January 17, 2008 Special Dispatch No. 1808

Lebanese Intellectual Harshly Criticizes Pro-Syrian Daily Al-Akhbar

January 17, 2008
Special Dispatch No. 1808

To mark its first anniversary, the Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar, which is close to Syria and to Hizbullah, invited Arab intellectuals to write about their opinions about the paper; these articles would be published by the paper as a series. One such article, by Lebanese intellectual Hazem Saghiya, was published November 10, 2007; in it, the author leveled harsh criticism at the paper. Saghiya wrote that while the paper appeared to be a modern and well-designed daily, it was actually promoting reactionary ideals – a mixture of Islamism and outmoded socialism. He added that Al-Akhbar vilified anti-Syrian figures in Lebanon, and that anyone whom the paper thus maligns is in danger of being assassinated.

On November 17, 2007, Al-Akhbar published a rebuttal of Hazem Saghiya's article, written by Al-Akhbar columnist Khaled Saghiya. It stated that any new paper makes mistakes; that Al-Akhbar's failings are being exaggerated by its critics; and that it aspires to be a pioneering, ethical and unbiased paper that opposes colonialism but embraces modernity.

The following are excerpts from the two articles:

Lebanese Intellectual Hazem Saghiya: "You Are Always Clamoring and Raging... For You Are Constantly Calling [People] to Arms"

Hazem Saghiya wrote: "When one feels a mixture of political rivalry and personal affection, it is difficult to produce clear words and meaning. In such a situation, the speaker finds himself marching in place, taking one step forward and one step back. The minute he says 'on the one hand...' he finds himself saying 'on the other hand...' This kind of faltering causes him to stammer and even to stutter. Consequently, he has no choice but to divide his words into chapters and sections that will clarify his tangled [arguments].

"From the perspective of personal friendship – [I say] well done and best wishes. Did we not, only a few months ago, [stand] side by side to give and receive condolences for a dear man... who died right in front of me? This creates between us a bond of [shared] sorrow and loss. The Beirut airport saw us shed hot tears as we greeted the coffin. However… we are also required to consider the other perspective – [namely the perspective] of politics and of our differences and conflicts [in that area]...

"Your paper is always clamoring and raging... for you are constantly calling [people] to arms. As far as you are concerned, all people are soldiers – either [soldiers] in active duty or [soldiers] in the reserves waiting to be called to the trenches at any moment... You view the universe as an arena of constant hatred, and history as a sequence of bloody [scenes].

"In my view, however, and as far as I know, injustice can only be rectified and justice can only be attained when the guns are silent and tensions ease. Furthermore, this does not happen at once; there are ups and downs. By contrast, there are countless examples of movements... which claimed to uphold truth and justice but which [in practice] erected fortresses of unprecedented error and injustice.

"The willingness to believe that problems can be solved by means of nonviolent pressure reflects [the belief that] people still retain some trace of humanity – while the belief that problems can be solved only through violence reflects a profound suspicion towards human beings, [and a conviction] that [all] men see each other like wolves. The former approach leaves room for self-doubt and for changing one's views, whereas the latter [is characterized by] unmovable prophet-like conviction..."

"An Unrelenting Call for Hatred... Is Appropriate for a Pamphlet, Not for a Newspaper"

"An unrelenting call for hatred – and indeed any unrelenting call – is appropriate for a pamphlet, but not for a newspaper. A propagandist is a fighter more than he is a writer or journalist. A profession – any profession – has its rules, and these two professions [fighting and journalism] cannot be mixed.

"With regard to photos, [high quality] production and clever allusions... – your paper surpasses other papers. [But even with all these advantages], you are like someone who crosses the sea to reach the desert, instead of crossing the desert to reach water. Your desert consists of three [kinds of] regression to [three] past ideals from which salvation is [supposed] to come. [Firstly, you] cling to the old leftist [ideal] – while ignoring the fall of the Soviet Union and the lessons that must be learned from that...

