Lebanese get mixed message

As political tension escalates, Lebanon's TV stations give their side of the story.

    Lebanese politicians all have means for
    getting their message across [EPA]
    With political violence escalating in Lebanon, David Mouner Nabti, a regular contributor to Al Jazeera’s Listening Post programme, explains how the country's wide variety of media get their message across and asks whether viewers can really get a clear picture of what is happening.

    In a country of only four million people, Lebanon has six television stations all affiliated to political parties that dictate the slant of their coverage.

    The programming is often as colourful as anywhere else with the stations featuring sitcoms, talk shows, soap operas and news. Lots and lots of news.
    But where as in some countries balance emerges from diversity and competition, things are a bit more complicated in Lebanon.

    Professor Nabil Dajani from the American University in Beirut does not think that the current range of coverage on offer is benefitting the public.

    "Right now I think they are doing a very serious, negative role in the country, they are agitating the people," he said.

    "We have two highly agitated groups in opposition with another, you put them together and you just have an explosion."

    Voices for all

    These are tense times in Lebanon. The country is divided between two major political alliances struggling for power in the halls of government, on the streets, and on the airwaves.

    Presently the stations from the "opposition" include Al-Manar, a project of Hezbollah, and NBN (now City TV), a project of the Amal movement, representing the main two Shia movements in Lebanon.

    Trying to rule the airwaves

    LBC - Has several channels covering Europe, North America and Australia, affiliated to the Christian Lebanese Forces

    Future Television - Founded by former prime minister Rafik al-Hariri in 1993 and coverage is favourable toward the current government

    Al-Manar - Was founded by Hezbollah in 1991 as a "station of resistance". Beirut headquarters were bombed by the Israelis during the war of summer 2006.

    Tele-Liban - Was considered the only non-aligned station but has had funding cut and is now only a minor player.

    O-TV - The new channels O stands for Orange, the colour associated with Michel Aoun's Free Patriotic Movement.

    On the other side are the groups currently labelled "pro-government", LBC has long been affiliated with the Christian Lebanese Forces movement while Future TV is part of the primarily Sunni Future Movement, which was started by the former prime minister, Rafik al-Hariri, who was assassinated in 2005.

    The only station that could be described as non-aligned is the government-run Tele-Liban and that has had its funding cut dramatically recently and is now only a small player in the wider media scene.

    Canvassing opinion on the streets, it becomes clear that the public do not risk missing any points of view.

    "We watch al-Manar because it is our religion first, we watch LBC because they talk about us," says one girl.

    "I watch all the channels," another says, "because each one has a different point of view so Al-Manar shows the people who are against the government, their point of view."

    No room for neutrality

    They are not the only ones who need the remote control at hand to get the full story.

    "For me, as a journalist, I have to see Manar at 7:30 then I have to see Future and LBC at eight pm in the evening," Rached Fayed, the director of news at Future TV, says.

    "That means I have zap from one to other to see what happens in Lebanon, to get the neutral, or at least the clear view, of the real view of the situation."

    While he thinks there is a problem with the media system in Lebanon, and that his own station clearly shifts their coverage in line with political objectives, Fayed also hopes that a more neutral television station will emerge one day.

    But he is not about to apologise for how his station acts right now.
    "We are fair with everybody, but when we have a crisis, a crisis like this moment, we cannot be neutral," he says.

    "We represent a point of view, a political point of view. We cannot give the same angle for this our position, and the position for the other side."

    At the same time, however, Fayed says he is careful not to recklessly use the power of the media in a way that could further escalate the situation. 
    He shows me a video clip from the recent demonstrations in Lebanon where a man took down the Lebanese flag and put up the Hezbollah flag.

    He decided not to show this clip on Future TV for fear that many would consider the station as branding supporters of Hezbollah as traitors.

    New kid on the block

    Future TV is affiliated to Saad al-Hariri's
    Future Movement [EPA]

    As if the television airwaves were not already crowded enough in this small country, a new television channel is preparing to go live in summer, but it is also connected to a political party. This time to Michel Aoun and the Free Patriotic Movement.

    No matter they say, O-TV is going to be different.

    "I will make sure that when we are going to talk about all kind of parties leaders or all kind of events, news events, we are going to talk the same way and we’re going to give the same priorities for all," says Isabelle Matta, the channel's director of human resources.

    But beyond good intentions, much of the problem, unsurprisingly, comes down to  money.

    "When you have six televisions there isn’t enough advertising," Nabil Dajani says.

    "Here is a country with a population of four million people … it doesn't warrant six television stations, where the hell would you get advertising budgets to pay for six TV stations, you know where can you do that?"

    Even the news director of the newest channel knows that by adding a seventh station to the mix they are increasing already stiff competition over scarce resources.

    Bad news

    "We have a market of publicity in Lebanon that’s around $80 million per year," Jean Aziz says, "so the clean money ... due to the publicity cannot serve all this media sector in Lebanon."

    My advice to the Lebanese ... Stay away from the news, because it is very dangerous
    Of course by other financing, he means political financing. Sometimes during periods of tension, the various stations do not air commercial advertisements at all, instead opting to bombard their viewers with political advertisements, animated cartoons, and politically-themed songs and music videos.

    Professor Dajani's advice for the Lebanese is until the media changes, better just to stay away.
    "Unfortunately, the mass media has become extremely sectarian," he says. "Not to say that they were not sectarian in the past, but right now the kind of rumours they are spreading are of sectarian nature. And the situation is very explosive.

    "So my advice to the Lebanese [is] just turn off their television channels, or if you want to watch them, only open them on comedies or soap operas, but stay away from the news, because it is very dangerous."

    Clearly, there is interest from a segment of the population for objective news coverage, and although  Lebanon’s problems will not all be solved by TV it would be nice to think that at this crucial time they were not making the situation worse.

    David Mouner Nabti is a contributor to the Listening Post's regular slot, Global Village Voices. If you would like to send us a video send it here.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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