Beirut's move to downsize radio and TV is resisted Violence feared if strike goes ahead despite nationwide ban


BEIRUT, Lebanon -- In Lebanon, still recovering from 15 years of civil war, a new battle has broken out over the government's plans to tighten control over radio and television stations.

Broadcast media owners and operators, supported by a powerful Confederation of Trade Unions, professors and journalism students, have scheduled a nationwide strike Feb. 29. Many fear that the protest could turn violent, because of a government ban on demonstrations.

At issue is a government plan to downsize the broadcast industry, which now consists of more than 50 private television ,, and around 150 radio stations. The government intends to bring this down to six television and 10 radio stations.

Critics of the plan call that an attempt to eliminate opposition voices. The few prosperous broadcast media are owned by government officials and political parties.

"This is a battle to safeguard freedom of speech," said a committee representing the broadcast owners. "Freedom of speech is the main characteristic that makes Lebanon different from all other Arab countries."

Many Lebanese agree. "Lebanon, with its 3.5 million population, has more media outlets than Egypt with 50 million population," said Nabil Dajani, a Lebanese media analyst at the American University of Beirut.

Most of the country's broadcast outlets emerged during the civil war, from 1975 to 1990, as mouthpieces of rival militias. Since the war ended, most have turned commercial.

The government says that under the new law, licensing will not be granted on political or sectarian considerations, but rather "technical and material grounds and according to the requirements of national accord," in the words of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

He added, "I think six TV stations are enough to express the views of all currents."

But critics fear how the government might use the criteria of financial resources, technical requirements and minimum amount of local programming to control licensing.

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