"Secondly, [you cling to] the Islamic past, with a pinch of Pan-arabism mixed in... while ignoring the current hostility of Sunni against Shi'ite and Shi'ite against Sunni, and the movement of daggers and axes that [claims to] be establishing the rule of Allah in Iraq... Thirdly, [there is] the Christian Lebanese past, as reshaped by Gen. [Michel] Aoun.

"It goes without saying that these three pasts, thrown together, do not produce a future, but are most likely to disrupt [the future] and place obstacles in its path. You are outside the mainstream of cultural life in your country, and that is something that should worry you..."

"The People Whom You Vilify Are Precisely the Ones Who Have Been, or Are Likely to Be, Assassinated"

"But what should concern you even more is the fact that the people whom you vilify are precisely the ones who have been, or are likely to be, assassinated. This is not, God forbid, an accusation or an [expression of] suspicion on my part. It is, however, circumstantial evidence which implies that your path and that of the murderers largely overlap. Considering this unintentional overlap, anyone who repeatedly encounters his name in Al-Akhbar should go into hiding by changing his routine, having plastic surgery, or perhaps even by leaving the country...

"Your paper missed an opportunity to become a social-democratic paper with a modern left-wing orientation, dissociated from [all] sects, pasts, and weapons. The first requirement of modernity is to have a homeland that is neither a sty nor a paradise, but [merely] a place which is not constantly in danger of falling apart, and which is capable, by virtue of its pluralistic demographic makeup, of being enlightened and of being a source of light to its environment..."

Al-Akhbar Columnist Khaled Saghiya: Our Paper is Only One Year Old; Its Mistakes Are Merely "Growing Pains"

Al-Akhbar columnist Khaled Saghiya wrote in response: "The column [titled] 'Al-Akhbar as Viewed by Its Critics' would never have appeared if the Al-Akhbar family had lived in a state of complacency and self-satisfaction. For our story is only beginning, and the paper you are holding in your hands, with its advantages and flaws, is not everything we dreamed it would be. If there is a description that fits Al-Akhbar, it must be 'unlucky.' [Al-Akhbar is an unlucky] paper because its baseline issues were prepared under the missiles of the July [2006] war. The war [forced us] to publish ahead of time. When the first issues came out, the country was in a state of acute political polarization, to which the media – even the well-established [media] – was not immune.

"[Then], just as we were searching for our niche and trying to find the [delicate] balance between the paper's political identity and the rules and ethics of journalism, our founder and chief editor Joseph Samaha suddenly died, leaving a gap that no one could to fill. It is no secret that following after Joseph's death many of his colleagues thought of closing the paper – and had it not been for his spirit, that still pervades these rooms, this project could not have continued.

"But it was impossible to continue without [running into] obstacles and [making] mistakes – some small and some larger. [Moreover], these professional errors were perhaps inflated beyond their actual dimensions by rumors deliberately [spread by certain elements], which struck Al-Akhbar even before [its first issue] came out. Mistakes happen, and the next day those mistakes are interpreted as political deviousness.

"This does not mean that we do not do some devious things [from time to time]. But we are not proud of them, and we would like to regard them as 'growing pains,' as our late founder would have called them. For, as one of our critics reminded us, [our paper] is only one year old.

"It shames and saddens us that some of our friends regard us as a paper affiliated with a certain party. Al-Akhbar aspires, first of all, to be a pioneering paper. It does not regard any party as the embodiment of its values and aspirations. Despite the difficulties [we encountered] in some parts of the paper, we are proud of the innovations that Al-Akhbar has introduced in numerous domains: in the relationship between content and design, in linguistic style, in its regular columns [dealing with] contemporary [issues], and in its courage in avoiding the [banal and] conventional.

"By operating in a way that belies any accusation of partisanship, Al-Akhbar seeks to defend not only itself, but also the right of [all] journals and journalists to take a stand and to hold firm opinions, just as they firmly uphold professional ethics. Our desire was, and is, to produce a paper which bridges the gap between generations, regions, and religious groups; a paper which sheds light on issues of social justice, defends the rights of women and of marginalized [sectors], nurtures young talent, and presents modern cultural trends; a paper that rejects the hegemony of the greatest superpower [i.e. the U.S.] over the world and its resources, as well as all [other] forms of colonialism; a paper which believes that the world still has options to choose from, and that occupation, racism, dictatorship, class oppression, and male chauvinism are not unavoidable phenomena that we [all] must live with; a paper with a left-wing orientation, but not the kind of left that hates the people for their 'backwardness,' and which suffers from an inferiority complex [because it is ashamed of] the social traditions that surround it.

