The free press in Lebanon suffered significant setbacks. In what was described by government officials as a fair attempt to regulate the countrys broadcast media, a cabinet order granted licenses to four television and 11 radio stations, but ordered the closure of dozens of others it called pirate stations. Forty-seven stations, mainly from the opposition media, were denied licenses after submitting applications to the government. Companies in which government officials had financial interests received preferential treatment. Members of the government, including Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, Interior Minister Michel al-Murr, and Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri, owned or directly influenced three of the four newly licensed TV stations.
The government also imposed regulations on the newly approved stations that will affect the content of news and other broadcasts. Only the four licensed TV companies and three of the approved radio stations, including the Hariri-owned Radio Orient and Nabih Berris yet-unformed National Broadcasting Network, may offer political programming. The end result, noted one human rights activist, is that now four or five politicians in the country monopolize the public and private sector [of the broadcast media].
The print media were the target of harsh legal measures. In March, state prosecutors brought six libel suits against employees of the vocal daily opposition newspaper Al-Diyar for a series of articles and a cartoon that denounced the policies of President Elias Hrawi and Prime Minister Hariri. The suits charged editor in chief Charles Ayyoub, director Youssef al-Howeyyek, and cartoonist Elie Saliba with defamation. The defendants, who were awaiting trial at years end, face up to two years in prison and fines of 100 million Lebanese lira (US$60,000) for each offense. Heavy monetary fines would likely force the paper out of business.
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