Concerns about Lebanon’s precarious economy and political criticism have fueled a new government drive to pressure satellite television stations from broadcasting news seen as detrimental to the country.
After meeting with radio and television station executives Monday, Information Minister Ghazi Aridi said attempts were under way to undermine a “Paris II” gathering of donor countries, because unnamed media were “seeking to destroy (Lebanon’s) economic situation.”
“There are those who want to lay siege to Lebanon and prevent it from recovering,” Aridi said, adding that he had instructed satellite stations to gain his “prior approval” about the general content of their broadcasts.
Aridi said the satellite media law stipulated that stations provide the information minister with details about their general programming before airing it, “but this is not taking place.”
The minister denied that he was intending to oversee censorship, calling his request for implementing the satellite law’s provisions “prior approval.”
“We are not going to monitor interviews or programs, but prior approval must take place before these stations broadcast an item,” he said.
Asked if he was setting down “red lines” for the country’s media, Aridi identified three: “The economy, sectarianism and Syrian-Lebanese relations, meaning accusations and
organizing campaigns against
a fraternal Arab country.
“I was very frank, and there was total understanding,” the minister said.
A participant at the meeting told The Daily Star that senior politicians’ grievances with the political line of certain stations had prompted Aridi to convene the meeting, while station owners remain angry about the lack of a government-issued frequency distribution plan.
“President Emile Lahoud is not happy with MTV, and Prime Minister Rafik Hariri
isn’t happy with New TV, and to a lesser extent, LBCI,” the executive said.
“Meanwhile, the government hasn’t produced a proper frequency distribution plan, which means it wants to charge us broadcasting fees without freeing up the channels in the first place,” he said. The executive said that while nonlicensed stations were using frequencies and channels that were not allocated to them under a temporary plan produced a few years ago, licensed stations were also guilty of the same practice. Meanwhile, the government set a Sept. 15 deadline for stations to pay their fees, with nonoperating but licensed stations ordered to go on the air or risk losing their licenses.
As for another item in the government ultimatum, Aridi said that “some” unlicensed radio and television stations had closed down, in compliance with the government’s ultimatum last week, while others continued to operate.
The minister said that executives had agreed to begin paying the owed fees in installments.
But the executive said the Sept. 15 payment deadline made little sense, since the broadcast frequency plan might not be ready by then.
Aridi acknowledged as much, saying: “We are on the way to producing the plan … The Cabinet tasked the minister of telecommunications with producing this via an international firm, within three months.”
One participant at the meeting reportedly objected to the government’s handling of the media issue, likening the practice to asking a tenant of a building to pay rent while discovering that he did not have full access to the property in question.
Aridi said he had informed the executives that you can “express your opinion, but in an objective and civilized way, but not by casting doubt, making accusations, and being destructive,” adding that all he was asking for was “an implementation of the law.”
“It’s the right of the media to be politicized, and while we might differ about everything, we can’t differ about the country. We can’t politicize the country or its destiny,” the minister said.
“God forbid there’s an (economic) collapse (of the country). Everyone will be hit by this, and all sects, parties and regions will be hit by the repercussions, except those few people who have some money abroad. As for the Lebanese, the catastrophe will hit them. So why promote it?” Aridi said.