Lebanese 'Rejectionist' Media: a Disgraceful Institution

BY ELIE CHALALA

I have been asked why I am singling out the Lebanese rejectionist left, when there are many groups who have supported the Assad regime. I have two answers to this question. First, this group's support for the tyrannical regime in Damascus stains the history of Lebanese and Arab progressives by associating their legacy with a genocidal regime. Second, today's leftists deserve more attention than non-leftist supporters of the regime because they attempt to provide Assad the legitimacy he desperately needs with more than 100,000 Syrians dead and more than five million displaced. The Assadist propaganda machine never wielded any clout to speak of, a weakness worsened further under the impact of the regime's war against the opposition, thus it turned to "leftists" to propagate its message, particularly through Lebanese media.

The Syrian revolution is under attack by leftists who have exploited their past critical intellectual discourse to hail Assad's message of presenting the enemy as the takfiris (Muslim extremists/Jihadists in today's parlance), instead of shining the spotlight on the 33 long years of Assad authoritarian rule that paved the way for these extremists. Emboldened by Hezbollah and the cacophony of their media outlets, these leftists have a presence in daily Lebanese talk shows, Arab Satellite networks, news programs, and contributions to various opinion pages of Lebanese and Arab newspapers.

The old proverb, beggars cannot be choosers, aptly describes the relationship between the Assad regime and the Lebanese media. The Assad media, a subject of mockery, needed all the help it could get. Thus it recruited a group of Lebanese journalists, who were more capable than their Syrian comrades, even if not by much.

Not counting the theatrical aspects of the Lebanese pundits, where in many interviews "philosophical debates" about the virtues of the Assad regime turned "physical" on Al Jazeera and other Lebanese TV stations, these leftwing apologists lacked reason, creativity, and sometimes common sense. They could hardly impress neutral audiences, while at the same time tarnishing the progressive legacy of their predecessors.

Viewers of Lebanese television and other Arab satellite networks rarely listen to a lively intelligent discussion when leftist guests are hosted. Instead, leftist, and some non-leftist guests to be fair, end up parroting the arguments of Hezbollah and the Syrian regime. Yet, ironically, even non-leftist media outlets fall into this same trap. Many TV programs whose stations  (MTV, LBCI, Future TV) are not friendly with Hezbollah and the Syrian regime attempt to prove their objectivity by playing devil’s advocate. However, rather than producing original and courageous questions which are on the minds of many Arabs and Lebanese, they use the mumanah  (rejectionist) sophistry to offer counter arguments.

Classical examples of the recitations by the leftist pundits are the various explanations Hezbollah used to back up its intervention in Syria. First, they claimed, Syrian Shiite villages inhabited by some Lebanese were attacked by anti-Assad forces; second, Hezbollah is protecting religious sites, like an important Shiite Shrine of Sayyida Zainab in a suburb of Damascus; third, the invasion of Qusayer was justified on the grounds that they needed to protect the "back of the resistance," (also known as the routes Hezbollah used to receive arms from Iran and Syria to transmit to the eastern and the southern parts of Lebanon); fourth the leader of Hezbollah claimed a bizarre conspiracy by an alliance of Israel, Al Qaeda, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and of course, the U.S., who are bent on destroying the resistance and the rejectionists of the Syrian regime. As a result, Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah said that his forces will be anywhere it needed to protect the regional mumanah camp that is made of Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah.

In each stage of the intervention, leftist pundits exhibited blind loyalty to the Syrian-Hezbollah narrative. One may counter this by saying this what all pundits do, or what is called in U.S. electoral seasons "spin doctors." I concur, but with one exception. Good spin-doctors and pundits tend to be creative, intelligent, provocative, and accomplish what political candidates or politicians do not: they win the hearts and minds--deliver votes and support.  That being said, the sole merit of Lebanese pundits is their high entertainment value and their theatrical performances. As mentioned above, many recent debates on TV turned physical with media guests fighting with rival counterparts and issuing death threats to each other. But in case you thought these "undisciplined" guests will not be invited again by the TV station or its competitors, you are wrong! In fact, the "rowdy" participants were invited again by the same station and by its competitors.

A sense of euphoria swept among leftist pundits after the "Qusayer victory," leading some enthusiastic TV hosts and columnists to predict an imminent victory by the Assad regime over the opposition.  Encouraged by this state of mind, the discourse level continued to slide among these pundits, exposing a lack of basic knowledge on topics like survey research and loans by international organizations.

Two instances are perfect examples. The first example is from a Lebanese host on the leftist Aljadeed TV (New TV), where she mentioned more than once to her guests that she read or heard either the CIA had reports showing Assad's popularity standing between 60 and 65 percent, indicating that if "the President" runs for reelection in 2014 he is guaranteed a victory. The host's guest was a Lebanese journalist who works for a major Lebanese daily, An Nahar.  I would characterize the journalist as moderate, while he is against Assad’s dictatorship but unhappy with the opposition and believes that the two sides should sit together and talk. Yet, the news of the polls about Assad was too much for him to swallow, and he interjected, recommending the host should question such reports. Apparently, the host naively mistook fear of a man who has killed over 100,000 of them and destroyed one-third of their nation, socially and economically for popularity.

The second example, is when the same leftist host quoted some sources, saying that the World Bank is ready to loan Syria an unbelievable amount of funds (tens of billions in U.S. dollars) for reconstruction.  No one in their right mind would believe the World Bank, for one, would loan money to a government under severe sanctions from the West, among thousands of other reasons why Syria would not qualify for a World Bank loan. Moreover, the multi-lateral organization is largely controlled by states that will possibly arm the Syrian opposition and ask Assad to relinquish power, repeatedly stating that he should have no role in a future Syria.

The state of Lebanese media, including leftist and non-leftist outlets, is part of the state of Lebanese politics, not only at this present moment but since the onset of the civil war. The media, which considered as the Fourth Estate in Western societies, has been ineffective as an autonomous force in Lebanese society for years. The degree of its limited professionalism before 1975 has declined drastically after the civil war, and continues even until today. What distinguishes Lebanon under the Syrian hegemony between 1976-2005, and even after the Syrians left in 2005, was the unchecked Syrian dominance over the military and the economic. Journalists were repressed, assassinated, co-opted, while others were simply bought out by powerful players.  With the collapse of the Lebanese state, including law and order as well as the economy, the media , press and broadcast, lost whatever physical and financial protection it enjoyed in the pre-civil war era. This state of vulnerability left most of Lebanese media dependent, either on the Syrians and on Hezbollah later on, or on some of their rivals. But the sad part was the wishful thinking that the leftist members of this media institution would maintain certain level of autonomy which would enable them to keep a critical voice alive in the country. Instead, many of these leftists have taken on the Assad cause and became active members in the defense team of a genocidal regime.

This essay will appear in Al Jadid, Vol. 18, no. 66

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