There is an axe in Hanna Anbar’s in-tray. The red hatchet is partially buried under a mounting number of proofs for the next edition of the Daily Star, Lebanon’s major independent English-language paper. But with the country’s 7 June elections looming, Anbar, as the Star‘s associate publisher, has a more dangerous weapon at his fingertips.
Anbar is a veteran, not just of the paper — which he joined in 1965 — but of covering Lebanese elections, and 7 June, he says, will be "one of the most controversial".
In simple terms, the contest pits the US-backed so-called "March 14 Alliance" — led by Saad Hariri and in power since 2005 — against the opposition coalition led by Michael Aoun and Hezbollah, which is supported by Iran and Syria. "A win by the opposition could sway the structure of government and determine relations with other countries," Anbar says. "It would affect life in this country."
The result of this election will surely reverberate around the region. Political commentator Rami Khouri, Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, believes the Lebanon vote is one of six elections critical to the Middle East being held within a 12-month period. These elections, including the US, Israel, Turkey, Iran and, potentially, the Palestinian territories, "will tell [Arab people] much about our assorted political cultures, ideological leanings, national identities and conceptions of statehood," Khouri writes.
It is no coincidence that US Vice President Joe Biden found time to stop over in Beirut in May, the highest-ranking US official to do so since the hostage crisis in the early 1980s.
Less than a week before voting, many seats have been decided but no side yet has a clear majority, and about 18 of the Parliament’s 128 seats are still up for grabs. With the high-stakes competition still wide open, could political parties gain an advantage by manipulating the media?
Anbar puts down the proof in his hand and leans forward to emphasise what he is about to say: "It’s completely the other way around: The media are using the politicians. I repeat this … It’s very difficult to manipulate the media here. The media are veterans of 10 to 15 elections."
For the Lebanese media, he said, election times are the season to make money. "In some cases newspapers take lump sums under or even over the table. Some papers are owned by those running for office," says Anbar, adding that the Star is independent and would not be endorsing a candidate even on election eve.
Lebanon’s interlock between politics, religion and the media is hard to compare. With 18 religious sects across the country, most political parties are aligned with a religious denomination as well as a newspaper or television station, which serves as their de-facto or official mouthpiece. With such a resource at hand, politicians have little need to exert undue influence over what other media are saying. "In this country, religion is used in every street, on every corner," says Anbar. "[Elections are] a time when religion is loudest."
The 128 parliamentary seats are also distributed along religious lines, with Muslims and Christian factions each allotted 64 seats. The parliament and the president together select the prime minister, who must be a Sunni Muslim, while the speaker of parliament is Shi’a. Completing the traditional troika is a Christian Maronite president, who serves a single six-year term.
The press freedom watchdog, Reporters sans frontières (RSF), ranks Lebanese media 66th out of 173 nations in its press freedom index, but notes that the press has a level of expression unrivalled in the region. Anbar acknowledges what this means in reality. "We might not have the freest press in the world, but we do have a free press. Lots of editors and publishers have been assassinated, including the editor of the Daily Star in the 60s. We have paid in blood for this freedom, we are not going to give it up now."
"From time to time I feel threatened … [when criticising ]the Government — I don’t give a damn. But the political parties, some of them are armed. Sometimes, if you go overboard, you might have your car blown up, or you are blown up, or you have to leave the country. We get used to it. You can’t be an extremist. You can convey a message, but not slander."
In the past 18 months, several media players have become reacquainted with the difference, particularly those aligned with political parties. These include Charles Ayoub, editor of the daily Al-Diyar newspaper, and a pro-Syrian political candidate for the Mount Lebanon district, who has used his column to criticise his rival pro-Syria candidate Michael Aoun. The paper has had its distribution banned in Syria, where it was one of only a few Lebanese papers available, and Ayoub has received death threats.
"I refuse to change the content of my newspaper despite the warnings I have received. I will continue to express my opinions about the elections and the candidates, and about corruption," Ayoub told RSF.
The targets of most attacks, though, have been the media that support the anti-Syria parliamentary majority. These include Aziz El Metni, editor of the weekly al Anbaa newspaper, which is the mouthpiece of the Progressive Socialist Party. His car was torched in January last year after he strongly criticised the Hezbollah-led opposition and the Free Patriotic Movement.
Last May, Hezbollah militia also threatened four media outlets owned by Saad Hariri, leader of the Future Movement, the majority party in the March 14 Alliance, leading them to halt distribution for a few days.
Even neutrality is no guarantee against intimidation. Ya Libnan is an independent online publication established after the 2005 assassination of prime minister Rafik Hariri. Responding to a request for an interview, Ya Libnan‘s editor replied: "Many thanks for contacting Ya Libnan. For security reasons, we operate Ya Libnan anonymously. Unfortunately therefore we cannot meet. I know this sounds ironic, especially since your article is on freedom of the press. We cannot take any chances … we receive too many threats. Sorry."
For the first time in a Lebanese election, the Interior Ministry has established an election oversight body, whose scope includes monitoring media coverage and the amount that parties spend on political advertising. The first report by the Commission for Monitoring Elections found 293 electoral violations had taken place in the two weeks ending April 28.
The Daily Star reported the findings on its front page. Opposition voices had received 50 per cent of live television broadcast, compared to 24 per cent for pro-government and 7 per cent for independents. In the press, pro-government groups received 33 per cent of coverage, opposition groups 12 per cent, and independents 13 per cent. The majority of the 293 violations were committed by politicians, and included slander, accusations of treason, intimidation, provocation, and stirring sectarian feelings.
"The commission is trying to control the language of propaganda," says Anbar. "The violations will continue for the next week, and the week after, and no-one will give a damn. We don’t give a damn."
Anbar may take a "publish and be damned" approach to upholding free speech, but he accepts the risks. Since Lebanon’s last parliamentary elections in 2005, four MPs elected have been assassinated. One of them, Gibran Tueni, was also the publisher of a Lebanese daily.
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