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.”