Media Muzzle in Lebanon May be Mideast Power Play

Syria squelches critics of slow pace of peace talks

Flip on a TV or radio in Lebanon and you'll find a chaotic array of choices for channel-surfing pleasure.

On the station run by the extremist, pro-Syrian Hizbullah group, for instance, Hollywood movies are shown with voiced-over commentaries pointing out moral failings and anti-Arab themes. Or on the low-budget and fiercely independent ICN station, cardboard decor makes a stage from which anti-Lebanese and anti-Syrian commentary flows forth.

In fact, ever since the unruly days of its 1975-90 civil war, Lebanon has had the freest, most diverse media in the Arab world.

But the government is about to pull the plug on much of that freedom. Citing the need for bringing order to chaos on the airwaves, it will block operation of more than two-thirds of the country's 30 TV stations and 130 radio stations by Nov. 30.

Skeptics see sinister reasons. Lebanon's leaders, they say, are muzzling critics and may be even lining their pockets in the process.

But most agree Syria, which has long had major influence in Lebanon, is largely dictating the move. Syria wants to protect its hold on Lebanon because it is a crucial bargaining chip in peace talks with Israel. Therefore, they say, Syria wants to squelch Lebanese rumblings of discontent over the suddenly slowed pace of Mideast peace.

"The Syrians are clearly putting pressure on the government to close down TV and radio stations they don't like," said Gibran Tuni, director of the An Nahar newspaper's a recent interview.

Sources close to Syria say President Hafez al-Assad takes a dim view of any potential turbulence in Lebanon at a time when so much upheaval is now shaking the Mideast.

Indeed, Syria has long been jittery about dissent in Lebanon. Labor unrest last March was quickly quelled after Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri declared a state of emergency, outlawing public demonstrations. At the time, Mr. Hariri paid a series of visits to Damascus, which Beirut's pro-Syrian daily As Saffir described as "a joint coordination of the crisis" with Mr. Assad.

Both Hariri and Lebanese President Elias Hrawi, who is said to oppose closing so many stations, have met separately with Assad on the issue.

In an interesting aside, sources close to the Lebanese government say Damascus insists Hizbullah be allowed to broadcast so as to publicize its resistance against Israel.

In total, only four television stations and seven radio stations, will remain on the air after Nov. 30.

The government's move has caused a storm of protest, especially among the Christian opposition, which has used several stations as pulpits for their gripes with Lebanon's pro-Syrian leadership.

"We still like to think of Lebanon as a democracy," says Joe Saad, news anchor at ICN television, which is slated for closure. "But every day we see our freedoms eroded."

Information Minister Farid Makari defends the decision, arguing there are too many radio and TV stations in Lebanon clogging the air waves. "The new audio-visual law," he says, "is a simple reorganization."

And some observers feel the government is trying to toe a fine line between free speech and incendiary opposition. "No one is trying to close down the opposition," says Nizar Hamz, head of the political science department at the American University of Beirut, "but it is not in anyone's interest to have an opposition calling for putting an end to Syrian influence."

Critics of Hariri, like former Prime Minister Selim Hoss, have also accused him of cronyism in awarding licenses to certain broadcasters and not to others. Of the four TV stations granted licenses, one belongs to Hariri, another to Interior Minister Michael Murr, and a third to parliament Speaker Nabih Berri.

Karim Pakradouni, deputy chairman of the opposition Christian Kataeb Party says, "Under the guise of democracy, we are slowly falling under dictatorship." The Voice of Lebanon radio, Lebanon's largest station, which is owned by the Kataeb, failed to receive a license.

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