Lebanon's News Outlets Keep Pace
Despite war, print and broadcasting modernize and maintain their tradition of freedom
BEIRUT — MOHAMED Mashmoushi, deputy editor-in-chief of Beirut's Es-Safir (The Envoy), has just purchased a Macintosh Plus for his newspaper. This addition, along with a Goss computer installed last year, makes Es-Safir one of the best-equipped dailies in the Middle East. Though Beirut is one of the most devastated cities in the world, the newspaper Es-Safir typifies Lebanon's continuing commitment to a modernized and free media. With 14 radio stations, several TV companies, and eight daily newspapers, the city ranks second to Cairo as a major publishing and broadcasting center of the region.
Lebanon's war-torn economy has caused circulation figures to drop and has sent journalists packing. But individuals involved with the press say maintaining an active and open media is a matter of tradition.
``We did not cease publication for one day,'' says Mr. Mashmoushi in an interview at Es-Safir. ``Through the entire war, even the day Israeli troops marched on Beirut that hot summer day of 1982, we put out an edition and hired special carriers to distribute Es-Safir on our burning street corners.''
As the Lebanese pound continues to decrease in value (another 40 percent since the Gulf crisis), living costs rise and fewer people can even afford a daily paper. Since 1982, Es-Safir's circulation has gone from 60,000 to about 45,000.
The spirit of liberty, however, remains. ``We have always been a free-spirited people, able to say what we wish,'' says Mashmoushi, who recalls that Lebanon was once the primary center for publishing in region, before Cairo. ``In 1975,'' he notes, ``Beirut had 100 licensed publishers.''
Though their numbers have declined, Lebanon's book publishers maintain this tradition and still attract writers from the area.
``There is virtually no censorship there,'' says Fouziya Rasheed, a Gulf novelist and editor in Bahrain. Arab novelists, poets, or essayists, she says, often feel constrained in their own countries. So they take their manuscripts to Lebanon, and the books find their way back to Arab readers.
Newspaper publishing in Lebanon thrives even more on that tradition of liberty. The absence of a unified government in Lebanon is an extra boon to the media, since any opinion is tolerated and has its own media outlet.
Despite the disruptions of war, Lebanon is ideally located for news gathering. Beirut is intimately linked to the rest of the world. Modern electronic equipment, available to anyone with hard currency, helps in the reporting of political events and opinions from all Arab capitals, as well as from Israel, Monte Carlo, Cyprus, Turkey, and Greece.
Any serious Lebanese paper keeps correspondents in Moscow, Washington, Paris, and Berlin. And in recent years, the spirit of Lebanon's free media has been taking hold in Europe with a proliferation of Arab dailies, especially in Paris and London.
When Es-Safir began in 1974, editors hoped it would become a major pan-Arab paper. ``That was our goal,'' says Mashmoushi. But when hostilities broke out, ``then, because air delivery to other Arab capitals was unreliable, we were obliged to concentrate on Lebanon,'' he says.
Still, the paper can sometimes be found in Syria and Jordan where it is much respected, and, before its editors condemned the Iraqi move into Kuwait, it also reached Baghdad. Because of its criticism of Israel, Es-Safir is banned from Israeli-controlled South Lebanon, losing a sizable Lebanese readership. Mashmoushi explains: ``Our main aim is to represent a wide range of political views; we criticize Israel as well as our own leadership...'' He points to a recent commentary page of Arabic translations from Israel's Hebrew press. ``This column is an expensive undertaking, even as our ads are decreasing, but we feel it is nevertheless important to continue.''
Presently, Es-Safir's editors are most concerned about personnel problems. ``We lost five of our best writers in the last year,'' says Mashmoushi. Altogether, he estimates, about 200 of Lebanon's best journalists have left the country in recent years because of the shattered economy.
Those that do remain show great dedication. ``During the times of severest fighting,'' Mashmoushi recalls, ``our staff could not get home; or if they did, they couldn't get back to work.'' He describes how offices and part of the printing plant were converted into living quarters so staff writers and printers could keep the paper going. About 100 of them lived that way for three weeks.
A similar record is held by the radio station Sout-El-Shaab (Voice of the People). It operates out of underground studios below a West Beirut apartment.
``There were several attempts to shell us, but we sustained no hits,'' said Christien Ghazi, one of the announcers. The station's survival is all the more remarkable because Sout-El-Shaab got under way only in 1987. Their work was launched at the height of the conflict in the city. Like the newspaper office with its new Macintosh computers, the radio station is furnished with the most sophisticated technical equipment.
The young AM/FM station has a youthful staff. Graduates of journalism school, entertainers, film directors, human rights activists, and one American-Arab who immigrated back to her country form the team of broadcasters. Its patron is the Lebanese Communist Party, though most of the producers and announcers are non-party members.
In addition to Arab and Western music, and news in French, English, and Arabic, programming includes a popular show called ``We're OK: How About You?'' Conducted by prisoners' families, the program is beamed to their Lebanese and Palestinian relatives held in detention camps in South Lebanon and Israel.
The sound of Sout-El-Shaab crosses political boundaries. Mr. Shami reports that the station now reaches 80 percent of the country and parts of north Israel, Jordan, Syria, and Cyprus.