Seeds of a new press
Five months in Abu Dhabi can make the busy pavement of Hamra Street incredibly cheering. Beggars, shoeshine boys and the colourful characters manning news stands turn into angels of a lost paradise – street life – one of whose ritual pleasures is buying the morning papers. Like few places in Lebanon, here they dispense every sect and ideology of newsprint. I refresh my memory as I pick some up: As Safir (Shiite, socialist), An Nahar (Christian, liberal), Al Akhbar (Hizbollah, leftist), Al Mustaqbal (Sunni, conservative) as well as the tabloidish Al Balad (produced by the owners of the all-classifieds, free Al Waseet) and London-based pan-Arab papers like Al Quds Al Arabi, Al Sharq Al Awsat and Al Hayat.
The Lebanese experiment in confessional government, with its origins in the lack of a majority sect at the time of independence in 1943, may have forestalled the autocratic fate suffered in places like Syria and Egypt without eliminating sectarian sentiment. In place of a one-party system, a sect-addled democracy took hold. And the results have ranged from civil war to a chain of freer, stronger papers, the most pluralistic in the Arab world. That is why Beirut has never produced state papers like Al Ahram in Cairo or Teshrin in Damascus. It has, however, capitalised on outside funding – much of it from the Gulf – to sustain a tradition of secular debate, one that attempts to assert the enduring relevance of newsprint in the face of dwindling distribution figures worldwide, and the consequent loss of advertising revenue.
The Arab world would not seem to be immune to these trends, and I have come to Beirut, you might say, just to buy these newspapers, to read them, and to talk to the journalists and editors who produce them. Journalists in the West have become wearily familiar with the endless drumbeat of bad news for their industry and, somewhat masochistically, they can’t seem to stop writing articles about it. While they worry that corporate owners have cut quality to boost profits, the greater concern of their Arab counterparts has been political rather than economic: that owners and investors (in many cases governments themselves) will impose their views; it is the independence of the journalism, rather than its declining quality, that is the source of anxiety.
Lebanon – with its unique tradition of pluralism – is an interesting place to consider the state of the Arab press, but that very pluralism is a side effect of the country’s plentiful sectarian divisions, each with its own platform and point of view. “There is a difference,” notes Hazem Saghieh, a 30-year veteran of the Lebanese press who now serves as political editor of Al Hayat, “between a genuinely liberal or free climate,” where you can say whatever you want, and a place “where you can always get a few words in edgewise because there’s a civil war going on.”
On March 16, 2006, the Druze leader Walid Jumblatt appeared on the popular LBC talk show Kalam Alnas, and he seemed unusually agitated over plans for the launch of Beirut’s newest paper. “Who says the Syrians are really gone,” he declaimed. “Together with the Iranians, they are funding a new newspaper called Al Akhbar.”
The new paper, Jumblatt said, was a tool of Hizbollah, the core of the opposition and an ally of Iran and Syria. He repeated rumours that its mandate was to promote Khomeinism, brainwashing readers into supporting the allegedly fanatical militants dragging Lebanon into war with Israel. The paper, he claimed, would take an Islamist position on individual liberties and endorse Baath-style repression.
Outside Lebanon it would seem extraordinary for a major politician to launch a pre-emptive strike against a paper that had not yet appeared – try to imagine Gordon Brown on the BBC, railing against a new paper that sought to claim the legacy of the old Labour Party – but the stakes were evidently high.
Al Akhbar was the brainchild of the widely admired left-wing journalist Joseph Samaha, who quit his job editing As Safir – one of Lebanon’s two leading dailies, which he helped found in 1974 – for the chance to launch his own paper. But months before its debut, Samaha’s vision of a critical, reader-friendly paper was already being overshadowed by his stated sympathies for the opposition and the newspaper’s purported association with Hizbollah.
Al Akhbar, which published its first issue on August 14, 2006, is an interesting case study: it is the youngest, and in some ways the most exciting, serious newspaper in Lebanon. But its support for the Islamist-led opposition has made it particularly vulnerable to the political polarisation of the Lebanese media – the very thing Samaha hoped to transcend.
Lebanese papers have traditionally been family businesses, partly controlled by their financiers, but with political lines shaped by internal debates between editors and investors – and within multi-confessional newsrooms.
