Like a bad rerun

Ibrahim Hachem analyzes how Lebanon's heavily politicized TV stations covered last Sunday's deadly riots in Beirut.
The coverage of the events that occurred in Mar Mikhail and Chiyah in Lebanon on Sunday revealed a new kind of politicization: forced politicization.

This could seem a bit strange. But even stranger is what the Lebanese visual media outlets did on Sunday night, followed by the press on Monday morning. We didn't need blood, martyrs, burning wheels and stress to be sure of what we already knew: in Lebanon, nothing is above politics. Even Lebanon is not above the politics its politicians follow.

On Sunday afternoon, a bunch of guys, fed up with the daily power cuts, decided to break the peace and burn some tires. The problem is not in the breakdown, or the burning of tires or even in the "martyrs," as al-Mustaqbal newspaper described the dead. The problem is that the riot took place on the edges of Beirut's southern suburb, mainly on the border of Ain el-Remmaneh, famous as the location where the Lebanese civil war started in 1975.

The media were an easy victim for the politics, easier even than those who fell under unknown fire. It's normal for politics to rule over the media in a country where licenses are handed out according to political affiliation. The Lebanese TV viewer who had the bad luck of having to spend his weekend in front of the television, didn't need a TV guide to figure out where the different stations were situated on the March calendar. As always, Future TV and LBC spoke in the name of March 14, while NBN and Al-Manar sided with March 8, the opposition. Meanwhile, OTV was dedicated to settle accounts among the Christians, while New TV tried to play a moderate role but clearly leaned more towards the opposition.

Everyone was ready and some went to the scene of the battle, each channel accurately aiming at its targets. The 'Futuristic Media Group' focused all its anger on the protesters, taking the liberty of beating the victim, and making the poor responsible for his poverty and the dead responsible for his death. In doing so, it followed the lead of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora.

With the first sparks, the channel immediately threw its accusations against the Syrian-Iranian axis as having organized the clashes in order to blackmail the Arab Foreign Ministers who were having their meeting at the same time. The reporters worked hard to describe the event as a clash between some 'hooligans' and the Lebanese army, as in al-Mustaqbal newspaper front page headline, "The Militia in Dahiyeh Attacks the Army."

As for LBCI, it followed a calmer path, where the reporter tried as much as possible to transmit the pictures of the protesters and the fires, and even mentioned that they were being targeted by 'snipers' from Christian Ain el-Remmaneh. But the real message of LBCI came at night, after unidentified persons had thrown a grenade on a street in Ain el-Remmaneh. The LBCI reporter hurried to the hospital to interview the injured. A strange emotional paradox ruled over this scene in particular. It was very strange to interview an injured person while pictures of the dead from the other party rolled across the same screen.

This was the scene of the government stations. As for the opposition stations, they were not much better. If the political message imposed on the government stations was disdainful of the dead and ignored the rights of the protesters, what was the motive of both NBN and Al-Manar to be that cold? Is it normal that local and Arab television stations broadcast the actions of the protesters when NBN was busy broadcasting a documentary, while Al-Manar continued showing cartoons? If the two stations avoided covering the events, was it perhaps because their public doesn't have electricity to follow the news?

NBN, which could be qualified as the most affected because the first victim belonged to the same party it belongs to, only broadcast a few newsflashes, mainly saying that the martyr fell under a sniper’s bullets, and that the Amal Movement had nothing to do with the clashes, as said MP Ali Hassan Khalil. Then it stressed that the victim was coordinating with the Army to cool things down, and that the Movement was demanding that the army open an investigation.

It is absurd to think that this coverage is enough for the concerned in the first place and the family of the victims in the second place, and the Lebanese people in general. How is it possible for a channel related to the Amal Movement to say that the first victim belongs to the party but that the party had nothing to do with the clash?

The first option here is to say that NBN, in fact, did its best to appear 'cool' (to the extent of denying its own rights?) and to deny any relation with the events. This is exactly what happened with Al-Manar television, the biggest absentee from the scene, which only broadcast the news on the ticker at the bottom of the screen, as if the riots were taking place in Guatemala or Costa Rica.

But the protesters politically belonged to Hezbollah and Amal, whether the two channels like it or not. It wasn’t appropriate for both parties to disclaim the protests just to save face with the government. Hezbollah did well when it "woke up" after midnight to issue a severe statement demanding an investigation into what happened, as MP Hassan Fadlallah said. Hezbollah really took a long time before finding an answer. New TV struggled to present a balanced image, and covered all the different opinions, which threw the viewer into confusion he didn't need.

For OTV, the new station of Christian opposition leader Michel Aoun, it was its first experience dealing with this kind of event. It was clear that the shadow of civil war was affecting its judgment, which the reporters continuously brought up when talking about Ain el-Remmaneh and Chiah. The station tried very hard to discover the locations of the snipers. They also kept asking the same silly question: who is politically in control of that neighborhood?

Between settling political accounts that appeared after the assassination of Prime Minister Rafic Hariri on the Islamic scene, and settling Christian political accounts lingering since the end of the civil war, Sunday's TV scene looked like a bad futuristic rerun of an old war the viewers weren't able to follow on television at the time. The toys are now available, the children are present, and the viewers are numerous. We beg you not to run it again.

Ibrahim Hachem is the managing editor of the Lebanese business magazine Al-Mouasher.