The media landscape in Lebanon is far from simple. Its development was closely linked to political and sectarian connections, which caused journalistic content and messages to vary depending on the allegiance of the day; ideological and sectarian alignments perhaps being the basis and the main factor affecting journalistic content.
Lebanon was known for having the first printing press in the Middle East during Ottoman rule, owned by the Maronite monks. It was then during the second half of the 19th century that all sects started printing publications and newspapers educating citizens, often voicing opposition to Ottoman rule first and the French mandate second, up until Lebanon’s independence in 1943.
Sectarian diversity and geographical location both contributed to making Beirut a vital center for journalism and printing in the Levant. It became a hub for the dissemination of culture and gave a voice to liberation movements and opposition voices across the Middle East, so much so that journalism witnessed very rapid growth that was reflected not only in printed material but also in the audiovisual media sector that quickly gained experience in content production.
In 1946, the Lebanese State took over Radio Orient from the French mandate, changing its name to Radio Liban. It then started the process of establishing an Arabic and French-speaking Lebanese television company, with the support of Lebanese businessmen Wissam Ezzedine and Alex Moufarrej: they signed an agreement with the government to establish the Compagnie libanaise de Télévision - CLT (Lebanese Television Company) in August 1956. Télé Orient was launched a few years later in May 1962.
The granting of broadcasting licenses to two television companies in 1959 was the first step towards media liberalization and pluralism, despite the government’s restrictions on broadcasting and programs. The two companies were jointly owned by the State and Lebanese businessmen. However, the outbreak of the 1975 Lebanese war reflected on the companies on a sectarian basis, with one located in the Christian region and the other in the Muslim region.
During the civil war, in 1977 precisely, the government nationalized and merged the two companies after their economic situations deteriorated, considering that advertising was their main source of funding. Télé Liban was therefore established and was granted a monopoly on television broadcasting for 25 years in the absence of a law regulating the media.
Media and the civil war
During the 1975-1990 civil war in Lebanon, a very large number of private radio and television stations was established for such a small country, taking advantage of the chaos and the absence of the rule of law. They were all platforms aiming to voice the various ideological and sectarian beliefs of their respective para-military backers.
The 1989 Taif Agreement that put an end to the war included the need to “dismantle all illegal media outlets” that had been established for conflict-related reasons, parallel to the need to dismantle and disarm all militias. The Lebanese Parliament issued a law on audiovisual media in 1994, setting conditions and standards for radio and television broadcasting. Based on this law, the government handed out licenses to some media outlets and shut down others, and the National Audiovisual Media Council of Lebanon was established as an advisory body.
Most of the parties to the conflict that had militarily participated in the war and the political forces that imposed themselves after the end of the conflict became, once again, the license holders. Syrian political and security hegemony over Lebanon greatly influenced the work of the media, such as in 1994 when all private channels were banned from airing news broadcasts and political programs in an attempt to constrain public discourse. Some media outlets were even shut down for opposing the authorities, such as New TV (Al-Jadeed) in 1997 and MTV in 2002.
Media structure and management
The Ministry of Information manages the media sector; its functions are to facilitate the activity of official media institutions. An advisory body, the National Media Council (NMC), was established under the Audiovisual Media Law of 1994. Its tasks include verifying licensing conditions and monitoring media content, and it reports to the Council of Ministers. It does not, however, have any effective powers, and its ten members are chosen by the Parliament and the Council of Ministers on a sectarian basis. This limits their role, capacity, and legal mandate. Licenses for the establishment of radio and television companies are granted by the Council of Ministers once the conditions set by the NMC and the Ministry of Information are met.
In recent years, the decline in spending and advertising in audiovisual media has become blatantly obvious. It is mainly due to funding issues and the challenges facing Lebanese media, against the backdrop of the dominance of the political and sectarian forces managing and directing its outlets.
The media landscape post-2005
With the departure of Syrian troops from Lebanon in 2005 and the ensuing political changes, MTV was relaunched and the Free Patriotic Movement was granted a license to set up a television and radio channel, confirming how tightly the media landscape is intertwined with the balance of political power. Lebanese media serve as the reflection of political and sectarian divisions rampant on the local and regional levels, receiving direct support from regional sponsors.
The unrest and revolutions that started spreading throughout Arab countries in 2011 also affected Lebanese media, with decreases in funding from countries that underwent political change. External support also declined due to the 2008 global financial crisis and the resulting drop in oil prices.
This led Al-Bayrak newspaper and both Monday Morning and La Revue du Liban magazines to suspend publication in 2011, while Al-Kifah Al-Arabi magazine, which was owned by Walid El-Hosseini closed in 2015, along with Strategia and Elfann magazines. Al-Ousbou Al-Arabi, a weekly publication owned by Georges Abou Adal suspended publication in 2014 and As-Safir newspaper in 2016. Al-Hawadeth weekly magazine was shut down the same year, Al-Ittihad newspaper in the autumn of 2017 and Al-Balad newspaper in the summer of 2018. Dar Assayad, which included Al-Anwar newspaper, as well as Assayad, Al-Shabaka, Fairuz, Al-Difaa Al-Arabi and Al-Fares magazines, ceased publication in October 2018 and Al-Hayat daily stopped publishing in Beirut in 2018. The financial crisis also affected TV stations, which were forced to dismiss a large number of employees.
Non-governmental organizations continue to make efforts in an attempt to adopt a new media law, aiming to give real independence and broader power to the National Media Council, in addition to standards that guarantee wider freedom and transparency. This bill is still awaiting the vote of the Parliament’s general assembly after it has been approved by the parliamentary committee on Information and Telecommunications.
This text is a contribution of Nidal Ayoub, the President of the Francophone journalism association (Association francophone de Journalisme - AFEJ) and a member of MOM Lebanon advisory group.