The doyen of the Lebanese press, An Nahar – founded in 1933 by Gibran Tueni, whose family still owns the paper – set standards for journalism that seem to have no counterpart in the Egyptian press, an obvious point of comparison. Where each of Lebanon’s papers reflected the shifting and competing views of their investors, editors, and reporters, their Egyptian counterparts have tended since the 1950s to follow a line set by individual editors and executives with an eye toward pleasing the government. By the 1980s, this system had become so corrupt that most reporters were little more than barely literate PR workers for officials.
But an alternative press emerged in Cairo in the 1990s, fuelled by the rise of online activists and American pressure on the Egyptian government for democratic reform. Papers like Al Usbou and Ad Dustour waged lurid battles on government figures, who for the first time in recent memory featured in irreverent cartoons and satires, while less sensationalist papers, notably Al Masri Al Yom (the most widely read today) built a reputation for accurate reporting. Together they raised professional standards and reaffirmed the credibility of the press. They could not afford the lush printing and service-orientated copy the state papers increasingly incorporated, but they created a ripple effect in the state’s three gargantuan institutions (Al Ahram, Akhbar Al Yom and Ag Gumhureya). For the first time since the 1940s, Beirut seemed to lag behind.
Lebanese journalists felt nothing major had happened since An Nahar’s last overhaul in the 1960s. Only Al Balad, a Berliner-format daily founded in 2003, suggested anything new. Designed by Saatchi and Saatchi Beirut (the company behind Independence 05), Al Balad promised sharp and snappy reading for a young millennium. It delivered compelling graphics without substance: an Arab equivalent of The Sun, with risqué covers, competitions to win consumer goods and scandal pieces flaunting sectarian bias.
By 2006, it seemed to many that a new daily was in order, and Samaha – a figure of legendary credibility, as well loved as anyone in the factional atmosphere of post-war Lebanon – hatched plans to launch one before the end of the year (the name was patented on March 21).
Samaha was joined by a colleague from As Safir, Ibrahim al Amin. For months both had been frustrated with the centrist line of Talal Salman, the owner and sometimes de facto editor of As Safir, who had founded the paper with help from Samaha in the build-up to the civil war. A Shiite, Salman was concerned that a pro-Hizbollah stance might be read as sectarianism. Samaha, a Greek Catholic, had no such worries; but it was dawning on him that his hopes for a new kind of press – one that made the citizen its priority – would always clash with conventional attitudes there.
Working out of the small office of a graphic-designer friend, the two cut jarring figures: Samaha – the mustachioed teddy bear, Amin – the clean-shaven detective; both corpulent and bald, Samaha slightly fairer skinned. They were very different journalists: Samaha had spent most of his life in London and Paris (and saw the changes introduced by The Independent and Le Monde in the 1980s as models for a new Arab press). Samaha’s measured columns bore the marks of meticulous research and the weighing of evidence. Amin had only ever worked at As Safir and, much like the iconic Egyptian journalist Mohammed Hassanein Heikal, he was better known for his exclusive, clandestine sources. (He was unavailable for an interview in Beirut, I was told, for security reasons, as he believed he was being targeted for assassination.)
Amin, like Salman, was interested in a “position press” – journalism that over-interprets the facts to prove a point. In this Amin was tethered to the old Safir tradition, while Samaha was striving to reinvent engagement by producing critical journalism irrespective of an overriding ideology, to make a paper that was a forum rather than one piece in the puzzle of competing sectarian claims. But without Amin’s business acumen, Samaha’s condition for starting a paper – that there should be enough money to run for five years no matter the advertising revenue – would never have been met.
It was shortly after the deal was cut that they watched Jumblatt condemn the unborn baby. But judging by the accompanying chorus, that baby was doomed anyway: critics doubted that Samaha’s vision would survive. Those pre-emptive arguments made sense if you believed Al Akhbar really was funded, via Hizbollah, by Syria and Iran.
But a range of sources inside and outside Al Akhbar say that the paper’s start-up funds were provided by three secular businessmen, Palestinian and Lebanese, who insisted on anonymity for the sake of other financial interests, which might be ill-served by association with a pro-opposition paper. Perhaps they felt the need to stem what they saw as a monolithic pro-American tide. Samaha’s views spoke to their standpoint, and they gave him editorial control.
