I first came to Lebanon in 1972 to study at the American University of Beirut and left in 1978. Other than the traumas of the Civil War – which are still on the minds of all of us, even those who did not experience them directly – I have three abiding memories of my first encounter with Lebanon: smelling the scent of the Mediterranean as soon as the airplane’s door had been opened; hearing the voice of Fairuz, which always filled the air then, and still comes back today to comfort us when things are going very badly; and an open press, representing a wide range of opinion.
Although I had been an avid newspaper reader in Iran, my access to information and ideas had been limited by strict censorship. In Lebanon I saw the same event reported and interpreted in so many different ways. This was confusing at first, but very rewarding later on when I could read through the conflicting accounts and form my own perceptions of a very complex society. Soon, I had a large box full of clippings from newspapers – including pictures of armed men on the backs of jeeps on the streets of Beirut. I lost the box somewhere during my travels, but the experience of Lebanon’s diverse political and intellectual life was to be extremely helpful when I myself entered journalism a few years later.
On this, my second visit to Lebanon, I have been enjoying the same diversity of views, but in a different manner. The pressure of daily work has limited my newspaper reading to the online pages of The Daily Star. Neither have I listened much to radio, apart from an early morning Arabic-language news bulletin form the BBC, whose English language online pages I check during the day for international news. I do not watch international satellite television channels either: Their global news coverage does not give me much more than I would get from online sources; and the details of day-to-day life in Lebanon and the region in which I am interested do not reach their bulletins.
Instead, over the past three years, I have been informed, educated and entertained by Lebanon’s terrestrial television channels, with features that include: the widest news agenda in the region, and probably in the world; panel discussions and phone-in programs with participants from all political persuasions – and from across the world – who rarely exceed the bounds of respectful conversation; an inspiring presenter appearing on the screen after surviving an attempted assassination, still bearing the scars of that attack; a reporter learning scuba diving to investigate pollution under the sea; another reporter braving a fall from a building while entering it during a major political investigation, and going to prison afterward; and reporters risking their lives to keep the citizens informed during the war of the summer of 2006, and the more recent upsurges of domestic conflict.
On Lebanese television, I have also seen a wide display of clothing, hair and facial hair; studio set-up; consumer goods and commercials; comedy; the full range of music, from martial to dance, and body movements, again from martial to dance – including an international competition of belly dancing, judged by an impressive panel of experts, followed by live interviews with those smiling on their way up, and those who managed not to shed tears on their way out of the contest.
I have also learned from programs on Christianity and Islam; history; geography; archaeology; family matters; health, including promotions of herbal remedies, some of them with exotic South American names; and – of course – from the year-end predictions by another rich source of insight: Lebanon’s channel-specific astrologers. Explaining the appeal of the last genre to a visiting friend, I pointed out that even heads of state in other countries are known to have relied on such advice. I also added that since no one really knows what is going to happen in future, why not listen to fortune-tellers, who give us some prospects of happiness without any pretensions?
I may be wrong in believing that Lebanese TV has not received the scholarly attention that it deserves. But in case I am right, I hope this brief account will stimulate such research, especially by Lebanese students of media and communication. I am also aware that Lebanon’s media diversity is partly the result of social, political, and economic differences among the Lebanese people, with tensions that have come to the surface during the past week, including an attack on the Lebanese media. In addition to the sad pictures of death and destruction across the country, it has also been very disheartening to see a black screen on television where the Future channel used to appear.
It takes more than mere words to improve the current conditions. However, even against this bleak background, Lebanese TV journalists have shown remarkable professional commitment and, at least as far as I have witnessed, have helped reduce the tension. This, I believe, is thanks to the shared traits of tolerance, creativity, and resilience, which has made Lebanon as well known as its natural beauty. As a fan of Lebanon and Lebanese TV, I wish them success.
iranian.com feature contributor Hossein Shahidi teaches communication at the American University of Beirut. He worked as a journalist and journalism trainer for more than 25 years, most of it with the BBC World Service in London. Shahidi has written on Iran, Afghanistan, Lebanon and Palestine, in English, Persian and Arabic. The author of “Journalism in Iran” and co-editor of “Iran in the 21st Century,” both published by Routledge in 2007. This article was first published in Lebanon’s THE DAILY STAR.