Syrians love their Lebanese news

The Syrian population is increasingly obsessed with Beirut's news, but is it because they aren't getting the truth from their own local news or are there other reasons? MENASSAT went to the streets of Damascus to find out.
watching nasrallah.jpg
Watching Nasrallah: Lebanese news holds a special fascination not just for the Lebanese but for viewers in Syria as well. © AFP

DAMASCUS, June 4, 2008 (MENASSAT) -- Syrians are paying increasing attention to Lebanon's satellite news channels these days. In fact, some observers say that the Syrian population is obsessed with news from Lebanon.

Behind closed doors, Syrians like high school teacher Abu Ali Saleh say it's because Beirut's media outlets offer news items without censorship.

Ali Saleh told MENASSAT, "I only watch New TV or al-Manar," two media outlets associated with Lebanon's opposition, adding, "They are my sources and I watch their news journals daily."

Other people on the ground told MENASSAT it was their way of knowing what was happening in Damascus because government censors here filter all but the most obvious news items.

In one case, the February assassination of Imad Mugniyeh, Hezbollah's top military commander, was a major news event that rocked Damascus and had implications throughout the entire region.

But the Syrian media treated the story with extreme superficiality, with no details or photographs of the assassination – in fact, treating the event as if it didn't happen on Syrian territory at all or as if it didn't involve one of the more senior members of Hezbollah, an alleged ally to the Syrian government.

Syrian satellite channels instead broadcast Hezbollah's statement about Mugniyeh's death, without following up on the assassination, which by all accounts is still a concern with a Syrian public that has been kept in the dark about the government's lengthy investigation into his assassination.

"There are many news items that we don't get except on the Lebanese channels. Their way of covering the news and presenting it is different and this attracts me as a viewer even if I hear the same news on the Syrian channels, I feel like I hear it for the first time on the Lebanese satellite channels. They have their magic," Suha, an economics major at a local university told MENASSAT.

Of course, Syrians also have an interest in Lebanese affairs because Lebanon is a close neighbor and because Syria had a 29-year military presence in the country until the Cedar revolution of 2005, which followed the assassination of prime minister Rafic Hariri.

Reports in early May about the Lebanese government’s decision to dismantle Hezbollah's telecommunication network and the dismissal of the head of security at Beirut's international airport, were of more interest to the Syrians than their own government's plan to stop fuel subsidies, despite the obvious negative economic repercussions in Syria.

No polls have been done to assess just how popular Lebanon's news is to the Syrian public or why it seems to have more street appeal than the satellite news programs of other neighboring countries like Jordan. B ut walking the streets of Damascus, it is not an exaggeration to say that Lebanon's news occupies a major portion of the Syrian viewing diet.

On the eve of the recent Lebanese presidential election, after Lebanon's warring factions had signed the Doha peace agreement on May 21, Syrians were glued to their television sets.

A Lebanese journalist in Damascus at the time told MENASSAT, "I was walking in Damascus on (presidential) Election Day, and was shocked to see that all the shops that had a TV had the election on. To be honest, I was really surprised. I am Lebanese, and I wasn’t even interested. But, they were."