BEIRUT — The Daily Star did not need to send a reporter to the front line to cover the first salvos of the 15-year civil war that nearly broke Lebanon’s back. The newspaper’s offices were already there.
The nation’s only English-language daily stood its ground on the Green Line, an infamous three-block-wide band of no man’s land and battered buildings that stretched 5 km from the Mediterranean Sea and split the capital into Muslim west and Christian east Beirut.
Although the offices were nestled in the middle block and remained intact, cushioned from blows by the bullet- and mortar-riddled blocks on either side, they became hazardous to reach.
“It is not often that a journalist nowadays sits at his or her typewriter with a pistol or a machine gun lying at an arm’s distance for personal protection,” recalled Raphael Calis, deputy editor at the time, in an in-house profile of the Daily Star. “At the end of the day, I thanked God for returning me safely to my family in a convoy of armed escorts.”
Moving offices was not an option. The printing presses were in the basement, and fighting escalated too quickly to shift them safely. The predicament further tested the tenacity of Jamil Mroue, the paper’s publisher, who inherited the job of managing director at the age of 26, after his father was assassinated.
“Because it was early in the war, we were not dexterous enough, perhaps, to move things,” explains Mroue. “In 1976, the paper was stopped. Before that we had spent three months with one day on, one day off; three days on, five days off, and so on. Sometimes for 10 days there wouldn’t be a paper.”
The first casualty of war, the saying goes, is truth. The Daily Star aimed to produce balanced stories, but was unable to physically straddle two sides of a complex sectarian war that was to leave tens of thousands of Muslims, Christians and Palestinians dead in its wake.
It was another seven years before Mroue, a Shiite Muslim, was able to resurrect the Daily Star amid a prolonged false peace that convinced many Lebanese it was safe to open shop again. However, the newspaper stayed on its feet for only eight months before fighting tripped it up again. The publisher did not return this time until the unease entrenched in the tiny nation had settled.
Restarting the presses
Today, Mroue oversees a newspaper that has been published without interruption every day — except Sundays and public holidays — for three and a half years. Besides expatriates, he notes, a significant slice of its readership consists of Lebanese who have moved back to Lebanon since the war ended in 1990 and are now, if they were not before, fluent in English.
With a circulation of around 10,000, the 12-page Daily Star would be small fry in most other arenas. But it is considered the Middle East’s leading English-language newspaper and with its free online edition serves another 10,000 to 12,000 readers a day — mostly the Lebanese diaspora that fanned out around the world during the civil war.
The paper’s new offices are on the sixth floor of a building four blocks from the former Green Line, which has long since been cleared of mines and the vegetation that inspired its name. The new premises are not without hazards, though. A former journalist at the Daily Star says that he and two colleagues once plunged four floors in the elevator. He took the stairs after that.
The reporters, copy editors and production staff — one-third of whom are expatriates, mostly British — are squeezed into a newsroom the size of a tennis court. Computer terminals have replaced typewriters, and the operation is lighter now that the presses are gone — the paper is printed across town.
Mroue’s spacious office is at the end of the compact newsroom. In an interview, the publisher talks with an eye on the muted television fixed to the office wall, intermittently flipping between news programs with the remote. Among the keepsakes on the glass shelves behind his desk is a small color photo of the teenage Jamil and his father, Kamel, sitting together on a grassy hill.
At 49, Jamil is almost the same age as the Daily Star’s founder was when he was assassinated in May 1966 at his desk in the newspaper’s old offices. Mroue says the government at the time “got very impatient with criticism” from the newspaper and his father, who had survived five attempts on his life. The sixth effort, however, was better scripted.
An evening was chosen. About 20 minutes before the killer arrived, recounts Mroue, the office security guard was telephoned and told that his house was on fire.
“They had planted in the newspaper a person who worked at (the office’s) telephone exchange, and he had a vantage point to the entry and the timing of whoever left and so on. He had been working for the newspaper for about three months. When the time and date was set, they called the other security fellow, (who) went to see his family at his house that they told him was on fire. And the one that was planted there — the fellow at the exchange — when the killer came in, he left.
“(The assassin) walked into the office with the pretense that he was delivering a message from a banker . . . He shot him with a silencer. It was supposed to be very hush-hush, but my father had stamina . . . He rushed from behind his desk and shoved the fellow, who fell on a glass pane like this one (pointing to the window) and it broke. And of course the glass, when it came down, it alerted everybody to what was going on.”
A media charade
The assassination was just one in a litany of incidents in Lebanon that eventually boiled over into war. But, although the drawn-out conflict is often best remembered in other nations for the taking of foreign journalists as hostages, the press was not kept on a short leash.
“Lebanon was able to maintain a free press throughout a war when most of the country’s institutions were destroyed,” noted Terry Anderson, the longest-held Western hostage and former Associated Press bureau chief in Beirut, in a Daily Star interview in November 1998. “Now you’re moving away from freedom of the press, and that’s wrong.”
Munira Khayyat, a Daily Star reporter, believes the media in Lebanon today are a “charade.” “If I want to examine the problems in Lebanese society,” she says, “and there are millions of problems — there’s still a lot of corruption, there’s still a lot of injustice, there’s still a lot of blatant idiocy in the way that things are managed in this land — that if you want to actually write something really useful about it, you can’t. Because you can only criticize the government to a certain extent, you can only criticize a powerful person to a certain extent.”
Although there is no official censorship of the local press, the government frequently uses vaguely worded libel laws to repress newspapers that criticize the state. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, private newspapers and radio and television stations in Lebanon, in general, solidly cover and criticize the government. “But state legal harassment, intimidation of journalists, and self-censorship persist as serious obstacles to the free flow of information,” the international organization points out in its 1999 report on press freedom.
Mroue learned from the fate of his father to be cautious when negotiating this minefield. “It’s now a second instinct for me to know my distance from the shark, from the political shark that would do something like this,” he says. “And therefore I am aware all the time that I need to recognize the priorities and movements and . . . knee-jerk reactions and character of the system that I would attack or I would have a stand against.”
Pangs of rebirth
The publisher is not relying on the way the political wind blows to dictate how his newspaper continues to sail. Instead, he is in the midst of merging the Daily Star’s pages with the International Herald Tribune to publish the Middle East’s first regional newspaper in English.
The new-look Daily Star, due to be launched by the end of the year, will be divided into three sections — international news courtesy of the Herald Tribune, and Middle East and Lebanon sections supplied by the Daily Star. The first two parts will be common to 13 Middle East countries, while Egypt and the United Arab Emirates will have their own back sections under the Daily Star banner.
The move promises a bigger market and more revenue for the 48-year-old Daily Star. But for two and a half years the government dragged its heels before granting Mroue a license in April for the tieup. Before then, the publisher had vowed to abandon Lebanon a third time and relocate his newspaper — with the Herald Tribune deal in tow — to Cairo or Abu Dhabi, and export to Lebanon.
After all, the existence of the Daily Star no longer hinges on the wayward will of the government, nor on the fate of the nation. And Jamil Mroue is a pragmatic man accustomed to rebirth pains.
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