Lebanon’s Media Industry: Jobs With Expiry Dates
By: Rasha Abouzaki
Published Monday, May 14, 2012
Around 2000 journalists and other employees in the Lebanese media industry have lost their jobs since 2010. With nothing to stop the dismissals, the profession is ever more an unstable and uninviting one.
Members of the news media, the so-called Fourth Estate, feel no sense of security or immunity these days. The Fourth Estate label means nothing, not even to the management at media institutions. Management fail at their administrative work so they deem it easy to fire media workers and journalists. Why not? Workers in the media sector have no unions to defend them, no laws to protect them and civil society does not care about their concerns because in the eyes of many people they are part of a despised “tyrannical” order.
One thousand six hundred media workers and journalists have been arbitrarily dismissed in Lebanon since 2010 from 11 media outlets (Television stations and newspapers) in addition to tens of others laid off on an individual basis and others from radio stations, magazines and webzines. Altogether, the number reaches 2000 journalists and media workers that have lost their jobs.
It is a scary number that adds to the difficulties of working in the journalism field, making it a risky profession. The risk being unfair and arbitrary dismissal, of course.
Mass layoffs from institutions and companies are classified as “economic layoffs” whose legality is confirmed by the institutions’ financial statements. Media institutions have special circumstances. Most media ventures in Lebanon are losing institutions from the moment they are born, and their fiscal revenues are not based on advertising. Despite their losses on paper however, they are permanent employers and they ensure their own continuity. As such, it is hard to classify job dismissals under certain categories or justify them, unless they are done for professional reasons.
Journalists at some newspapers are always under threat of losing their source of income.
At al-Diyar newspaper, dismissals occur frequently and the number of employees rises and falls at a rapid pace. In 2010, 15 employees were fired, followed by 53 in 2011. This year, 65 journalists and employees from the newspaper and its online counterpart were laid off. The management announced at different stages that
the reason for the dismissals was financial.
One of the laid off journalists explains that the newspaper management provided compensation for dismissed workers and no one talked of injustice in this regard. But the compensations are paid in monthly installments and not all at once.
He says there are many reasons for the financial crisis, some of it is related to the decline in political funding, some of it has to do with mismanagement at the newspaper, as the number of pages in al-Diyar goes up and down all the time. The management tries different mechanisms to attract readers and when it fails, it dismisses journalists to reduce expenses, then hires more only to fire them later and so on.
There was the mass dismissal of 53 journalists and employees at an-Nahar newspaper at the end of 2009, followed by arbitrary individual dismissals in the years following that, making the total number of fired employees and journalists 63.
The newspaper said the decision was taken to reduce its financial burden, restructure it and lay off employees who have reached or passed the age of retirement.
At al-Balad newspaper, there were also consecutive mass dismissals during its relatively short life. Between 2010 and 2012, 60 employees and journalists were laid off and it was done in stages. Then 48 journalists and employees in four institutions that belong to the group that owns the newspaper were also laid off.
Workers are expecting the dismissals to continue.
They point out that the reasons behind the dismissals are not clearly declared but the excuse, as in other institutions, is “financial.”
Al-Akhbar newspaper also witnessed waves of job dismissals. Nine journalists were laid off between 2010 and 2012, supposedly to reduce expenditures. There were other dismissals before 2010 and the reason given was the need to restructure the newspaper and re-evaluate its performance.
Dismissed workers were given compensation. While some joined other newspapers or different types of media, some left the profession altogether.
Employees and journalists at al-Liwaa newspaper did not escape this kind of dismissal. About 30 employees and journalists were laid off, most of them were reporters in different areas.
Workers at al-Liwaa newspaper organized a solidarity action that contributed to halting the dismissals. Colleagues in different departments asked management to cut their salaries in order to maintain the employment of their colleagues in the department. Photographers gave up 20 percent of their salaries to prevent the dismissal of their colleague and the same thing happened in other departments.
