union election, or that shortly thereafter Aoun invited Kosseifi to a meeting at the presidential palace. Following this meeting, the chairman said that he asked the president to be compassionate towards the journalists and help them in their dire financial straits. “Compassion for journalists?” the Alternative Journalists’ Syndicate fumed, “he has no compassion for the public, why should he have any for journalists?” The question now is, which journalists will show compassion to the president and his son-in-law?