End of Lebanon’s printed press looms; more journalists to be out of work

Sunday 18/12/2016
A woman holds a Lebanese newspaper with its front page appealing for readers to “turn the page” on sectarian divisions, on April 13th (AFP)

Beirut - The print media in Leba­non are likely living their last days. News of prestigious and well-es­tablished dailies intend­ing to close is rampant. The daily as-Safir has announced its closure by the end of the year. An-Nahar, al-Mustaqbal and al-Liwa might follow suit, leaving employment opportunities for newspaper jour­nalists seriously in doubt.
An-Nahar journalist Elie al-Haj said that “with the expected clo­sure of most printed papers, the fate of journalists in Lebanon is unknown, especially that the other media, like TV stations, are unwill­ing or unable to absorb this big number of journalists”.
“The situation is worse in radio since most stations have long been suffering from lack of funds,” Haj said. “Some journalists might re­sort to creating websites and some have actually succeeded in find­ing funds for that purpose, but, as soon as you visit those sites, you immediately recognise which po­litical entity is represented by the site’s owner. The need for funds makes these sites subject to the constant mood swings of people funding them.”
Youssef Bazzi worked for al- Mustaqbal before being let go and turning to writing for the electronic media. “There were changes in the profession and in its tools. These changes have also affected read­ers,” he said. “Journalists working in the printed press must adjust to these modern media or risk being completely sidetracked when the papers close.
“The press people crisis in Leb­anon is like the one that had hit those working in maintaining and repairing horse-drawn carriages after the appearance of the auto­mobile. Some of them were unable to cope with progress and had to change professions while others learned automobile maintenance and succeeded in adjusting to the new reality.”
For Haj, the downfall of the print media in Lebanon started with the assassination of former prime min­ister Rafik Hariri in 2005.
“[Hariri’s] assassination caused many changes in the work pro­cesses and fates of many journal­ists and press owners. Rafik Hariri financially supported many press outlets,” Haj said. “After him, his son and political heir, Saad Hariri, had also spent a lot to bring about the success of the March 14 project.
“As a consequence, the printed press related to this movement flourished and so did the press re­lated to its opponents. This finan­cial backing had practically died out after the parliamentary elec­tion of 2009.”
Lebanese papers have suffered from mismanagement and failed to preserve the heritage of the founding generations.
Haj said he is convinced that print media have lost the battle with the electronic media. “The balance is in favour of electronic media. These sites lack profession­al standards or ethics. The model followed by many of the sites in Lebanon is on the increase while well-established press houses like an-Nahar, as-Safir and others seem to be failing.”
He argued that part of the prob­lem has been that the Lebanese print media have never been built around the concept of “a media market founded on a combination of subscriptions and investments”.
“Rather, it was built on the econ­omy of political funding, which was in its majority coming from the Gulf countries and other Arab countries. When this funding died out, the true financial strength of those Lebanese papers which did not rely on advertisement reve­nues was revealed. This would ex­plain how fast they are disappear­ing,” Haj said.
“All of these papers depended on foreign funding. When oil prices fell, funding from the Gulf died out. The oil crisis also led to the retreat of the Syrian regime from Lebanon in 2005. This in turn re­sulted in less funding for some pa­pers. The Syrians did not finance papers directly. Rather, they en­couraged their cronies to finance these papers or buy their shares and that’s how some papers were able to survive.”