Al Akhbar is unique in that its editorial board now owns all the shares (with legal provisions that prevent their sale to another proprietor). This arrangement is unprecedented in Lebanon, where, as a report from the World Association of Newspapers phrases it, “Political interests have a strong influence on the media because many of its owners are affiliated to a religious sect or political parties”. No Tuenis or Hariris own Al Akhbar; instead of a Walid bin Talal or a Gaddafi, the seed money came from individuals who would appear to have no agenda in common beyond trust for Samaha. And no one could reasonably doubt Samaha’s integrity.
Samaha and Amin targeted what they saw as American plans for the region, with which March 14 leaders like the prime minister Fouad Siniora and Jumblatt were increasingly identified. To Samaha and Amin, the strength of Israel and the weakness of the Lebanese Army justified the presence of an armed resistance in the form of Hizbollah.
When Hizbollah’s kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers led to full-scale raids on Lebanon, right-wingers blamed Hizbollah for the destruction, seeing Al Akhbar as its partner in crime. The paper launched the day of the ceasefire, and Samaha’s first editorial in the paper responded wryly to the view that Hizbollah’s taking of Israeli POWs was a reckless miscalculation.
The charge of “miscalculation”, Samaha wrote, “is levelled at anyone who resists or rebels against or violently rejects injustice; and it usually relies on a claim of miscalculation irrespective of timing. For by the conventions of tyranny, rejection is a mistake, a vanity or an adventure; and by the conventions of degraded realism there is no time for accountability.”
But less than six months after the launch, Samaha went to London to be with Hazem Saghieh, whose wife had passed away. On February 25, 2007, while there, he died in his sleep of a heart attack caused, his stunned friends conjectured, by overexertion.
At Cafe Younis – the latest, chic incarnation of Lebanon’s best roaster – I meet Omayma abdel Latif, an Egyptian journalist who has been studying Islamism for the past several years at Beirut’s Carnegie Middle East Centre. She always reads As Safir, An Nahar and Al Akhbar, she says, and her main gripe with Al Akhbar is that the front page can be politically sensationalist. Many inside Lebanon still see it as a more sophisticated front for Hizbollah – though unlike Al Manar, Hizbollah’s TV channel, the paper could not be reasonably accused of propaganda.
Abdel Latif believes the media in Lebanon is still more or less co-opted by political powers, and so she appreciates the presence in Al Akhbar of voices like Nicola Nassif, whose views are more or less pro-government, contrary to the paper’s pro-Opposition line. Even Al Akhbar’s young editor, Khaled Saghieh, often criticises Hizbollah, she says. In a sense, however, it is As Safir that caters most comprehensively to her needs, because “it takes a centrist line, presenting all the different viewpoints on a given topic. The tone is somewhat more level-headed, too, especially on the front page. But unlike An Nahar, for example, As Safir doesn’t have very compelling political writing inside.”
Jamal Ghosn, who reviews the Arabic press on television for a channel called Press TV, agrees. “There is no objectivity,” he says, “though there could be more of an attempt at objectivity; and even though the Lebanese papers are not up to standard, they are still better by comparison to other Arab papers.” His main concern, however, is with financial independence. This is why, he believes, there is still no service orientated press, no consumerism in the papers. “When it is the readers who directly and indirectly fund the newspapers, there will be automatically more of that. Right now there is not enough of a readership to make it possible, so papers continue to depend on other sources.”
Talal Salman, the owner of As Safir, is a trim elderly gentleman with the manners and attitudes of an old-guard socialist. He blames the lack of an all-encompassing Arab political project – and the failure of pan-Arabism – for the decline in both citizens’ rights and the independence of the media. But he has measured praise for Al Akhbar – for its accuracy and professional standards – though he feels its support for the Opposition could incite sectarian strife.
Nicholas Noe, the editor in chief of mideastwire.com – which translates selections from the Arabic press into English – says “We find that our clients are particularly interested in alternative points of view, and there are opinions and hard news pieces that they find in Al Akhbar which they are not seeing in their own publications in the West or elsewhere in the Lebanese press. I can’t speak for the whole paper because I read very little Arabic, but my impression is that Al Akhbar is trying to stake out a voice that isn’t reflexively on one side or another.”
