Lebanon and the Power of the Press

Media freedoms make nations more stable, not less

BEIRUT—Lebanon spoils the myth that press restrictions are essential to maintaining a delicate security balance. This country was practically structured to spill insecurity, and yet it has what many believe to be the Arab world’s most free media system. Regimes in speech-stingy countries have long argued that press freedoms can’t be expanded due to sectarian tensions (quite broadly defined). Lebanon busts this canard.

“Lebanon, it seems,” wrote David Hirst in Beware of Small States, “was almost designed to be the everlasting battleground for others’ political, strategic and ideological conflicts, conflicts which sometimes escalate into their proxy wars.” Thoughtlessly lineated by British and French colonizers after World War I, Lebanon would later be weighed down by a political system based on religious division; the presidency of the country was reserved for Christians, the premiership for Sunni Muslims, while the speaker of the parliament must be a Shiite. The country is partly (some say mostly) controlled by the militant Hezbollah organization.

Smaller than Connecticut, Lebanon has “long attracted an international attention disproportionate to its size…The attention has generally come in dramatic spasms provoked by crises apt to subside as quickly as they erupt,” Hirst wrote. Lebanon has, over the years, been the staging ground for wars and confrontations among Palestinian militants, U.S. Marines, Hezbollah, Israel and, by proxy, Iran and Syria. The New York Times calls Lebanon a “byword in recent decades for the many kinds of conflict that come from living atop a turbulent region’s fault lines.” In the 1970s and 1980s, Lebanon endured a civil war that killed five percent of the entire country (two and a half times the proportion of U.S. citizens that died in the American Civil War), or more than 150,000 people.

But today it is Lebanon’s more repressive neighbors—Syria, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, and Tunisia—that are being shaken or upended by uprisings. Next door to Lebanon in Homs, Syria, government forces have gunned down protesters who continue to defiantly turn out in the thousands. In 2005, Lebanon did experience what is often referred to as the “cedar revolution,” but this was a struggle of the Lebanese to rid their country of its Syrian overlords.

Lebanon feels ordinary today. As I type this, two curvy twenty-somethings are strutting on stilt-like heels past my hotel, carrying bottles of red wine. Lebanon hasn’t had an operating government in months, but it still feels like a functional country.

Scores of Arab regimes have lost all vestiges of security because they mercilessly repressed their people in recent decades; Lebanon endures because it hasn’t. Rather than its detriment, Lebanon’s political and journalistic openness are its greatest assets. “The sectarian state just could not function at all unless its constituent parts agreed, at least in principle, that respecting the rights, interests and sensibilities of each was indispensible to the welfare of all,” wrote Hirst. Lebanon’s open public sphere is cited as one of the reasons the nation endures.

“Live and let publish” is an indispensible component of “live and let live.” This is why a bound and gagged press in Pakistan and Afghanistan contributes to security problems in these nations; such intolerance bolsters a broader societal notion that certain ideas are categorically unforgivable.

Afghan extremists recently killed twelve non-participants in a Koran burning because, in part, they live in a country that nourishes the belief that some forms of speech must be silenced at any cost. Similarly, the fact that Iraq has not empowered its press as one of its core institutions will endanger that country’s security in the years ahead. As in Pakistan, the scope of inadmissible speech in Iraq is large.

Vigorous press systems attack destabilizing forces like corruption, nepotism, election fraud, and gender imbalance. Indeed, the world’s more stable governments tend to be those with a more empowered press. Finland, Iceland, Norway, Denmark, Jamaica, and Costa Rica are among the nations frequently listed as having some of the world’s freest press systems. The countries listed as having the most miserable press environments, on the other hand, are about as secure as a hut in a hurricane: Libya, Zimbabwe, Iran, Somalia, Congo.

The Open Net Initiative lists more than forty countries that use Internet filtering software to block information from their people and, again, the offending nations are not temples of calm: Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Vietnam, North Korea. Repressing speech can generate security for a certain period of time, but such situations often erupt. “For periods of time there can be suppression,” said Columbia University professor Todd Gitlin at a recent lecture in Cairo, “but the odds are against its enduring success. I would not bet on the enduring capacities of the censors.”

