Analysis

Will the Last Newspaper Editor to Leave Beirut Please Turn Out the Lights

Is the financial crisis threatening Lebanon’s newspapers a blow to press freedom and freedom of speech? Or were they illusions in the first place?

A Lebanese man holding a poster featuring Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah (left), Prime Minister Saad Hariri and President Michel Aoun.
Bilal Hussein/AP

The Lebanese newspaper As-Safir printed its final edition last Saturday. In a short video posted on YouTube, founder and editor-in-chief Talal Salman can be seen taking his scarf and turning off the lights in his office. Darkness falls as he leaves the building of the newspaper he founded in 1974.

As-Safir, published in Beirut, used to be one of the most important Arabic-language papers in Lebanon. It took a pro-Syrian stance (and, as a result, was suspected of being funded by the Assad regime) but in its early days, the daily opposed Syrian involvement in the long Lebanese civil war. When the first Lebanon war with Israel broke out in 1982, and when the confrontations between Israel and Hezbollah began, the newspaper stood behind the militant Shi’ite organization – even though Salman’s ideology was, and remained, pan-Arab and left-wing. Salman saw As-Safir as a Lebanese national paper, obliged to support the resistance to foreign occupation, especially that of Israel.

Salman blames the paper’s closure on financial reasons and its shrinking circulation figures. Even the newspaper’s website didn’t help to turns things around. As-Safir is a family newspaper: the CEO is one of Salman’s sons, his daughter is the managing editor, while another daughter runs the archive. Unlike other dailies in Lebanon, which enjoy the support of political parties or aid from foreign Arab governments, As-Safir had no stable financial base, especially after the Syrian regime – which probably did provide some funding in the past – ran into its own financial difficulties.

As-Safir is not the only Lebanese newspaper that has failed to go up against online competition. An-Nahar, which was founded in 1933 and was once the most prominent, best-selling paper in Lebanon, is also facing an uncertain future. It recently announced that nearly 100 staffers were to be laid off, and it has had problems paying salaries for over a year.

An-Nahar, which is positioned as a liberal-secular paper, is not just the paper written by young intellectuals and senior commentators: it has also become the symbol of the struggle against Hezbollah and Syrian control of Lebanon.

In 2005, then-editor-in-chief Gebran Tueni – the grandson of the paper’s founder, whose name he bore – was assassinated the day after he returned from Paris, where he had been living over fears for his life. It is believed Syrian intelligence was behind the murder, which was carried out with a car bomb near Beirut. His father, Ghassan Tueni, who had relinquished the editorial chair in 1999, returned to run the paper. After Ghassan died in 2012 at 86, Gebran’s daughter, Nayla, started editing the paper.

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Unlike As-Safir, An-Nahar has had solid financial support for many years – after Saudi Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal bought a stake in the paper and became its guardian angel when it ran into financial trouble. But it seems that even billionaires like Bin Talal no longer want to hold onto money-losing assets, particularly as he already owns a number of television stations and doesn’t lack for media influence.

Here lies the major obstacle that characterizes the Lebanese media, particularly the printed press. While censorship rules in Lebanon are among the most flexible in the Middle East, and officially freedom of expression is part of the country’s liberal tradition, the dependence on sponsors and political parties imposes a heavy level of self-censorship. This neutralizes the ability of the media to be truly free.

For example, the newspaper Al-Mustaqbal, which is owned by Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri (the son of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who was assassinated in 2005), is not only required to toe the line of its owner but also that of Saudi Arabia, which is Hariri’s patron. And Al-Manar television, which is owned by Hezbollah, is equally faithful to the positions of Iran and Syria.

The relationship between money, power and the media is, therefore, an integral part of the political and economic structure within Lebanon. Charles Ayoub, the editor-in-chief of the Arabic-language daily Ad-Diyar, tells of how, four years ago, Saad Hariri promised to pay him $150,000 a month in return for his newspaper – which supports Syria and Hezbollah – taking a more “balanced” line toward the politician and his Future Movement party.

Ayoub himself said he had no problem in principle with taking the money and ordering more positive coverage of Hariri. The problem was that after a while, Hariri informed him he had decided to cancel the deal for “financial reasons.” Ayoub was offended and immediately decided to take revenge through his newspaper.

“That is how it works, and not just these days,” a senior Lebanese communications scholar told Haaretz. She requested anonymity because Lebanese law forbids its citizens from having any contact with Israelis.

“The feeling is as if the media is free and liberal, but every journalist in Lebanon must understand what his limits are. In other words, what the limits of his boss are,” said the scholar. “It has an advantage, too: there are no disguises,” she added. “Every newspaper is connected to their own private teat, so everyone knows who they represent. If you like, you can describe it as a democracy of oligarchs.”