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Media : Free-Wheeling Press Faces Curbs in Beirut : The regime lifted its ban on political broadcasting, but Parliament will soon consider regulating licenses and content.


BEIRUT — The evening news in Beirut has always been a brash bouillabaisse of political intrigue, scandal, light features and bombast, with a sprinkling of bullets, bombs and gore.

Sure, the government-owned TeleLiban offers the standard footage of the prime minister, president and House Speaker touring factories and greeting guests (while Beirut yawns). But for livelier news, and a different spin, most of Lebanon tunes in each night to the Lebanese Broadcasting Corp. (LBC) report, offered up from its sleek studios in the hills of East Beirut by the Christian Lebanese Forces militia and a powerful Maronite Christian politician.

Meantime, officials of the now disarmed Amal militia have a share in a TV station. So does the Israel-backed South Lebanese Army, and so do Prime Minister Rafik Hariri (he used to own two) and a whole host of parliamentary members, onetime warlords and political wanna-bes, from the right-wing Christian Phalangists ("The Voice of Lebanon") to the National Syrian Socialist Party.

The Islamic fundamentalist militia, Hezbollah, puts out the evening news on its own Al Manar TV, with modestly veiled anchorwomen handing off to bearded reporters in the field reporting on the latest military assaults against Israeli targets by Islamic forces in the south.

Nowhere in the Arab world--or much of the rest of the globe, for that matter--has the press bred, multiplied, gathered the news and finally stormed into the nation's living rooms with such gleeful abandon as in Lebanon. A 16-year civil war cultivated the freest press in the Arab world.

At times this year, 58 private television stations and about 200 radio stations, all unlicensed and unregulated, were operating in everything from modern studios to back-room booths in the slums to serve an audience of 3 million Lebanese--a media free-for-all that the Lebanese government has now declared must end.

Earlier this year, Hariri's regime declared a ban on all political broadcasting in Lebanon, forcing most stations to either cancel their news broadcasts or substitute light entertainment features. Hariri's own station, Future TV, was closed for three days after the news staff inadvertently carried a rousing speech by the prime minister calling for continuing the Islamic military resistance against Israel. Hezbollah sullenly reverted to religious programming, and a chamber full of Parliament deputies--accustomed to seeing their faces and pronouncements on the nightly news--fumed and plotted their revenge.

The ban was lifted July 29 after Hariri lost a showdown with the injured Parliament, but Parliament will consider a new media law when it resumes sessions next month. The draft law would, for the first time, regulate the broadcast media in Lebanon, requiring licenses, assigned frequencies, ownership controls and mandatory guidelines on content.

Government officials estimate that only about five of the television stations currently operating in Lebanon would survive the new standards.

And it is an ironic reflection of the nation's exhaustion after 16 years of war and furious politicking that almost no one--save those who stand to be shut down--has complained.

Aside from a brief sit-in at the Parliament by television employees laid off after the ban on political broadcasting, no one has launched protests. No one has raised the issue of freedom of the press.

"The situation we have now is impossible. We have a fair amount of freedom of the press, but any broadcast medium in the world should take its license from the government," said Mohammed Baalbecki, head of the Lebanese Press Syndicate.

Indeed, the reporters and editors of the press union may have cause for quiet glee. About 80% of the advertising revenues of the Lebanese print media have been siphoned off by the burgeoning television industry, and most syndicate members are hoping the new law will help lure advertisers back.

Now even some veteran TV newspeople say there is room for regulation--and restraint--on the Lebanese airwaves.

"The war in this country could return in a split of a second, just like it ended in a split of a second," said Ali Jaber, managing director of Hariri's Future TV. "Every 15 minutes there's a news bulletin on the radio. People used to turn to it in time of war because they wanted to know where the bombs are falling.

"But now we are a country coming out of a state of war, and we need to relax a little bit. Two years ago, they were hacking each other in the streets! I truly don't think democracy in its absolute sense suits this country at this time."

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