Lebanese media insists on being free, despite bloodshed

At first sight, the convention looked more like a gathering of survivors of Lebanon's worn-out Cedar Revolution.

lebanese terr 88 (photo credit: )
lebanese terr 88
(photo credit: )
A sad family gathering recently took place in the front row of Beirut's International Exhibition Center BIEL. Huddled together facing the strobe lights of a fleet of photographers sat Siham Tueni, widow of slain media magnet Gebran Tueni, and May Chidiac, a talk-show host with the Lebanese Broadcasting Cooperation LBC, who lost a leg and an arm in a car bomb attack in September 2005. On their laps the small twin daughters Gebran Tueni left behind when unknown assassins killed him just three months after the failed attempt on Chidiac's life. In the spacious halls of BIEL in Beirut's commercial harbor area the World Association of Newspapers (WAN) together with A-Nahar, the newspaper Tueni headed until his murder two years ago, opened a two-day-conference entitled Fighting Back: Challenges and Opportunities for the Arab Press. On several panels subjects as diverse as Combining Editorial Independence with Commercial Success and Blogs, an Alternative Way of Telling the News were discussed by journalists, publishers, lawyers, and media-related NGO-activists coming from 10 different Arab countries. On this particular Sunday morning though, the speeches leading up to the presentation of the second Gebran Tueni Award by WAN-vice-president Thomas Brunegard did not appear like the opener to just another media conference, of which Beirut alone has hosted three in the past weeks. At first sight it looked more like a gathering of the survivors of Lebanon's worn-out Cedar Revolution: next to Chidiac and Tueni sat Gisèle Khoury, widow of A-Nahar's Syria-critical columnist Samir Qa'sir - yet another murdered activist in the string of assassinations that started in October 2004. The first victim back then: Marwan Hamadeh, the telecommunications minister and uncle of Gebran Tueni, to whom this conference was dedicated. Unlike his driver, Hamadeh survived the attack. This Sunday morning he sits in the front row next to Gebran's father Ghassan, A-Nahar's living legend, who took Gebran's place as a deputy in parliament months after his son was killed. In a moving speech, he urged people not to give up on the struggle for a free press as a pillar of a free country. Ghassan's granddaughter Neily Tueni also upheld the legacy of her father, declaring "Gebran would have never surrendered his fight for freedom and sovereignty." That theme was echoed by Michel Hajji Georgiou, this year's winner of the Gebran Tueni Award. He warned the coming Lebanese president should not build his mandate "on the ruins of the republic" or "the ruins of the Cedar Revolution." Georgiou dedicated his award to Michel Kilo, an imprisoned Syrian journalist, and all the other prisoners jailed by the regime of Syria's President Bashar Al-Asad, whose troops were ousted from Lebanon during the Beirut Spring or Cedar Revolution of 2005. Participants from other Arab countries looked at the achievements of the Lebanese democracy movement with considerable envy. Ahmad Reda Benchemsi, for example, publisher and editor-in-chief of Moroccos's TelQuel described how a campaign against the discriminating "untouchable" Article 41 of the Moroccan constitution, which threatens journalists with penalties of up to five years for criticism of the king, was basically "impossible…The freedom of the press depends on the mood of the king, not on the good will of civil society." Whereas in Lebanon outspoken journalists were just one segment of the Beirut Spring among other civil-society activists, in Morocco the press stays alone in its struggle for more rights. Not to speak of another Maghreb state, Tunisia, where "not one independent magazine was published in the last 20 years," as Omar Mestiri, editor of Kalima pointed out on the panel on Backsliders and Usual Suspects - the Latest Government Policies that Affect the Press. There have been high hopes of late that blogs would reach where the established media in the many dictatorships in the region are neither willing nor permitted: criticizing ruling elites and showing alternatives to the respective populations. "Freedom without but," is how Mahmoud 'Abd Al-Fattah, an Egyptian human rights lawyer summed up the approach of many bloggers - as compared to the governments' promises of freedom with all its restrictions, reservations and conditions. Ahmad Al-'Umran from Saudi Arabia, who runs the blog http://saudijeans.org, hailed the "authentic voices in a jungle of phoney statements," the blogger community is able to produce - apart from being a powerful "watchdog against the established media." That was something that did not convince a young, veiled attendant at the conference. "Maybe I am a bit old-fashioned," she said, "but I still remember the days when political slogans appeared as graffiti on the wall and everybody was able to read them - not only computer users." Perhaps that claim of exclusiveness is something the technology buffs of the blogger community cannot dismiss so easily. But then again, would the Cedar Revolution have become such a success without its activists mobilizing others through SMS-messages?