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After taming the Lebanese state, it is the media’s turn

Lebanon is going through a critical time. The recent attempt to storm the headquarters of a Lebanese TV channel dispelled almost all hope for a political reconciliation and strong state approach. We are back to square one.

We watched angry demonstrators attacking the headquarters of Al-Jadeed TV in protest against a broadcast comedy sketch they said was insulting to Shiite cleric Musa Al-Sadr, who disappeared after traveling to Libya in the mid-1970s. The skit also depicted other figures, including Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, head of the Amal Movement.

Undoubtedly, the movement of these elements did not happen spontaneously; it was carefully planned. Lebanon had previously tested the ability of militias to mobilize angry protesters to exert security and political pressure. A similar incident took place when a satirical program on another TV channel tried to depict Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. This triggered demonstrations, giving the clear message that Nasrallah cannot be mocked.

Likewise, the incident surrounding Al-Jadeed TV aims to generalize the principle of personalities who are immune to criticism, which applies to Berri. The notion of immunity to criticism goes against one of the pillars of freedom of information and expression.

The suspicious calls by Hezbollah-allied political parties in the last two days are disturbing attempts to eradicate the last remaining characteristic of Lebanon — its relative freedom.

Diana Moukalled

But given the whole picture, what happened was by no means a temporary incident. Protesters hurled stones at the channel’s building for a whole three hours, threatening to kill the staff. Security forces were almost unable to act. Eventually, political and media pressure succeeded in dispersing the crowd.

The situation became even more shameful when Abdel-Hadi Mahfouz, head of Lebanon’s National Audiovisual Media Council, who is affiliated to the militia-backed political powers, appeared to justify the aggressive behavior, blaming the media for it. Meanwhile, the head of the Parliamentary Media and Communications Committee, Hassan Fadlallah, who is a Hezbollah MP, was silent. The “resistance” media gave no attention to the assault either.

The incident not only further strengthens Hezbollah and its allies’ dominance; it also represents a stark aggression on freedoms and the media. Sure, the Lebanese media is often overwhelmed by chaos and vulgarism, but this is better than the suppression and restrictions the militias want to impose on them.

Some parties are trying to tame the media and muzzle them from discussing important issues, even satirically, under the pretexts of ethics and sacred causes. The suspicious calls by Hezbollah-allied political parties in the last two days are disturbing attempts to eradicate the last remaining characteristic of Lebanon: Its relative freedom. This is the most important battle to come, and it will not be an easy one.

• Diana Moukalled is a veteran journalist with extensive experience in both traditional and new media. She is also a columnist and freelance documentary producer. She can be reached on Twitter @dianamoukalled.