In last week’s clashes in Beirut, Hezbollah targeted the headquarters of the Al Mustaqbal television station and newspaper. But this wasn’t a simple case of media suppression. Rami Khouri, editor at large at the Daily Star in Lebanon, explains the political significance of the attacks.
BOB GARFIELD: Last week, sectarian violence broke out in Lebanon. Backers of the Shiite opposition led by Hezbollah clashed with government forces in the worst internecine bloodshed since the end of the civil war in 1990. And, there was violence directed at the media. Hezbollah supporters attacked the building of the Al Mustaqbal newspaper and broadcast headquarters, destroying equipment, routing the employees, and knocking the TV channel off the air.
Journalists and human rights supporters rallied to protest the attacks, which they said struck at the heart of a vibrant free press unique in the Arab world.
Rami Khouri is editor at large of The Daily Star in Lebanon and a professor of public policy and international affairs at the American University of Beirut. Rami, welcome to the show. RAMI KHOURI: Thank you. Glad to be with you. BOB GARFIELD: Tell me exactly what media outlets were hit and who was doing the hitting. RAMI KHOURI: Well, the Mustaqbal, the Future TV, was the main one. They also hit the newspaper of the same name, Mustaqbal – Future newspaper. It was very narrowly and clearly targeted. These were symbols of Saad Hariri, who is the son of the assassinated late Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, who took over as the leader of the Sunni Muslims of Lebanon. And he's one of the leaders of the pro-government group and one of the foes of the Hezbollah-led coalition.
So they targeted his media more for an attack against him and his movement rather than, I think, a complete assault against the mass media. BOB GARFIELD: Now, we should point out that in Lebanon, while its press is freer and more vibrant than almost anyplace else in the Middle East, excluding possibly Israel, most media outlets are affiliated with one political faction or another. In that context, it's easy to see why a media operation would be a target for interfactional violence, no?
RAMI KHOURI: Well, that's true. But just to correct one point, I would say that the Lebanese press is even more open than Israel, because in Israel you have strict military-related censorship, security censorship by the state. You don't have that here in Lebanon. And it's open here to the point of being chaotic.
But each TV and radio and newspaper and magazine virtually is an arm of one of the political groupings. And a few of them still even get funding from overseas from other Arab countries. So this makes the media extremely ideological. BOB GARFIELD: You're editor at large at The Daily Star, where there was a very nuanced editorial on the violence. And it pointed out that, yeah, the various media in Lebanon are very ideologically skewed.
On the other hand, the very free media marketplace is one of the things that Lebanese should most cherish about their society, and it's crazy to put that vibrant free media at risk for some sort of perceived political advantage. Do you think Hezbollah was chastened by that editorial? RAMI KHOURI: I kind of doubt it. I don't think an editorial makes much difference to them. But I also think that they were not trying to reverse the liberal open atmosphere of Lebanon. They were going after media outlets that were owned by one person.
The media simply became a symbol of the Hariri movement, of the pro-Western, pro-American movement. And then they've come back. I mean, they're back on the air now, which I think Hezbollah expected.
But I think it's important in a wider sense that we wrote this editorial and other people were out in the streets demonstrating, supporting the Future TV and newspaper to make sure that they come back and that we don't have any more attacks like this, because the open media is one of the hallmarks of Lebanon.
And, of course, Hezbollah is aware of this, because they take advantage of this. They have a very dynamic TV station, Al-Manar, which is watched all over the Middle East. And it's extremely ideological, even propagandistic. They are able to do that because Lebanon is an open system. BOB GARFIELD: You described the attacks on the Al Mustaqbal as a message sent to the pro-government Hariri family. But I've also seen it explained as a response to the government's shutting down of a telephone network that Hezbollah had used for its own purposes.
Can you tell me about that telephone network and what exactly happened there? RAMI KHOURI: This phone system they have is part of their security network. And when the government took the decision to stop this phone system, Hezbollah reacted very strongly. That's what triggered the fighting in Beirut and the political crisis. BOB GARFIELD: Well, if nothing else, this episode makes clear that Hezbollah isn't just a few young people at a checkpoint with AK-47s, but it's very much a state within a state, with its own infrastructure. Part of that infrastructure is the Hezbollah TV station Al-Manar. And I wonder how Al-Manar covered the attacks on Mustaqbal? RAMI KHOURI: I didn't see the actual TV coverage of the Mustaqbal building attack. They covered everything in the prism of their role as a resistance group that's defending Lebanon, that's opposing Israeli attacks, that's opposing what they call the American project for hegemonic control of the Middle East.
And Hariri does the same thing. If you look at Mustaqbal TV, they say that this gang of thugs, Hezbollah, which is an agent of Iran, threatened the dignity of Lebanon and attacked. And what happens is that people tend to watch the media they like. BOB GARFIELD: I want to end this by coming back to that Daily Star editorial I mentioned earlier. I called it nuanced, but I'm wondering if it also could be called naive for asking everybody to agree that attacks on the free media are out of bounds.
Isn't it more likely that, given everyone's ideological affiliation with one faction or another, that the media will just be the new battleground? RAMI KHOURI: Well, I think you're probably right. I mean, it is fair to call it naive, but at the same time, it's very principled. And it's very representative of much of what Lebanon is, that there are people who do insist on certain standards of morality, of political principle, of freedoms, of conduct, whatever you want to call it.
Asking for media freedom and media professionalism and integrity is just one example of that. And the citizens want this kind of behavior. They just haven't been able to mobilize themselves as citizens to be able to impact on their political class and the ruling elite. That hasn't happened yet, and that's one of the great frustrations in the country.
BOB GARFIELD: Rami, many thanks. RAMI KHOURI: Oh, thanks for having me. I'm glad to be here. BOB GARFIELD: Rami Kauri is editor at large for the Lebanon Daily Star.