Lebanese MTV will be on for the elections

A rumor has been going around Lebanon for a few months that MTV—that's Murr TV, not Music TV—was getting ready to start broadcasting again, seven years after it was shut down. This time it's official: MTV will be back on the air on March 31.
mtv demonstrations
Demonstrators protesting the closure of MTV in 2002. © Al Akhbar

BEIRUT, January 26, 2009 (MENASSAT) — Founded by Lebanese businessman and politician Gabriel Murr, and headed by his son Michel Murr, MTV was shut down on September 4, 2002 after a court convicted the station of breaking the electoral law by electioneering for its owner Murr, who had won the Metn by-elections in June of the same year.

In an interview with the Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar, Gabriel said at the time that his channel was closed unjustly because "it was fighting the battle of liberation of Lebanon."

New Old Channel

Political bias in the media is par for the course in Lebanon, and never more so than in May 2008, when then opposition militants forcefully shut down Future News TV and other media outlets associated with what was then the government.  A Qatar-brokered agreement saved Lebanon from relapsing into civil war by  forging an alliance between the  majority and the opposition.

But with the June parliamentary elections coming up, Lebanon's media war is expected to be revived in force.

MTV's owner this week dispelled accusations that the new station will be just another mouthpiece for the so-called March 14 alliance, an umbrella group of Sunni, Druze and Christians who made up the government until last May. Murr maintained that the new MTV will not have a political or electoral agenda, and that the decision to relaunch was taken on September 2006, but the Israeli war on Lebanon prevented it.

Before the closure of the station, MTV was focused on general entertainment. In its new shape, it  will lean towards being more of a news station, both in appearance and in content. Esthetically, it will resemble Future News, since MTV chose the same artist to design its studio. 

The TV station will recover some of its old staff, such as Ghayath Yazbek, who will be the news director. Yazbek, who currently works at ANB, has said that MTV will resemble the French international station TV5 in terms of diversity and content.

In the first weeks, it will present a series of political programs, including two night time talk shows—one with Paula Yacoubian from Future TV, and the other with LBC journalist and anchorman Walid Abboud, who according to al-Akhbar has submitted his resignation and will become MTV's editor in chief when the station resumes operations.

Seeing that Lebanon already has eight national channels—more than the advertising market can sustain—the big question is where Murr TV will get its revenue from.

Some believe it will come from Saudi Arabia; others speculate that Antoine Choueiri, who is close to the Lebanese Forces and a former advertiser for LBC, will front the cash. After 12 years of dealing with Choueiri, LBC has recently signed a contract with Rotana Media Services, owned by Walid bin Talal, as part of the merger between LBC International and the Saudi Rotana group. 

Politics and Media

With the parliamentary elections on the doorstep and political alliances being forged and broken, the relaunching of MTV seems to be part of the general preparations for the elections. Lebanese media usually reflect the political and sectarian divisions in the country, and MTV will add one more Christian voice to the scene, alongside the competing LBC and OTV.
With LBC concentrating on the regional market, while it is still going through a legal battle between current manager and owner Pierre Daher and Lebanese Forces Leader Samir Geagea over the ownership of the channel, MTV is expected to carry the radical Christian discourse of the Lebanese Forces. And with OTV being the channel of Michel Aoun, who is in an alliance with Hezbollah, LBC might end up being in the middle, representing a more moderate political opinion.

The relaunching of MTV poses some questions regarding the future of LBC—not only because of the legal conflict, but also because of rumors that many of the channel's stars, technicians and journalists who are close to the Lebanese Forces are leaving in order to join MTV.

The Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar reported Pierre Daher saying that the door is open for whoever wants to leave, and he will not try to prevent anyone from doing so.

While MTV was initially closed down because of its electioneering ads, it is now likely that the channel will relaunch as part of the electoral campaign of the Lebanese Forces. Geagea's party lost LBC, its historical mouthpiece, due to the legal conflict with its current owner, and ever since his main opponent, Michel Aoun, launched his own mouthpiece, OTV, the Lebanese Forces have been looking for a new one of their own.

The Lebanese elections will be held in early June 2009. During the last elections in 2005, the media played a great role in fostering sectarian tension and each outlet acted like a propaganda machine for its affiliated candidates. This year, the question remains whether the Lebanese TV channels will live up to their role as monitors of the political process, or will keep their current roles as mouthpieces for the politicians who own them.