Agenda-setting newspapers and TV stations facing scramble to survive amid state dysfunction
For nearly 80 years since its postwar independence, Lebanon has been a haven for regional media, giving a platform to journalism and entertainment that few other countries in the Middle East would dare to match.
Its newspapers set agendas, its TV stations tested boundaries, and its proprietors defied both war and downturn, producing content that challenged state narratives and tested the patience of the powerful.
Then came the meltdown that could well end it all. In the past three months, a financial collapse that had long been predicted has obliterated revenues that were keeping much of Lebanese media on life support. Since then, popular radio stations have closed, newspapers have stopped paying staff, or slashed salaries, and once omnipotent TV networks have been left scrounging for foreign backers.
So far in February alone, the only local English-language newspaper, the Daily Star, stopped its print run. A longstanding radio station closed, after nearly 40 years, and staff at a raft of other titles and stations were struggling to pay bills.
The collapse has left much of the industry in freefall, and led a fresh wave of Lebanese to look abroad for opportunities. Having launched the careers of hundreds of the regional media’s best practitioners – and some of its most impactful journalism – the sector itself faces a scramble to survive.
To some extent, Lebanese outlets have been buffeted by the same pressures that have taken media in other countries to the brink – the collapse of traditional advertising, the abandonment of old platforms, and a mass migration to social media, which does not pay the bills.
But other factors stemming from widespread state dysfunction have meant Lebanon has been slow to adapt to new media models. “Lebanon is like an ostrich, we put our head in the sand and we didn’t want to see it,” said Pierre Daher, the chairman and CEO of the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation. “I mean, of course the government did not have this as an interest. Also they didn’t have a specialist who would look at it.
“This needed a national plan to do the transformation from regular media to new media; basically because the internet was key in this. We needed to go much faster when it comes to fibre optics, 5G, we needed to lower the prices. Internet is very expensive here. And we needed to put a plan for that industry, how to transform it.”
Alternative media platforms have been hugely popular ways to chronicle events on the country’s combustible streets, as have pop-up online assets, low-cost substitutes that are providing content to younger generations of Lebanese – and to foreign networks that have used such footage to enhance their coverage.
Daher’s network has been among the most influential in the country, and long accounted for about 40% of the television market. But neither it nor its competitors is the first port of call for young Lebanese. It faces an existential threat and is no longer paying full salaries to its staff. Its revenues largely stemmed from advertising or sponsorship from local businesses – nearly all of which has stopped since anti-government protests beginning in October left an already failing economy on life support.
“We knew 2019 could not end on a positive note,” he said. “We already saw in quarter one and two a decline of almost 35% in terms of revenue. The decline that happened in the last three months is around 80%.
“On the other hand, the media outlets in Lebanon, whether it’s newspapers or TV, they still believed that good times were there and they could continue as they were. They didn’t see it coming or they didn’t want to see it coming.”
The Lebanese uprising has been of huge interest to its people, who are now enduring restrictions on access to their savings, widespread layoffs, and soaring inflation.
Nabil Bou Monsef, the deputy editor-in-chief of An-Nahar newspaper, said: “We are facing an unprecedented media crisis in Lebanon. Beirut has always been the hub for foreign and regional journalists to reside in for its strategic location and freedom of speech. It is embedded in our culture. The financial crisis we’re in has hit us hard. As a result, we’ve seen a rise in electronic journalism. It is unacceptable that this financial crisis is crushing almost 85 years of journalism.
“There have been major setbacks for media outlets – setbacks we were able to conquer and get through even during the civil war, but this time it’s different.”
What now for Lebanese reporters and their work is a question that Daher and other proprietors are wrestling with. “I can tell you we are still far ahead when it comes to other Arab nationals when it comes to delivering the kind of content that will prevail in the next decade.
“But this does not mean that the others are doing nothing. They’re moving and moving very fast. We still have a couple of years’ lead and we have to adapt to the fact that we’re no more the rulers, the kings, we just have to accept the fact that we’ll be sharing beds with others.”