It may seem that a country like China has managed to improve living standards while suppressing political speech, but “China has not yet found a way to solve the problem of demands for political participation…that tend to accompany rising per capita income,” wrote scholar Joseph Nye, and one day it must. Repression buys only temporary security. And in terms of economic security, “any country that wants to participate fully in the economic life of the planet today must open itself to what to some regimes must feel is dangerously free expression,” wrote former Chicago Tribune editor Jack Fuller.

Some nations are seeming exceptions. Oman and Singapore, for example, have suppressed speech, enjoyed development, and experienced very little unrest. Even Oman, though, has experienced large political demonstrations this year, as well as violent riots. “Nondemocratic countries like Oman,” Robert Kaplan wrote in his book Monsoon, “often evince efficiency when things are going well, but when problems arise in such systems the population, especially if it is young, can become quite restive.” And Singaporeans will likely demand more of a political say when the country’s avuncular founder, Lee Kuan Yew, and his politically crowned progeny pass from power, and the regime will likely be less able to sue critics for libel loosely defined.

Other nations, like Tunisia and Egypt, at times feigned so much stability that they attracted millions of tourists per year. “The absurd dictatorship gives such an illusion of stability that the place is often a holiday destination,” wrote Paul Theroux in The New York Times. Lebanon’s soft power and its ability to attract tourists and investors, however, have more to do with its perceived openness and its tireless optimism than any illusory sense of security.

In 2009, as the financial crisis ravaged global markets, investors around the world flooded Beirut’s banks with deposits, Vali Nasr wrote in Forces of Fortune, due to the fact that Lebanese banks largely operated outside the then-toxic markets of New York and London as well as the perception that Lebanon’s economic system is relatively transparent and open. This was a country whose main civilian airport was bombed by Israel in 2006—not a typical draw for jet-setting investors. Still, Middle East Report has maintained that Lebanon has the freest financial markets of any state in the region.

While Lebanon has non-sham national elections, it is its other “[f]unctioning institutions—rather than mere elections—[that] are critical, particularly in complex societies,” Kaplan wrote. The openness of its functioning institutions, especially its press, is why Lebanon is not a failed state.

The press system in Lebanon is certainly not among the world’s freest, so let’s not compare it to Sweden. Lebanese political leaders often enjoy special protections from journalistic gnashing, and reporters occasionally have unjust and punitive libel judgments brought against them for simply doing their job.

And when repressive regimes are forced by their people to open up, there can be chaos, sure. When uprisings occur in “states [with] different ethnic, tribal, sectarian and political orientation and [have] a loose coalition of Western and Arab states with mixed motives trying to figure out how to help them,” wrote Thomas Friedman, “well, folks, you’re going to end up with some very strange-looking policy animals” for a time. But an open press is a long-term sustaining force. Kaplan argued that India opening up decades ago to “civilian rule, unsatisfactory as it was, allowed for [its] gradual emergence as a stabilizing, regional behemoth.”

James Madison wrote that there are two ways to deal with sectarianism and political factions: “The one, by destroying the liberty which is essential to its existence; the other, by giving to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests. It could never be more truly said than of the first remedy, that it is worse than the disease.”

Despite its noisiness, sectarianism, and even occasional physical flammability, Lebanon will survive if it can continue to embrace openness and ideological diversity, and other states will, too. “Security is acquired by new knowledge rather than by conserving old knowledge,” Edward Teller wrote in The New York Times some years ago. Either open up or your political system will eventually be opened up for you. To put a twist on the wisdom of Max Frankel, former executive editor of The New York Times: The threat of public upheaval will persist as long as there is public abuse.

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Justin D. Martin is a journalism professor at Northwestern University in Qatar. Follow him on Twitter: @Justin_D_Martin Tags: , , , ,