November 20, 2021 | Foreign Policy

Lebanon Loses a Pillar of Independent Journalism

The Daily Star’s demise is the story of Lebanon, reduced from promising country to failed state.
November 20, 2021 | Foreign Policy

Lebanon Loses a Pillar of Independent Journalism

The Daily Star’s demise is the story of Lebanon, reduced from promising country to failed state.

The Daily Star, Lebanon’s oldest English-language newspaper, has become the latest casualty of the country’s economic meltdown, bringing its nearly 70-year run to a close. Blackouts and gas shortages are now routine. As the ranks of independent journalists in Lebanon grow ever thinner, it will only become harder to hold the corrupt political class who left the country destitute accountable.

During my four years at the Daily Star, both the paper and the country rode a wave of prosperity and optimism. Lebanon saw itself as the next Dubai. Now, it depends on humanitarian aid.

The paper recruited me in 2000, shortly after I received my bachelor’s degree from the American University of Beirut (AUB) and began a graduate program. I was also editing Outlook, AUB’s student publication. The Daily Star made a point of scouting for talent and launched the careers of a generation of journalists. Kim Ghattas, author of a bestselling book on former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, published her earliest articles in the Daily Star. So did Michael Karam, a prominent wine writer who now lives in London.

I wrote my first story about young physicians, friends from AUB who opened a free clinic in the impoverished Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila. In Beirut, I interviewed Fidel “Fidelito” Ángel Castro Díaz-Balart, son of the Cuban strongman. I reported on the Arab League summit held in Beirut in 2002 and on border clashes between Hezbollah and Israel. Reporting took me to every corner of Lebanon, a country home to 18 recognized religious sects despite being smaller than Connecticut.

At the dawn of this century, the Daily Star was dreaming big. Israel had just withdrawn its troops from southern Lebanon. There was unprecedented political stability, and with stability came investor confidence.

Of the band of brothers and sisters with whom I worked at Beirut’s Daily Star, only a handful remain in the country.

The Daily Star formed a partnership with the International Herald Tribune. Publisher Jamil Mroue managed to kick-start local editions in Arab countries, such as Syria, Kuwait, and Egypt, which were sold together with the Tribune. Mroue’s ambition mirrored that of Lebanon’s former larger-than-life prime minister, Rafic Hariri, whose assassination in 2005 accelerated the polarization that eventually left the country’s politics and paralyzed its economy.

Perpetrators of corruption have outlasted the Daily Star. While I was at the paper, it exposed an embezzlement scheme at the state-owned Casino du Liban, whose beneficiaries included Jamil al-Sayyed, head of the country’s domestic security service. Sayyed responded by harassing the paper’s staff, who subsequently received calls from state security asking them to “visit security offices for a cup of coffee,” a warning shot on the scale of intimidation. Writers who persisted with their troublemaking had their passports confiscated or were detained and interrogated for hours at airports whenever traveling. Undercover security officers followed journalists while making themselves noticeable—a scare tactic.

Today, Sayyed is a member of parliament. Last week, the U.S. Treasury Department slapped sanctions on him pursuant to Executive Order 13441, which targets those who contribute to the breakdown of Lebanon’s rule of law. According to the Treasury Department, he skirted banking regulations by transferring $120 million to overseas investments. “During the 2019 protests, when demonstrators protested outside his home demanding his resignation and calling him corrupt, Sayyed called on officials to shoot and kill the protesters,” according to Treasury Department.

The Daily Star also found itself in an unlikely showdown with Dunkin’ Donuts over the question of tolerance for Lebanon’s LGBTQ community. A Dunkin’ store in Beirut had become a popular hangout for the neighborhood’s gay men, prompting the store to post a sign saying it was a “family place” and it “reserved the right” not to sell to any patrons it deemed to be “dressed inappropriately.” I had become deputy managing editor for the Daily Star’s Lebanon edition at the time, and we published the story on our front page. Even though Lebanon is relatively conservative, Dunkin’ was forced to reverse its decision—but not before making sure it had canceled its corporate subscription to the Daily Star, inflicting losses on our paper. Cognizant that the Daily Star had their back, the LGBTQ community reciprocated by encouraging supporters to subscribe to the paper.

Following Hariri’s assassination and Hezbollah’s consolidation of power behind a democratic facade, the Daily Star remained vibrant and became a main news source for English speakers across the Middle East at a time when other English-language publications in the region were just state-owned mouthpieces. Yet Lebanon’s prosperity ebbed as its Ponzi scheme economy began to lose momentum, while Hezbollah’s regional military entanglements kept the country on a war footing without an end in sight.

Skilled labor emigrated. Investors lost confidence. The Daily Star’s ability to retain talent diminished, and its staff started shrinking. News aggregation and speculation replaced investigative reporting and smartly argued editorials.

This week, after some 30 years since its post-civil war revival, the Daily Star shut down. It had already stopped publishing a print edition, shifting to a web-only format. The paper’s balance sheet had been drowning in red ink for some time. Lebanon, itself, has become inhospitable for businesses of any kind thanks to frequent power outages and prohibitively expensive gas. Banks are insolvent. Credit card limits for overseas purchases are $10 a month, which does not cover subscriptions to any global newspapers.

Of the band of brothers and sisters with whom I worked at Beirut’s Daily Star, only a handful remain in the country. Some have stayed in journalism or similar lines of work. Others have switched to industries ranging from ceramic production to health care.

The paper’s once buzzing offices have been reduced to archives collecting dust in the dark. Its story is the story of Lebanon, reduced in less than 15 years from a promising country to a failing state. Few countries in the region have Lebanon’s promise, but many have its greatest weakness: a state increasingly co-opted by armed Iranian proxies who subordinate the people’s interests to Tehran’s ideology and ambitions. In Iraq, as in Lebanon, they have left in place a Potemkin democracy. In Syria and Yemen, there is no need. Journalists have become targets.

Hussain Abdul-Hussain is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former managing editor at the Daily Star. Twitter: @hahussain. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, non-partisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.

Read in Foreign Policy


Hezbollah Iran Global Threat Network Israel Lebanon