In Lebanon, even electricity is political

The coverage of the on-going electricity crisis in Lebanon, where blackouts can last up to sixteen hours per day, is yet another example of the kind of partisan reporting that leaves the citizens concerned without a voice in the matter.

BEIRUT, Sep. 4, 2008 (MENASSAT) – Since January, power outages in Lebanon have provoked strong reactions from marginalized sectors of Lebanese society. The protests are a case study of the relationship between actual events and the nature of partisan reporting in Lebanon.

[Editor's Note: Power outages are a daily discomfort throughout Lebanon but their length varies depending on the area. Christian East Beirut is typically without electricity for three hours every day; in mostly Shia South Beirut power outages can sometimes last up to ten hours a day. But this is also the case in many other areas outside Beirut, where private generators take over when the government electricity fails for those who can afford it.]

In one incident in January 2008, more than fifty young men opposing Sunni Prime Minister Fouad Siniora's government organized a protest, burning tires and blocking roads in reaction to lengthy power cuts in the majority Shia areas of South Beirut. In the ensuing riots with the Lebanese army, at least seven people were killed and dozens wounded.

Hezbollah, the main Shia party, was in the opposition at the time and had been waging a campaign to bring down Siniora's pro-Western government since December 2006.

'Who's stealing the electricity?'

On cue, the Hezbollah-backed TV network Al-Manar went to great lengths in reporting the news about the electricity riots in South Beirut, effectively turning it into a national issue. Many opposition media outlets followed suit, including the daily Al-Akhbar whose headline on January 22 read, "Moving protests fill the political vacuum," in reference to the government's inactivity on the matter.

One day later, Al-Akhbar asked on its front page, "Who is stealing the electricity?" and later continued with the headline "Among the political polarization, who protects the poor's bread?" this one accompanied by a photo of a young man setting a tire on fire while holding a loaf of bread in his other hand.

Meanwhile, editors of the government-aligned newspaper Al-Mustaqbal managed to downplay the power cuts in the many Shiite neighborhoods during that same tense period. On its front page on January 23, five days before the rioting, Al-Mustaqbal quoted directly from Siniora saying, "The root of the electricity problem lies with those people who hack the network, overloading the transformers, which then explode. The power goes off, the same people then take to the streets, in fact protesting their own actions."

Following the January 27 riots, Al-Mustaqbal the next day described protesters in the southern suburbs as having revived the political "demarcation lines" between the sects, and headlined the article "Black Sunday, militias in Dahyeh attack the army."

An editorial in the same newspaper accused the "Syrian-Iranian alliance" backing Hezbollah and the opposition of fomenting trouble at a time when the Arab foreign ministers were meeting in Cairo to discuss the Lebanese crisis.

New government, same difference

In the time since the January protests, the electricity cuts have continued as usual. But in May, the political situation drastically changed when the government and opposition parties signed a peace deal in Doha, Qatar, narrowly avoiding a new civil war. In the new, power-sharing government, the post of Energy Minister went to the former opposition.

This led Al-Mustaqbal columnist Fadi Shamiyeh to write in a June 11 editorial, "From now on, the electricity issue in Lebanon cannot be approached the same way as before. The opposition can no longer organize popular protests since they are running the [Energy] ministry now, and March 14 (the former government parties) is not about to approach the issue in the same way that Hezbollah and its allies did."

One consequence of this seems to have been that the media of all political sides have agreed to stop covering the electricity issue altogether, ignoring the growing popular protest against the power outages in the (mostly Sunni) north of the country, and in the Bekaa valley.

Hundreds of citizens blocked the roads in Tripoli on August 20 to protest against the electricity cuts, but most newspapers simply ignored the news. Al-Akhbar, which was meticulous in reporting the electricity cuts in Dahyeh in January, dedicated only a tiny paragraph at the bottom of the political page to the protest, despite the fact that the power cuts in the North were in excess of sixteen hour per day.

On August 24, the protests moved to the towns of Taalabaya and Saadnayel in the Beqaa Valley, but this too went almost unreported in the Lebanese media.

Without exception, no single Lebanese media outlet has stepped up to cover what is at the heart of the power cuts.

Those aligned with the former government camp have adopted Prime Minister Siniora's stance on the subject, blaming the people in South Beirut of stealing the electricity from the power grid; while the opposition media outlets have failed to discuss the economic issues related to the power cuts.

Meanwhile, the Lebanese continue to suffer from daily blackouts.