"And [Al-Akhbar] is certainly not part of the modernizing left, which does not object to killing hundreds of thousands in order to speed up the wheel of progress and realize the sparkling socialist vision.

"Since we believe that it is possible to come up with an alternative, we want the pages [of our paper] to seethe with [ideas] which may annoy those who consider the prevailing Western liberalism as a key to happiness and prosperity, [and who believe] that everyone on the planet must accept [this notion]. [These people believe that] misery is the fault of the wretched [people] themselves, whose 'backward' culture pitches them to the bottom of the abyss. This, perhaps, is why Al-Akhbar is accused of defending the past and totalitarian ideologies."

We Are Proud to Be the Only Paper in Lebanon Which Does Not Praise Any President, King or Regime in the Region

"However, we are proud to be the only paper in Lebanon in which one does not find exuberant praise for any president, king, or regime in the region. Furthermore… those who accuse us of being close to totalitarian regimes do not hesitate to adopt the kind of discourse used by these very regimes, and to level it against us. Just like those regimes, they attempt to stifle any dissenting voice, under the pretext that the enemy is at the gates. We are expected to avoid criticizing any so-called senior Lebanese official as long as his life is in danger.

"We are aware that it is difficult to express Al-Akhbar's position when most known writers are going in the opposite direction. We have been castigated for being 'outside the mainstream of cultural life [in Lebanon],' as though swimming with the current were a virtue. The fact that we are outside the mainstream bothers us, but we are more concerned about the state of 'cultural life in Lebanon.' Our field [i.e. journalism] has been dominated by the same generation for nearly 30 years. This generation initially chose the left wing, but later gradually drifted to the right as it gained complete control of the field...

"We have the right to raise our voice against the cultural barrenness [that now prevails in Lebanon]. What alleviates our concern and gives us hope is the new generation of academic intellectuals who have adopted and encouraged Al-Akhbar..."

Some Accusations Against Us Stem Not from Any Fault on Our Part, But from Rejection of Our Political Position

"During Prague Spring, the authorities arrested the Czech [sic] philosopher György Lukács. When the interrogator asked him if he had any weapons in his possession, he took his pen out of his pocket and placed it on the table. Lukács, who considered the pen his weapon, pointed out that... the regime forces journalists to 'prostitute their work and their beliefs,' that is, to 'reduce their individuality, their character, their knowledge and their talent to a mechanical operation divorced from [both] the writer and the subject matter.'"

"We are not that sort of journalists; this means that we must make extra effort and acquire professional skills. We are well aware that some of the accusations [against us] of partiality, lack of objectivity, or inaccuracy in reporting the news do not actually stem from any professional fault [on our part], but from rejection of our political position. It is no secret that [so-called] objectivity is [often used as] a mask [by those who aim to] defend what is currently [accepted], and to prevent the emergence of an alternative...

"It is strange that those who accuse us of spreading 'backwardness' do not cease to express their admiration for the design and aesthetics of our paper. [They] describe the [paper], with its artistic [look] and attractive photos and images, as an elegant vessel for unfortunate content.

"Let me begin by saying that we in Al-Akhbar do not consider form as a mere vessel for the substance. Our duty is to uphold high professional standards, with form and content going hand in hand. It cannot be said that we are 'backward' in our political position, and that our design serves as a 'band-aid' of modernity... that deceives the reader... It is strange that the so-called modern papers have abandoned modern design, while Al-Akhbar, the so-called reactionary paper, has embraced it. Al-Akhbar aspires to be a paper that is outside the establishment, if I may use this expression.

"We are not competing with the well-established press. In many countries, there are right-wing papers and left-wing papers, but there are also papers like Al-Akhbar, which exist outside the established and accepted [order], and which the established [papers] fear and disdain. These are papers whose journalists refuse to defend the existing [order]."

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