x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Lebanon's media forced into layoffs

Funds crisis forces Lebanese papers and TV stations to resort to mass dismissals, putting a spotlight on the country's media laws.

A view of the newsroom of <i>Annahar</i>, which has dismissed 54 employees.
A view of the newsroom of Annahar, which has dismissed 54 employees.

BEIRUT // Elias Khoury, the Lebanese novelist and editor of Annahar newspaper's prestigious culture supplement, received a letter from the paper's management this month informing him of his dismissal. His firing has lent a prominent face to an attempt to rewrite Lebanon's media laws.

Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily newspaper, with a circulation of 45,000, had debts of US$5 million (Dh15m) last month that threaten its existence and forced it to lay off 54 employees. Annahar is not alone in its struggles. This year the Daily Star shut down temporarily while it wrangled with its own debt problems. Also, the Lebanese television station MTV recently fired 60 employees and LBC fired 120 of its staff members. Annahar's debts were related to mismanagement, unlike in the West where newspapers are struggling with declining advertising revenues and readership.

The firings led to a wide discussion last week over journalists' rights and the need for a modern media-labour law to protect them. The discussion, at a meeting of the Samir Kassir Eyes (SKeyes) Foundation, was organised to express solidarity with the fired journalists. "Cutting costs should not be done this way and it is time to start looking for more effective and acceptable ways to rescue the Lebanese media institutions," said Malek Mrowa, a member of the Press Association, a labour union.

Annahar's management was faced with two options: either sell more shares to its wealthy investors - including Saudi Prince Waleed bin Talal bin Abdul Aziz and the prime minister-designate, Saad Hariri - and risk losing its editorial independence, or start working on a restructuring plan that would require firing 80 employees, on the recommendation of a financial adviser. The newspaper took the latter route and fired reporters, columnists and editors, some of whom had been at Annahar for decades.

Although most of the fired journalists and employees acknowledged the newspaper's right to act on its financial situation, they felt insulted by the method used to expel them. "Nobody spoke to the journalists and explained to them the newspaper's financial situation," said Mr Khoury, who worked at the paper for 18 years. He said the writers were summoned to reception and given dismissal letters. "That's an insult to the newspaper and the journalists.

"We don't want to go back to work. We just wish they had talked to us and we would have resigned. What happened was an offence to the journalists' dignity," he said. Founded in 1933 by Gebran Tueini, Annahar is the oldest and one of the most respected newspapers in the country. Momentous structural rearrangement is not new to the paper. Each time ownership changed hands - always within the Tueini family - changes were dramatic.

Annahar has suffered from bankruptcy in the past. The previous round of layoffs was during Ghassan Tueni's tenure as publisher in the late 1970s, when 47 editors and staff were discharged. Ghassan Hajjar, Annahar's managing editor, said in an interview that there was a surplus of employees at the newspaper and revealed that its business directors called in the financial consultancy firm Booz Allen, which recommended laying off 80.

After previous redundancies described as mass layoffs (meaning more than 10), fired individuals successfully prosecuted the newspaper in court and got their jobs back, charging that the layoffs were "arbitrary". Unlike in the past when decisions of layoff were conveyed verbally, the newspaper this time conveyed its decisions through registered mail. "It was incumbent upon this institution, which has long been considered modern and liberal, to start by asking the journalists and editors whom [it] wishes to layoff, to resign voluntarily. And even with collective expulsion, it could have [shown] some loyalty and issued a public disclaimer to [show] what those journalists provided over their working years," Sahar Baasiri, a journalist who worked for 30 years at Annahar, wrote in an e-mail.

The SKeyes Foundation meeting launched a campaign of solidarity that includes statements and letters to media outlets. One such petition was signed by 70 journalists, authors and artists. Only two of the fired employees, Khoury and May Daher Yacoub, also from Annahar, who were present at the meeting, signed the letter. SKeyes has not emphasised the presence of Mr Khoury, the award-winning author of Gate of the Sun and other novels, because, it said, many other established authors and journalists signed the petition.

The letter condemned the collective expulsions, "which were not subject to professional standards". "It is within any institution's right to reconsider its budget and to deal realistically with its financial crisis. But it is unacceptable to expel journalists and employees who spent decades defending political liberties and risking their lives, without adopting specific standards," the statement said. "The expelled journalists and employees should be treated not only in a way that preserves their financial rights but most importantly their dignity, moral rights and their professional values."

The campaigners demanded a public apology to the expelled journalists and urged the media institutions to reconsider the steps taken recently on the media industry. "The history of those institutions does not belong to them only. It is a value that no one has the right to compromise," the statement concluded. "The sacked employees were scared [to get involved in the campaign] because they thought they would be denied their indemnities and we have even heard rumours about some being threatened not to participate in this gathering," said Giselle Khoury, the head of SKeyes and a journalist for Al Arabia television. She is no relation to Mr Khoury the author.

Annahar's managing editor, Mr Hajjar, denied the accusation and said the day the campaign started, 49 of the sacked employees had already been given their compensations and did not want to participate. mzeidan@thenational.ae