The shutdown of Lebanon's Al Safir newspaper: A bellwether for Arab print media?

Published January 3rd, 2017 - 05:15 GMT
Print media in Lebanon “has always been a mirror of the political divisions in the country and it has always supported itself financially from outside political sources, be it internal or external state funding.” (AFP/Joseph Eid)
Print media in Lebanon “has always been a mirror of the political divisions in the country and it has always supported itself financially from outside political sources, be it internal or external state funding.” (AFP/Joseph Eid)

If 2017 is any omen for the Lebanese print journalism industry, it is one of an existential crisis as the two most established newspapers in the country have either announced closure (As-Safir) or significant cuts (Annahar) ahead of the New Year.

As-Safir terminated its operations on Dec. 31, after 42 years in the business, due to financial and funding woes. The paper, which was launched in 1974, ironically thrived during the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990), but has struggled immensely in the last few years.

Similarly, Annahar newspaper, established in 1933, has ended the year with major cuts in budget and staff, laying off more than 60 people according to the Lebanese media.

Crisis beyond circulation

Understanding the print journalism crisis in Lebanon goes well beyond exploring the conventional metrics — of circulation, advertisement and readership — that would normally apply elsewhere.

“Newspapers in Lebanon have never depended on circulation and have never been independent of the political scene,” says Zahera Harb, a senior lecturer in International Journalism at City University of London.

Harb, who witnessed first hand the roll out of As-Safir’s last issue on Friday in Beirut, tells Arab News that the print media in Lebanon “has always been a mirror of the political divisions in the country and it has always supported itself financially from outside political sources, be it internal or external state funding.”

Key to the crisis was the political and economic setting that evolved post-Arab Spring in 2011, with violent upheavals in Libya, Syria,

Yemen and a dip in the oil prices which continue to affect the GCC economies. These circumstances “have shrunk the market for the Lebanese papers mainly in the GCC region,” Harb explains, or in some cases “greatly affected external state funding support.”

The former Libyan regime of Muammar Qaddafi, for example, had partially funded some of the Arab newspapers, as have influential policymakers inside Lebanon and in Gulf states.

The “failure to introduce a business model that allows Lebanese newspapers to survive in the digital era” has also contributed to the fallout, says Harb.

“It is an indication of a real crisis primarily, initiated by the lack of business model that is free of internal and external political sources of funding.”

Unsustainable strategies?

In essence, the problems that forced As-Safir to shut down and Annahar to stumble, apply across the board for other Lebanon-based newspapers. There is chatter in Beirut of journalists from several outlets who have not been paid for 15 months, or papers that have shrunk in the print and office sizes — all of which speaks of a continued crisis in 2017.

Harb notes that the “the fear factor overshadowing Lebanese journalism these days is economic in nature... Journalists are afraid of losing their jobs because of current market trends and the number of journalists put on redundancy list is increasing.”

The failure of Lebanese journalism also to unchain itself from the political machine, or challenge policies and politicians that are in some cases funding those same papers have come at the expense of the content.

The print media “has not died yet and is still considered a viable platform for at least 10 years to come” says Harb.

But in Lebanon it is a different story, and the “closure of As-Safir has deprived the country of a pillar in it its media diversity scene.”

Closures and slow death are now becoming a reality for the Lebanese print media, Harb fears, turning the page on what was once the beating heart of Arab media renaissance and glory.

In its goodbye video message, As-Safir editor in chief Talal Salman is seen shutting off his office light, to the music of Sayed Darwish singing “this is what happened.”

A sentimental exit, signaling an end of an era and darker days to come for the Lebanese print media sector.

 
 

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