One dismissed employee points out that the justification given for the dismissals was the financial crisis that hit the newspaper. Management cut the salaries of all its employees by 10% and still hasn’t given them cost-of-living adjustments.
Job dismissals at al-Mustaqbal newspaper affected 120 employees and journalists and have been implemented in stages since last March.
One dismissed employee expects the dismissals to continue in the coming months because the newspaper’s management is intending to end most opinion columns in order to reduce expenses.
He explains that the dismissals were due to the financial crisis at Oger Telecom which funds al-Mustaqbal newspaper and television station.
The real crisis was at al-Bayrak newspaper, published by Dar Alf Leila Wa Leila publishing house, which closed down completely. About 205 journalists, technicians and employees in media outlets that belong to the publishing house were laid off.
The reason is that the heirs of the former head of the Lebanese Journalists Union, Melhem Karam, were unwilling to continue working in the publishing house.
Three hundred and ninety seven employees were laid off from PAC (the production house that produces Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation (LBC)’s shows) due to differences between Saudi Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal and the chairperson of LBC, Pierre el-Daher.
MTV dismissed 70 retirees from Studio Vision, which is the company that produces MTV’s programming and is owned by the owner of the channel.
Then three media workers were dismissed from the news department and a list was published containing 27 names of people that were going to be laid off in the coming weeks.
Laid off workers insist that the reason for their dismissal is political.
Future TV is going through a period of merger between the satellite channel and the ground channel due to the financial crisis. Three hundred media workers and employees have been laid off.
NBN TV management announced a list of 25 names of people they want to lay off. The job dismissals, which have not yet been finalized, came after the death of the Kuwaiti businessman Nasser al-Kharafi when his children relinquished their share in the channel.
Who protects media workers from these dismissals? When this question was asked, everyone looked to the Editors’ Association for answers.
It turns out that out of thousands of workers at newspapers and magazines, there are only 660 members in the syndicate. The reasons for not joining the syndicate are many, including lack of trust in its ability to protect them.
The syndicate’s vice president, Said al Nasser Eddine, said that the syndicate carries out its obligations vis a vis journalists that approach it if they are dismissed. He points out that the syndicate is willing to put its lawyers at the service of dismissed employees.
Nasser Eddine blames journalists. “They don’t come to us and they don’t ask the syndicate to protect them,” he says, adding that the syndicate acts based on the complaints it receives. According to him, the Editors’ Association rejects any kind of arbitrary dismissal at newspapers and magazines and does not compromise on such matters.
One member of the Editors’ Association explains that journalists are subject to the labor law and so the syndicate can not but stand in solidarity with those dismissed and put a lawyer at their disposal.
But the syndicate can not impose its assistance on journalists.
Another unionist says that the Editors’ Association should impose a collective labor contract in the journalism sector. He points out that in 1979, the Editors’ Association sent the Press Association a request to negotiate a collective labor contract but the Press Association's response was negative.
Lawyer Tony Mikhail who is in the legal department of the Maharat Foundation points out that the dismissal problem is caused by the lack of an effective union that protects Lebanon’s journalists and media workers.
He says that the selective nature of approval of membership in the Editors’ Association makes this syndicate untrustworthy. Also, the syndicate does not provide its members with practical immunity, it just issues statements of denunciation.
He explained that one of the main reasons behind the individual and mass dismissals is the political funding of Lebanese media outlets, which declined in the wake of the Arab revolutions. At a time when the revenues from advertisements in Lebanon do not cover the expenses at any media outlets.
He stressed the need to free up the process of establishing trade unions at media institutions and unite them in a general federation of media unions instead of the current dictatorial syndicate that makes compromises at the expense of journalists.
Until the dream of a collective labor contract and the dream of free trade unions come true, thousands of journalists and media workers will continue to work in fear while colleges of journalism will continue to graduate journalists who will enter a whirlpool of constant anxiety upon graduation.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.