Talk-Shows in the Middle East: The Emergence of and Resistance to Civil Society.
This article examines a television talk-show in Lebanon, Let the Brave Speak (El Shater Yihki), that established a precedent to a number of current shows that are televised throughout the Middle East via satellite broadcasting. This talk-show is important because it represents a symptom of civilsociety in a country and a region often thought to be undemocratic, illiberal and bereft of a functional civil society. The article will show how the talk-show challenges traditional authority and the way in which it has been internalized and institutionalized, and offers itself as a safe public sphere in which civil society may begin to flourish.
Let the Brave Speak waslaunched by the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation International (LBCI) in 1995. It immediately became the most popular program in the history of Lebanese TV. Following changes to the broadcasting law, the show was cancelled and subsequently revived in 1997 and immediately resumed its title as most popular show. Indeed, its popularity extended well beyond Lebanon to the entire Arabic region. Itwas finally cancelled in 2000. It spawned several generally tamer imitators.
Before the early 1990s, Middle Eastern broadcasting was under direct governmental, political or military control. State and media maintained very close relationships and unmonitored information was generally considered a source of disturbance. Even in Lebanon, the most “democratic” of the region’s Arab countries,freedom of the press was “traditionally limited (…) by the laws of libel; by the ‘law of kings and heads of state’, which forbids criticism of head of state; and by the law of national safety, which forbids the publication of secret documents and national military news” . Any minor criticism of the government or the political machinery was not tolerated.
Censorship was common. However, inthe early 1990s, the unstable political and military situation – particularly in Lebanon – resulted in the emergence of numerous unlicensed broadcasting stations which, in turn, led to a wave of privatization. Additionally, satellite television and the consequent ability to transcend national media controls contributed to liberalization of media content. The freer content sought both to attractaudiences and markets and to promote cross-border interaction .
Lebanon became the first Arab state in the region to authorize private radio and television stations under the Audiovisual Law of October 1994 which was made effective in September 1996. One of the early private commercial stations was LBCI which, at the beginning, had strong ties to the Lebanese Forces. It was amongst the firstto adopt a commercial format and gained unprecedented success both nationally and regionally due to its use of satellite transmission.
One of its many innovations was the debate-oriented talk-show, Let the Brave Speak. The show tackled taboo subjects such as adoption, common-law marriage, pre-marital sex, homosexuality, religious interpretations and practices, etc. It thereby challenged thetraditional monopoly of knowledge and became a venue for the expression of civil society. Satellite transmission gave the show a regional and international reach with equally good ratings.
The Show: Let the Brave Speak
Let The Brave Speak began its prime time (8:30-10:30 pm) run on April 26th, 1995. The first episode concerned civil marriage. It featured well-known religious leadersfrom all sects; politicians; male and female lawyers; men and women of different ages and backgrounds from the general public; as well as individuals who had chosen civil marriage instead of the traditional religious contract. Indeed, all episodes included a wide variety of guests ranging from private citizens to experts and politicians.
Conversation begins, debates arise, and...
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