Commemoration of iconic journalist, an occasion to decry Lebanese media
Beirut - Journalists in the Arab world have long been targeted and killed for speaking their minds and criticising regimes. Kamel Mrowa, founder of al-Hayat, the first pan- Arab newspaper, is among iconic figures of Arab journalism who was silenced by the gun 50 years ago when Lebanon was the hub of free media in the region.
A Life in Pictures a commemorative exhibition, which was shown in May in Beirut’s downtown souks, recalled Mrowa’s life through images and memorabilia but also told the stories that shaped Lebanon and the Arab world in the post-colonial era between 1946 — the year Mrowa founded al-Hayat — and 1966 when he was assassinated.
Mrowa’s slogan — “Have your say and move on” — cost him his life. He was killed by a gunman while in his office as he was checking final proofs of his newspaper’s next edition. The shooting was linked to al- Hayat’s vocal criticism of the Arab nationalist movement, then led by president Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt.
“Iconic pioneers of Arab journalism like Kamel Mrowa should be remembered, after having fallen into oblivion because of the civil war in Lebanon,” his youngest son, Malek Mrowa, said of the reasons for marking the 50th anniversary of his father’s death.
“In those days, you had giants in Arab journalism, such as Ghassan Tueni, Kamel Mrowa, Rushdi Maalouf, Said Freiha, Georges Naccache and Michel Chiha. Even Syria had a very vibrant press at that time,” he said.
Lebanese media, which were renowned as being the freest in the Middle East, lost much of their credibility and standing during and after the 1975-90 civil war with the rise of partisan publications relying largely on funding by governments and political parties.
“The media today are part of a ‘cold civil war’ taking place in Lebanon. They have become a weapon used by political parties because they are not independent in the financial term,” Malek Mrowa said, noting that it is a sharp slide from what media were at the time of his father, though newspapers also received outside funding then.
“They used to pay (newspapers) not to criticise them (too harshly) or because they were good newspapers,” he said. “Until the mid-‘80s, you had no free media anywhere in the Arab world, except in Lebanon. Today, the Kuwaiti media, for instance, are freer than Lebanon’s on an international scale.”
He complained that Lebanese media cover too much local news, and “shifting positions right, left and centre, which made it lose credibility”.
“By playing our local Lebanese politics all the time we are not attractive anymore. We are not interesting, not even for the Lebanese themselves,” Mrowa noted.
In addition to losing much ground to audiovisual media and the internet, print media have suffered from lack of professionalism, Mrowa said, adding: “Publishers nowadays are mainly people with big money who decide to start a newspaper and get employees to run it. In the past the papers were directly managed by the owners who were dedicated journalists. Journalism is no longer a vocation; it is just a job.”
Within a span of 20 years, Kamel Mrowa’s al-Hayat newspaper became the number one publication not only in Lebanon but across the Arab world. It is still among the leading Arab newspapers 70 years after its creation, though it has changed hands and is owned by Saudi Arabia.
“It was the first pan-Arab newspaper. If you look at old editions of al-Hayat, the front pages were not about Lebanon unless there was a very important story worth appearing on the first page,” Malek Mrowa explained.
“Kamel Mrowa always thought that Lebanon was too small. He always looked at the region. One man told me one day that coverage of events in Jordan, Palestine and Iraq only existed in al-Hayat at the time. Issues of the Arab world were covered in al-Hayat as if they were internal issues.”
A man with a broad vision, Kamel Mrowa planned to print editions in other Arab countries before he was assassinated. “He thought Arab audience needed to get the newspaper in the morning on the same day, instead of waiting for it to be shipped,” Malek Mrowa said.
Kamel Mrowa was considered the father of modern Arab journalism. In the 1940s and ‘50s, he devised new layout designs, had the first newspaper ad campaign, created the trend of front-page editorials and introduced colour printing.
However, his main achievement was the creation of an Arabic font, the “forefather” of simplified Arabic used on computers. “It was a revolutionary thing,” Malek Mrowa said. “He created a system in which the Arabic alphabet, which is composed of about 3,000 shapes, was reduced to something like 50 that made it possible to use on normal keys of a typewriter with one shift.”
An outspoken critic of post-colonial revolutions that toppled Arab monarchies, bringing to power military people such as Nasser in Egypt, Muammar Qaddafi in Libya and Hafez Assad in Syria, Kamel Mrowa supported the development of constitutional monarchies.
“He believed that these were military coups d’état and the people they brought to power were going to ruin economies and tighten their grip on politics,” Malek Mrowa said. “The ‘Arab spring’ proved him right.”