We gathered more – and that's all she wrote

Ibrahim Hashem looks at how the Lebanese media dealt with this week's demonstrations, and concludes that in Lebanon, even numbers are a matter of opinion.
On February 14th, Lebanon had a date with the third commemoration of late Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. As usual, the Lebanese didn't miss this occasion. They were divided between a government working to gather the biggest number of supporters, and an opposition applauding the mistakes of the government, and stressing on the weak numbers of supporters.

Between "thousands of demonstrators" on one side and "more than a million" on the other, Lebanon's TV stations were lost in counting the number of supporters coming to Martyrs Square in downtown Beirut. Like them, the viewers were also lost, each according to his political, not to say sectarian affiliation. Everybody got what they wanted.

Politics ruled some more, while the media hid behind the cameras, capturing the opposite of what they said, and saying the opposite of what they captured. In fact, the viewer must sometimes think that he is seeing things, especially since there were no reporters available to explain the confusion caused by the cameras and their "zoom in" and "zoom out" game.

But it doesn't matter. What matters is that everybody was satisfied. The opposition considered the rally to be mediocre, some of its newspapers went so far in minimizing the number of demonstrators that they could all have fit in the Qoraytem gardens. On the other hand, the government's supporters considered it to be the largest in years, and the front pages of the pro-government talked about "one million and a half demonstrators." This is Lebanon, where numbers, and even the truth, are just an opinion.

At noon of February 14th, the demonstrators gathering under the rain in Martyrs Square thought they reached the million, while another half a million were stuck in traffic on the approaches to the capital. How could it be otherwise when Saad Hariri himself addressed the crowds saying, "If you reached one million and a half and it's raining, how many would have come if it was a sunny day?"

Hariri got his information from his own station, Future TV, which had quoted AFP as saying there were "more than one million persons in Martyrs Square and more than 500,000 on their way."

The funny thing is that none of the other stations mentioned this news, except sister channel Future News. We are not saying that the number is not true, but we are wondering how is it possible to know the intentions of half a million people on the roads. How could the agency know where they were heading and how was it be able to count them in their cars?

Future TV had the highest figure for only half an hour until al-Arabiya broadcast a "news flash" quoted from news agencies (without specifying which ones), claiming that just the demonstrators covering half of Martyrs’ Square already constituted the biggest rally since Hariri’s assassination in 2005.

This was extraordinary news indeed, for according to Beirut Municipality, the whole of Martyrs Square covers 72,000 square meters, including the buildings. And according to international standards, each square meter can hold up to four individuals, which means that a simple calculation can reveal the maximum number of demonstrators on half of Martyr's Square: 144,000.

But it was clear that the actual figure was not important because the message was pre-written. It is not important whether 10,000 or a million were present yesterday. We gathered more and that’s that.

The “Our” here gets its importance solely from “they” who wrote the message in this “gathering” occasion.

Al-Jazeera stayed away from the game. When the news host tried to ask the reporter from Beirut, Abbas Daher, about the number, the latter declared: "The opposition can not measure the forces of the regime with this rally, as the regime can not show pride with such a crowd." But Daher missed the fact that taking pride happened even before the event, and the actual number of the crowds doesn’'t change much in the equation.

In fact, al-Jazeera adopted a somewhat balanced approach, saying that "Thousands of Lebanese in Hariri's commemoration," and switching between their reporters in Martyrs Square and in Dahiyeh, where Hezbollah was gathering for the burial of their slain top security operative Imad Mughniyah.

Al-Manar was dedicated to cover the funeral since the early morning, and was totally absent from the Martyrs Square rally. It didn’t even run a single news item of the news ticker at the bottom of the screen.

The Lebanese viewer does not need more than that to realize the division in the country, despite all the speeches praising national unity and co-habitation.

Between al-Manar's refusal to cover what is not related to Mughniyah's assassination and its repercussions, and al-Arabiya and Future's talking about millions, the other channels dealt with the event each in its own way.

NBN, a.k.a. the Nabih Berry Network, balanced between the two events, even if the balance came shy. It divided the screen into three, one to cover the funeral, the second dedicated to the guest in the studio, while the third part was consecrated to Hariri’s commemoration. However, this division didn't show the faces of the mourners, nor the size of the rallies, while the guest in the studio got all the attention.

As for OTV, the new channel of Christian opposition leader Michel Aoun, it was selective in dealing with the occasion. In fact, the host received none other than former Minister Wi’am Wahhab, of the opposition, who was allowed to express his sarcasm towards the speakers and their speeches, with muted laughs uttered from time to time by the host.

LBC was facing another challenge. It didn't enter the numbers game for its true battle was elsewhere. It planted its cameras in Gazir, Nahr el-Mout, Siyyad roundabouts aiming to show that there were so many demonstrators that they effectively linked Beirut to the North.

But this didn’t happen, so the host turned instead to replaced his "Shia  pro-government," who talked about the diminishing popularity of General Michel Aoun, which pleased the host and the channel.

Only New TV equally divided its screen between Martyrs Square and the Sayyed al-Shuhada' complex in Dahiyeh. However, this didn’t stop it from expressing its opposition by turning to a journalist who criticized the speeches being made in Martyrs Square and pointed out the mistakes being ignored by the other, "sterile" media..

This is another story related in another time. A normal time, not "Rafik Hariri's time" as said the speaker on Future TV, who was "exhilarated" to see the "massive" crowds, so he considered that things are now following the "before-Hariri" and "after-Hariri" calendar. We should forget about the Christian calendar and the Hegira calendar. The time of Hariri calendar has come.

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