Pierre Abi Saab left his job as culture editor of Al Hayat for the same position at Al Akhbar, foregoing the prestige and higher salary of a richer institution for Samaha’s experiment. But like Samaha, he was an unlikely convert to the cause of the Opposition. After Hariri’s murder in 2005, intellectuals like the An Nahar journalist Samir Kassir saw Hizbollah as a local stand-in for the Bashar al Assad regime.
Abi Saab was outraged when both Kassir and the editor of An Nahar, Gibran Tueni (the grandson of its founder), were killed in the wake of the Syrian withdrawal in 2005. But by 2006 – a Maronite with dandyish tastes, a worldly French citizen, an admirer of André Breton and the Marquis de Sade – he was speaking of Hassan Nasrallah with awe, convinced that his was the truest democratic representation of opposition to an imperial world order.
Like Hamra (so I say to myself, while a bowlegged midget reviews my purchases, sliding a note out of my hand) Abi Saab can live with incompatible drives. And folding four papers under my arm, the way white-collar Arabs, the effendis, have done since 1900, I turn right to begin the short trek uphill to Lina’s where, through the wall-size window, he will eventually show up a little late: a short, groomed figure in a tight sky-blue T-shirt, distractedly touching his moustache as he charges towards Rue Vardan.
Lina’s is opposite the Monoprix mini-mall where, across a car park from As Safir, Al Akhbar shares a building with the supermarket. Whenever you visit, it feels like you are going grocery shopping. When you meet journalists from one paper at Lina’s, you bump into journalists from the other.
Now An Nahar, As Safir, Al Mustaqbal and Al Akhbar lie next to the espresso cup on the table, bathed in light. The news is the US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s visit, the day before, to the newly elected president, Michel Suleiman. Except for As Safir, which uses a slightly different image, the same picture of Suleiman and Rice greeting the US charge d’affaires in Lebanon, Michelle Sisson, appears on all four front pages.
It is biggest in Al Akhbar, the only Berliner among my purchases, but only a caption accompanies it; the visit is dealt with, rather, as part of a longer story about government-opposition clashes in the Bekaa Valley and the failed talks between Suleiman and the perennial presidential candidate Michel Aoun, the key ally of Hizbollah. As Safir’s is by far the wittiest take on the visit, Al Mustaqbal’s the most explicitly pro-American, with the headline “Rice: Israel’s withdrawal from the [Shebaa] Farms” – Hizbollah’s excuse for staying armed – “an American priority.” Only Al Akhbar gives it second place.
As Abi Saab explains between mouthfuls of brioche, Al Akhbar abolished the Arab tradition of setting aside two or more pages to official statements, visits and news (the pretext for turning the front page of Al Ahram into a portrait album of President Hosni Mubarak, though as Al Masri Al Yom has shown the tradition can be upheld in better ways).
What interests the reader, he says, is not Condi’s visit but its implications for the political situation. Where politics are concerned, he goes on, Samaha sought an approach that Abi Saab likened to the criticism practised by Le Monde against Francois Mitterand, the Socialist president whose election it had backed. “You go look at the event,” Abi Saab says, “you analyse it, and you say it as it is even if it goes against your political line.”
Abi Saab concedes that the front page of Al Akhbar has had a tendency to be provocative, but brushes aside the allegations about its allegiance to Hizbollah, raising his voice to state that the paper has championed the rights of Lebanon’s gay community and Syrian political detainees, questioned Iran’s nuclear programme, reviewed Israeli films, published nude paintings, celebrated Paul Elouard and Persepolis.
People came to Al Akhbar, Abi Saab insists, to escape a variety of professional, moral and political frustrations; for the first time in their lives, he says, no one is dictating editorial policy. But before he has had a chance to expand, a text message summons him to the midday conference.
As he leaves, Abi Saab asks Hala Biijani, Al Akhbar’s general manager, who is seated at a nearby table, when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is going to send in another shipment of Shiraz rugs – part of a running joke at the expense of those who accuse the paper of Iranian sponsorship.
Bijjani estimates that in 1998, 150,000 newspapers were sold daily in Lebanon; by now the figure has dropped to 80,000. But Al Balad, which represents 30,000 of those copies, should not count, she says, because it was initially given away for free. “People pick it up the way they pick up a lottery ticket, not the newspaper.” Right now, Bijjani says, As Safir and An Nahar distribute some 15,000 and 12,000 copies; Al Akhbar has a circulation that varies between 8,000 and 11,000.
