Wednesday,15 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1289, (31 March - 6 April 2016)
Wednesday,15 August, 2018
Issue 1289, (31 March - 6 April 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Lebanese press in crisis

Lebanon’s venerable press industry is going through what, in some cases, may turn out to be a terminal crisis, writes Hassan Qishawi in Beirut

Al-Ahram Weekly

Lebanon’s venerable press is facing a severe financial and economic crisis that, having mounted for years, is now having serious repercussions.

Al-Safir is one of the oldest and best-known newspapers in the country. Three weeks ago, on the paper’s 43rd anniversary, an internal memo warned that it was facing a financial crisis. The crisis has been exacerbated by the growth of the electronic media in the region, Lebanon’s economic and political crises, and developments in the Arab region, all of which have eroded the paper’s circulation, advertising revenues and subscriptions.

The memo, entitled “A Letter to the Family,” said that the paper’s board is considering “all options,” including the possibility of ceasing publication. In a statement to the paper’s staff, however, the editor-in-chief said their rights “would be maintained”.

Later, an unofficial statement to journalists said the 31 March issue of Al-Safir would be the paper’s last. On Monday, however, the paper’s managing editor wrote on his facebook page: ““Al-Safir will exist as long as thyme and olives exist”.”

When contacted by phone, Harb told Al-Ahram Weekly that the paper will continue and “will start a new phase and will do all it can to survive in the Arab political arena. No decision is yet taken as to the paper’s staff but there will be some amendments to their status.”

Workers have begun meeting to discuss compensation, which under Lebanese law will be less than if they had been facing layoffs. If the paper decides to close, it will be exempted from paying compensation and workers will receive only state benefits.

Al-Safir, which bills itself as “Lebanon’s paper for the Arab world and the Arabs’ paper in Lebanon,” pursues an Arab nationalist line and is critical of the free market and Lebanese sectarianism. For his part, Harb denied reports that the paper received any external funds.

It now appears to have fallen victim to the current sharp polarisation in Lebanon. On Syria, the paper is seen as part of the Iranian-Syrian axis, a contrast to its nationalist stance on issues like the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

While Al-Safir’s relationship with the Gulf countries has grown charged, it has maintained the respect of its opponents and its reports have made it a respected part of the Lebanese press.

Despite this week’s unofficial statement, there has more recently been news that the paper will continue publication. But even if Al-Safir survives, the crisis of the Lebanese media will continue.

The crisis at Al-Safir may be the most obvious, but it is not the biggest. It is thought that Talal Salman, the paper’s owner and editor-in-chief, has considered shutting the paper to avoid the kind of decline seen at other Lebanese newspapers that have been forced to suspend or delay the payment of wages.

Other Lebanese newspapers are facing similar crises. Al-Liwa, popular particularly in Lebanon’s Sunni community, has given written notice to its employees that it will be offering redundancy packages.

“In the light of recent austerity measures and to allow our colleagues to make the most appropriate choices,” the notice said, “it has been decided to accept the resignation of those who cannot continue to work in the present harsh circumstances.”

There have also been numerous other reports of financial problems that have led Lebanese papers to delay or suspend wages. Prominent papers affected by the crisis include Al-Nahar, Al-Mustaqbal, and Mustaqbal TV, the latter two operated by Future Movement, long seen as the best-funded Lebanese political faction.

Ouni Al-Kaaki, head of the Lebanese Journalists Syndicate, said the crisis has not only affected Al-Safir, but also extends to other papers. He added that it was not a recent development, but had roots going back to the 1960s.

He said that of the 110 registered press organs in Lebanon (59 newspapers and 51 magazines), only 15 are issued in print format. The crisis was due to Lebanon’s economic situation, he said, which was deteriorating by the day. Several important Arab markets have also closed or narrowed considerably, he added.

“The Iraqi market was vital to the Lebanese media, especially for magazines,” Al-Kaaki said. “Magazines sold in Iraq had enhanced economic status. The same is true of Egypt. But domestic competition and the increased cost of local publications have affected the distribution of Lebanese magazines in Egypt. The Libyan market has also closed.”

In the Gulf, the countdown for the Lebanese press began in the 1960s, Al-Kaaki said. New oil wealth enabled the Gulf countries to publish their own papers and magazines, he explained.

 “We’re approaching a major crisis, and resolving it requires more funding,” he said. Some large Lebanese papers have not paid their employees for months, he added.

Al-Kaaki said that Al-Hawadith, one of the oldest magazines in the Arab world, closed its doors a few weeks ago. He said he believes that the security problems in the country have had had an impact on the overall situation of the media.

The Lebanese press is the oldest in the Arab world after Egypt, but the press in the two countries have been linked since their emergence. Lebanese brothers Selim and Bishara Taqla founded Al-Ahram, for example, the oldest Egyptian newspaper.

However, since its inception in the 19th century, the Lebanese press has had to grapple with the challenges of a small domestic market in a country of just four million people. Lebanon also has one of the highest costs of living in the Arab world.

Traditionally, the Lebanese press has overcome such problems by expanding into other Arab markets and through regional ties and alliances. But as the media have continued to develop in the Arab world, media platforms have proliferated, supported by wealthy Arab states, making the Lebanese media less distinctive.

The fall of former president Saddam Hussein in Iraq and former leader Muammar Al-Gaddafi in Libya also affected Lebanese papers that relied on these two countries for financing and distribution. The regimes saw Lebanon as a vital launching point for media and political influence in the Arab world.

Many Lebanese have also tired of the chronic political divisions in their country. Sick of the political conflicts and sectarian bigotry traditionally reflected in the Lebanese media, they have stopped following daily coverage of politics.

Another major factor in the decline of the print media has been electronic media, which attract large numbers of Lebanese young people, especially since the spread of tablet devices. This has led to a marked decline in the circulation of Lebanese newspapers, according to local sources.

While the crisis of the print media is not particular to Lebanon or the Arab world, domestic and Arab crises have exacerbated matters in the country.

The Lebanese economy, facing major problems since the outbreak of the Syrian crisis, has stagnated. Despite Lebanon’s success in staving off economic collapse and the stability of the banking system, many sectors have seen profits decline. Businesses are also reducing costs, starting with advertising budgets.

Many international and Arab businesses and institutions used to advertise in the Lebanese media, seeing Beirut as a regional centre. But with the continuation of the conflict between Hizbullah and the Gulf states, this advertising has also dried up.

In the audiovisual market, Dubai and Amman are now competing with Lebanon, adding to the long-standing competition from Egypt.

Lebanese Information Minister Ramzi Jreij has urged the Lebanese state to take action to protect historic Lebanese newspapers, referring to them as “the Pyramids of Lebanon”, and asked for loans to be made available to the press.

But the political divisions and sectarian conflicts in the country make it difficult to see how one paper can be rescued at the expense of another. If all the newspapers need to be bailed out, this will require braving a maelstrom of traditional Lebanese deal making in a country facing a growing budget deficit and political paralysis.

The solution for Al-Safir and other Lebanese papers will likely come via the conventional Lebanese channel of each paper turning to its foreign and domestic allies for help, reminding them of the historical and symbolic importance of the paper and highlighting its role in the Iranian-Gulf regional conflict.

The present exposure of the crisis may thus be a prelude to just such a solution, or at least serve as a bargaining tool between the papers and their allies.

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