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“Journalism is not lying, it means taking a stand” Interview with Ghassan Hajjar, managing editor of An Nahar

The editor of the most important newspaper in Lebanon explains the role of the media and information today in the Middle East between the necessity of balance and the impossibility of neutrality in a divided country and too close to Syria.

Founded in 1933 by Gebran Tueni, the newspaper An Nahar has distinguished itself for political and social battles, and which has always supported the opposition. It has given voice to numerous opponents of regimes in Arab countries, particularly those who took refuge in Beirut. Today Ghassan Hajjar is the managing editor of the newspaper.



In the West we often talk about the difficulties of receiving reliable information on and from the Middle East. How can we distinguish the propaganda from the truth?



First of all we need to distinguish between the totalitarian regimes where the official media are the only ones in charge of giving information and democratic countries, Lebanon included, where the media is the property of private institutions. This distinction makes it competitive and obligatory for the media to speak the truth, even if at times it is only half the truth. Those who follow the events want to know exactly how things stand.



Where there is civil war or a society divided among diverse communities can the media be impartial or is it conditioned by the players in the war?



100% neutral media does not exist in the West nor in the East. Journalism means taking a stand. How can we have a neutral opinion of the army and terrorism? It would be unacceptable, besides truth is never absolute. Each side has a part of the truth and defends it. In fact it is the responsibility of the media to uphold certain causes.



How did the two television channels of Al-Jazeera and Al-‘Arabiya, the first depending on Qatar, and the second on Saudi Arabia, influence the traditional media?



The spectator or reader gives credibility to the media. The two television channels Al-Jazeera and Al-‘Arabiya had a decisively more efficacious role before the Syrian war started, but then distancing themselves from the truth they lost a good part of their audience as Al-Jazeera sided with the Syrian regime and Al-‘Arabiya sided against it. Both resorted to lie. The support for the cause does not necessarily have to be done through lies.



Does the social media have an effective impact on civil society and public opinion? Are they capable of imposing a particular line on newspapers and deciding their agenda?



The social media contribute to mobilize people but not to create a public opinion. The speed of exchange and diffusion of news is without concentration, which implies a lack of clarity and vision. Consequently these media favour the superficiality of an audience that is getting a big quantity of information but it hasn’t got the time to analyze and criticize. The problem is that the social media are able to draw the attention of the young generations, which makes it possible for them to control the future.



A number of Lebanese journalists have been assassinated because of their profession or their positions: Nassib Metni (Télégraphe, 1958), Gebrane Tuéni (An-Nahar, 2005), Kamel Mroueh (Al-Hayat, 1966), Edouard Saab (L’Orient-Le Jour, 1975), Riad Taha (Al-Kifah, 1979), Salim Laouzi (Al-Hawadess, 1980), Samir Kassir (An-Nahar, 2005). Which sign have they left? Are you not afraid that the same will happen to you?



Fear is an interior sentiment which man experiences independent of the fact that other journalists have been killed. Many people are afraid while many others have no fear and they are ready for confrontation while knowing that they are sacrificing their lives. It has never crossed my mind not to express an idea or write an article because other journalists have been killed. However, like other journalists, I sometimes avoid to face difficult questions associated with security or finance which could implicate regimes, important agencies or mafia, especially as the mafia often work in collaboration with those in power. In spite of this as far as daily questions are concerned we do not fear politicians nor political parties especially if our superiors guarantee us the necessary support.



An-Nahar is known for having published different types of articles. How can An-Nahar be objective today in such a complex situation as in Lebanon? Is it true that Saad Hariri has become a shareholder of the newspaper?



Al-Nahar has always been free and independent while not renouncing to take a political stand. In fact the movement known as ‘March 14 coalition’ started thanks to An-Nahar and some Christian media and universities. Al-Nahar opposed resistance to the Syrian occupation and the illegal armies and continues to do so. The shareholders, including Hariri, have never influenced his political position. We chose shareholders who supported our public opinion and who would not, however, have intervened with the policy of the newspaper. They were interested at times in the spotlight, but wanted to be safe from criticism. The truth is that the guarantee offered by Tueni limited political intervention.



What criteria do you follow for the management of the most popular paper in Lebanon? How do you decide day by day to treat and present political dynamics in Lebanon to the readers?



It is a daily exercise and test for us to keep our credibility not to get caught up in the traps of politicians and to maintain a certain stand. Our attention is on the national interest of Lebanon and the safeguarding of democracy, of religious and cultural diversity and pluralism. Starting from these needs and principles we determine our position. I am not exaggerating when I say that the greater part of politicians, even those adhering to the March 14 coalition are not satisfied with us because each party would want us to side with them up to the total elimination of our personality and independence. Often they are quite surprise at our position.



In the Middle East there is a great ongoing debate on the freedom of the press. To slow down opposition journalism it is sometimes enough to accuse it of being a threat to state security. This is what is happening in Turkey, for example, in Iran, in Egypt or in Syria. How can we defend a freedom of press from censor imposed by law or auto-censor?



This is not true for Lebanon since Syria withdrew. Rightly or wrongly, people were accused of collaborating with Israel. However, the space for liberty is rather large today. What is lacking is not freedom but professionalism seen by many journalists go beyond their role and acceptable limits by unfounded insults and accusations.



From your privileged observatory what is the management of a newspaper, how do you see the Syrian situation and its implication in Lebanese equilibrium?



It is an illusion to separate Lebanon from the Syrian crisis. It is only possible to attenuate the repercussions of the Syrian war. An-Nahar is well-known for its hostility towards the Syrian regime. We start from our own position but we never rejoice at the disgrace of others and we have never used expression of resentment. We have criticized the opposition to the regime and especially the Islamist tendency to manifest intolerance towards others. We have therefore tried to be faithful to the tradition of Nahar, well-known for its objectivity.



Listing the auto-bombs, always more frequent, the dead, fear, desolation, and inefficiency of politics, how can we remain sensitive, open, curious and not become frustrated technicians of communication?



Besides refusing terrorism I do not know what other role we can play in front of it. It is an urgent question. We have published diverse articles on the incompatibility of terroristic acts and religious principles and we reported a lot on the human suffering caused by explosions. Notwithstanding this there is always the fear of transforming ourselves into machines which are content to count the dead and the auto-bombs.



Working with words can become complicated: for example a term like ‘terrorist’ seems quite clear but in the case of Syria and Ukraine it can be read differently by the government and the opposition. Is it possible to use a neutral language?



The political position is not defined by the choice of terms. The West, for example, uses the term terrorist when talking of Hezbollah. If we were to use the same term in Lebanon we would risk leading the country into a civil war. In spite of this we criticize every day illegal arms and infraction of law committed by Hezbollah, its intervention in Syria and the mini-state that it instituted within the Lebanese state. The political position is clear even if we play with words. These are basic principles of journalism because it is not possible to follow to the letter the American classification. And then, who says that this classification is always valid?



The media are the aerials of civil society, sentiments, expectations, hope and anguish. How do you see the present situation? Is there a constructive feeling or have we abandoned ourselves to radical and eterne divisions?



It is true that developments in these last years and the so-called ‘Arab spring’ have urged us to consider various aspects. Even some of our ideas change form one day to another in the light of the situation of Arab society and its attitude towards the democracy that it has never known, rather than its inclination towards Islamism or the control of Islamists in this society. We do not lose hope in our ability to build societies that can be developed. At the same time, however, we fear changes that could put an end to differences or pluralism in the region. The secularization could surrender long before the situation becomes stable. And this is frightening.