Neither An Nahar nor As Safir would divulge their own circulation figures, common practice in the Arab world. But Talal Salman, the owner of As Safir, said that today “aggregate circulation for in Lebanon is the lowest in its history, lower than the figure for a single successful newspaper in the past.”
Thanks to the alliance between Aoun and Hizbollah, Biijani says, Al Akhbar is the only Lebanese newspaper with a readership nearly balanced between Muslims and Christians; most have a readership that is more than 90 per cent Muslim or Christian. As Samaha had planned, more than half of Al Akhbar’s readers are female; and unlike An Nahar, which is still bought predominantly by people above the age of 50, some 60 per cent of Al Akhbar’s readers are under 40 years old.
Inside the Monoprix building, multiple prints of the same nearly life-size picture of Samaha, all but beatifically smiling, frame the corridors. The space calls to mind a student paper or party headquarters, with ongoing, friendly arguments and informally dressed, predominantly young journalists moving ceaselessly about to exchange documents and comments.
Khaled Saghieh, a bearded young man who evokes a slightly geeky graduate student, explains that he was doing a PhD in economics when he first met Samaha and started writing for As Safir. He was chosen for his present position partly because he came from outside the press, mainly because he is regarded by his co-workers as Samaha’s faithful disciple, with an eye on a citizen’s press and a critical, rather than ideological, perspective.
The early launch of Al Akhbar, he says, delayed the introduction of new reader-friendly elements –new concept pages, listings, and information-heavy features geared to the daily needs of the reader, which have been put in place since our interview (part of a deal that also includes a Gulf edition in Qatar and a new size).
The paper runs short pieces, big photos and few wires – for many Arab papers, too frequently, an easy substitute for original reporting – and offers opportunities for fresh graduates and a democratic approach to the opinion pages, with Arabs of every background freely expressing their viewpoints. Al Akhbar’s easy to use online edition has become the most popular newspaper site in Lebanon.
Samaha’s vision, in other words, may have been less about politics per se than about exploring the possibility of a new kind of press in Lebanon. Khaled Saghieh points out that the designer responsible for the fresh, clean look of Al Akhbar had also been hired by An Nahar and As Safir, both of which failed to implement the new designs. The crux, he implies, is not the embrace of an oppositional line, but the willingness of journalists at Al Akhbar to promote change.
I am reserving judgement, but Khaled Saghieh’s description of what Al Akhbar aims to be sounds remarkably like Jamal Ghosn’s idea of a press that depends on its readers.
“When we talk about the Arab press, we are being imprecise by default,” Hazem Saghieh says. I have come to see him at the offices of Al Hayat, in the middle of the Hariri-built Downtown area, a plastic consumerist paradise outside Beirut’s traditional city centre. He is a courteous, clean-shaven middle-aged man with a slight twitch in his left eye; and like his writing, his speech reflects mastery of classical Arabic combined with a thoroughly modern way of thinking. “What we have in the way of news dissemination lacks some of the necessary and sufficient conditions to be called a press: a climate of freedom, a middle class that invests in the media. It is not only a question of political power but of social attitudes as well.”
Saghieh has come a long way since he championed Khomeini-ism following the Islamic Revolution in 1979. Having lost faith in the revolutionary potential of Islamism, he is now a hardline neoliberal and one of the harshest and most eloquent critics of Syrian intervention, the Iranian regime, and Hizbollah. But he does call Al Akhbar the “most dynamic and innovative” of the Lebanese papers.
His questions reflect what I am beginning to see as the principal question facing the Arab media today: can it contribute to the establishment of a tradition of citizenship over and above confessional and tribal loyalities, and thereby counter corruption, nepotism, and autocratic government?
On the way to the airport, my taxi driver had with him a copy of Al Balad. “Do you read this newspaper regularly?” I asked him. “Do you read other newspapers?”
“Not much,” he said. “I don’t know this one so well but a friend had a copy of it so he thought it might keep me amused. I’m not much for newspapers,” he mumbled, smiling. “They tell you what they want to tell you anyway. You can have this if you want.”
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