All the news that's fit to text

With all the talk about Lebanon's hate media, one small outfit in Beirut has quietly proved that there is a market in objective news. And it is delivered right to your cellphone.
Beirut, the assassination of MP Robert Ghanem, Sept. 19, 2007. © S.M. /

BEIRUT, May 27, 2008 (MENASSAT) – If politics is the national dish of Lebanon, then news coverage is the main ingredient. One business that is capitalizing on this insatiable appetite is LIBANCALL, which has managed to stay profitable for the last seven years by providing breaking news to thousands of mobile phone users in Lebanon. 

But in a news landscape that is notoriously rife with partisan views and analysis, how has this company avoided the pitfalls of biased reporting in a notoriously politicized media landscape?

"Our theory here at LIBANCALL is that objectivity actually creates a larger clientele base," Mohammed Ibrahim, content manager at LIBANCALL told MENASSAT.

LIBANCALL's news division is on call 24 hours per day, and gets its news from a variety of sources, including standard wire services like Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France Press, Ibrahim said.

"But we can't reveal where we get all of our news from or we would lose out to the competition," Ibrahim said.

LIBANCALL were the first to offer the breaking news service to mobile phone users in Lebanon in both Arabic and English for a cost of $10 per month. But recently they have been getting competition from some of the TV stations and from the website Lebanon Files.

"All I can tell you is that we have 15 employees representing most of the sects in Lebanon's confessional system, some who have and some who haven’t been involved with media before. And we routinely contract news reporters working in the field to provide us with breaking news and news that is unique from any other news provider," Ibrahim said.

During the 1975-1990 civil war, the Lebanese relied on radio news flashes to find out where shelling was happening or which sniper positions to avoid. The jingle that always accompanied these news flashes sent chills down the spines of the Lebanese when it made a brief comeback during the 2006 war with Israel.

In a way, SMS news services are the 21st century's answer to those radio news flashes.

During the 2006 war, LIBANCALL, sent out teaser messages with the words, "Save your life by sending 2 empty SMS to 1085." And during the past two years of political conflict, LIBANCALL would regularly send out little reminders to people to renew their subscription whenever things were heating up.

Journalists, both local and foreign, are eager subscribers to LIBANCALL's service.

Bryan Denton is a photographer with the New York Times who has subscribed to LIBANCALL since the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in July 2006. 

"For a nominal monthly cost, it's the fastest way to get a general idea of what's happening here in Lebanon. And it's almost real time. When something major happens, like an assassination or a bombing, I don't have to wade through anything but the facts," he said, adding, "As a photographer, I need to know what's going on very quickly."

Dima Dabbous-Sensenig, professor of communications at Lebanese American University, agreed that LIBANCALL is a surprising news model here in Lebanon.

"Objectivity became more of a concept in the west with the commercialization of media - [the idea] that you couldn't survive economically by being a partisan news source. Which is why something like [LIBANCALL] is unique here -– because it's obviously doing the opposite of what is normal here. [In Lebanon,] partisan media is what survives not objective media," Dabbous-Sensenig told MENASSAT.

But the idea that an SMS news service is somehow replacing factual reporting does not sit well with media critic and Beirut-based journalist, Habib Battah.

"I don't think you can consider an SMS text service to be real journalism," Battah told MENASSAT.

Battah said that any effort in Lebanon to report on events in a non-partisan way is good for society, "but if the one objective news source is an SMS service that is simply a marketing ploy by a company, what does this say about journalism in Lebanon?"

When Lebanese politicians made peace in Doha last week, they issued a statement calling on all Lebanese media to tone down the partisan reporting. And in the general euphoria surrounding the Doha peace agreement, the Lebanese media have lately taken a softer stance.

But it is too soon to say if the peace – media or otherwise – will last.

On Monday night, LIBANCALL interrupted a streak of good news reporting around the presidential election with a message saying that 16 people had been wounded in fighting between government and opposition supporters on Corniche Maazra.
Lebanon should remain a good market for SMS breaking news for a while longer.

So how does LIBANCALL avoid the pitfalls of reporting in the Lebanese context?

"Look," said Ibrahim, "of course I have my own political preferences. But that has no bearing on my work. In fact, working here has made me want more facts and more information so I can decide for myself where I think the truth lies."

"If there is an assassination or a bombing, why should we say that this sect or that side did this? That's not our job," he said.

A measure of how LIBANCALL's claim of neutrality is perceived by the public, is the number of complaints from subscribers.

According to Ibrahim, LIBANCALL gets equal amounts of complaints from both the government camp and the opposition. 

"Whenever we broadcast parts of [Hezbollah leader Sayed Hassan] Nasrallah's speech, the pro-government subscribers say we are anti-government; and when we send out parts of a speech by [Druze leader Walid] Jumblatt or [Lebanese Forces leader Samir] Geagea, the opposition says we are [pro-government.] We are neither. We are simply reporting on the events themselves," Ibrahim said.

Photographer Denton offered a different explanation for LIBANCALL's "objectivity" theory. "Whether or not they talk about "objective" models of news, I just don't think LIBANCALL has the room for partisanship in a 30 word SMS," he told MENASSAT.

"For me, the lack of partisanship has everything to do with word count. I notice that the more you write in the Lebanese press, the more you have room to be misinterpreted. There are so many narratives in Lebanese politics," he said.