North Africa, West Asia

Lebanese media retaliates against politicians' crackdown

A video of a talk show recently went viral in Lebanon in defence of freedom of expression. This should send a warning signal to media outlets across the country about what is taking place behind the scenes.

Bilal Hamade
19 March 2014

A video of a Lebanese political daily show went viral recently when the host and the interviewee cut the interview short in protest against the increasingly reduced spaces for freedom of expression facing the press in Lebanon. Dima Sadek, a rising media figure, kept interrupting Imad Bazzi, a Lebanese blogger, warning him not to talk about contentious issues in Lebanon, cutting the programme time to approximately eight minutes after enumerating the taboo subjects that they cannot talk about. The show ended with a black closing credits screen that read: "This is the image of television as "they like it"- this was crossed in red and replaced by "as we refuse it".

The coordinated effort of Sadek and her guest came after the Islamic Shia Supreme Council asked the programme producer and host to apologise for an episode aired a day earlier, claiming that both the host and the interviewee "insulted" Islam. The council also threatened them with legal action. This attack comes in a series of crackdowns on the media by politicians initiated by Michel Suleiman, the President of the republic himself, who got offended at some tweets from political activists a year or so ago. The Twitteratis were sentenced to two months in jail for tweets "demeaning the president."

The most recent attack on the press, however, came in the form of law suits by the public prosecutor against the daily newspaper Al-Akhbar who uncovered corruption in the justice system against a judge giving reduced sentences to drug dealers. While the judge was punished and the evidence provided by Al-Akhbar was deemed valid, the journalist and the newspaper were still charged and had to pay a hefty fine. The other attack on Al-Akhbar involved Suleiman again. The leftist newspaper accused Suleiman and the minister of justice of forging French passports before taking office. Moreover, it accused him of engaging in opportunistic and destructive efforts to keep his political office for another term. 

Asad AbuKhalil, a Lebanese-American professor, criticized the actions of Sadek and Bazzi on his Facebook page, describing what happened as "mere morning entertainment", referring to the name of the morning show "N'harkome Saeed" (Good day to you). He said that the problem is that Lebanese media outlets rarely show solidarity with one another. He continues to maintain that the programme itself never criticises the ruling class or corruption, and that their message revolves around attacking Hezbollah and its military wing, which Sadek and Bazzi said they could only talk about with "self censorship." AbuKhalil continues to say: "what is easier in the Lebanese media: criticising Hezbollah's arms or discussing the corruption under the rule of late prime minister of Rafiq Hariri?" -  the latter being a topic rarely covered in Lebanese media.

While AbuKhalil offers a valid criticism of the programme and Lebanese media in general, he overlooks the highly significant step that Sadek took in protesting against the crackdown on the press. On the other hand, Sadek and her guest, while trying to be objective and balanced, did fall into a contradiction when they referred to Hezbollah's arms as a taboo subject in Lebanon when in fact it is an ever-present topic on her show as on most Lebanese shows.

Putting the controversy - and the advertisement - achieved by this programme  to one side, Sadek's protest has undoubtedly succeeded in raising awareness regarding a danger confronting freedom of expression in Lebanon; one of the very few positives the country can boast nowadays. Moreover, this should send a warning signal to Lebanese media outlets signalling a stand in solidarity against the crackdown of the politicians that they should put aside their differences, mainly revolving around sectarian and political considerations, considerations that plague the country.

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