Journalists thought the October 2019 revolution had ended the untouchable status of leading public figures, but political pressure on the media is stronger than ever, especially against the backdrop of an economic crisis that continues to worsen and attempts to paralyse the investigation into the 2020 Beirut port explosion.
Genuine freedom of expression does exist in Lebanese media, but in reality the sector is controlled by a handful of individuals directly affiliated with political parties or belonging to local dynasties. The most influential TV channels are LBCI, Al Jadeed and MTV, belonging, respectively, to the Daher-Saad, Khayat and Murr families. Al Manar is Hezbollah’s official TV channel.
Political parties have a stranglehold on the media, which depend on investors and reflect the Lebanese political structure. Above all, the media reflects the country’s political and communal divisions, with each media outlet being identified with one of the country’s dominant religious groups. Journalism is a weapon in the political conflict.
The law requires the media to be transparent about their ownership and financing. However, some outlets have established especially opaque ownership structures. Defamation and false information are criminalised by the penal code, which defines these violations broadly. The justice system is often manipulated in order to fine media outlets or even impose prison sentences in absentia.
The media are suffering from the effects of the historic financial crisis afflicting the country. The Beirut port explosion in August 2020 forced them to make enormous budget cuts, affecting both their activities and their employee headcount. Many Beirut-based journalists and news media that were affected by the explosion have depended on international aid to recover and to cope with the crisis. Fuel shortages and blackouts prevent them from reporting in the field.
Public opinion is predominantly conservative, and some topics are taboo, such as criticism of the country’s cultural and religious heritage. Misogyny and racism are not uncommon, and women journalists are often the targets of smear campaigns. Political activists, especially Hezbollah supporters, participate in intimidation campaigns and use Twitter to threaten journalists.
Attacks and lawsuits against journalists have intensified even more since the start of the economic crisis and the 2020 Beirut port explosion. Security forces use disproportionate force against reporters.