Lebanon News

As-Safir to close after more than 40 years

A man walking past a newspaper stand in Beirut's Hamra neighborhood, Wednesday, March 23, 2016. (The Daily Star/Hasan Shaaban)

BEIRUT: As-Safir newspaper announced Wednesday that the company would terminate operations by the end of March due to financial difficulties, bringing an end to one of the country’s most prominent publications.

The paper’s website, which has Arabic, English and French sections, will also stop publishing.

“We announced the death [of the paper], give us some time to hold the funeral,” As-Safir’s publisher and Editor-in-Chief Talal Salman told MTV television station.

When contacted by The Daily Star, Salman refused to comment on the matter, noting that he would explain everything during a news conference next Wednesday.

As-Safir had been a stalwart of Lebanese news, and has been in print for more than 40 years. The daily paper is headquartered in Beirut and has 140 employees on staff. They received the bad news from Salman Wednesday.

“Talal Salman gathered us in the morning and told us that the paper would be closing by the end of the month,” a source from the newspaper told The Daily Star. “Advertising revenue had substantially decreased and we had very high expenses ... we were also told that we would be receiving three months’ salary so that we could get our affairs in order.”

The source said that Salman had attempted to secure further funding for the paper but had been unable to do so. “He said that he even went to some figures who share our views, but said ‘they were all talk and did not do a thing,’ so he could not resolve our financial difficulties.”

The source said the paper ran into financial difficulties five years ago. At the time, a Syrian-American investor by the name of Jamal Daniel bought 25 percent of the shares and saved the struggling daily. The source said that As-Safir’s administration might plan to relaunch the website within a three-month period.

Salman established the paper in March 1974 at the height of the Pan-Arab movement. It gained attraction among the intelligentsia following the October 1973 war between Israel on one side and Syria and Egypt on the other. It was lauded as a beacon of resistance, as it gave voice to the voiceless and aligned itself with resistance movements across the Arab world. Today, it leans toward Hezbollah and Syria’s ruling party.

Aouni al-Kaaki, head of the Press Federation, said he considered As-Safir’s closure a sign of the times. “We are experiencing a digital revolution ... just look at Playboy Magazine,” he told The Daily Star. “They used to sell 8 million copies; now they only sell 750,000 ... times are changing.”

He pointed to the shift from print media to digital media as the essential problem, and As-Safir’s termination as simply a symptom of this shift. “There is an entire generation that does not care about print media ... they get all their information online,” he said. Kaaki said the federation had begun taking steps to evolve alongside the medium.

“The owners of newspapers are coming up with separate ideas, and we are discussing them in our weekly meetings,” Kaaki said.

“Next week, or maybe the one after, we will meet with the prime minister and the speaker in order to present our suggestions and garner their support.”

Kaaki said other proposed solutions include a Central Bank memorandum that would increase the price of placing advertisements. The state could also play a greater role by publishing announcements and circulars in dailies, providing another revenue stream for news outlets.

Information Minister Ramzi Joreige put forward similar proposals. “The Central Bank could support newspapers through providing housing subsidies via regular banks,” he said. “It could support media institutions the same way and provide them with loans with low interest rates, in addition to exempting them from certain taxes.”

Joreige said that the Information Ministry may put forward other solutions as well, as he confirmed his support for print media.

Lebanon remains a bastion of free speech in the region. Its relatively liberal media laws have allowed a number of independent media agencies to flourish across the years. At least 10 newspapers in Arabic, English and French are published daily.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 24, 2016, on page 2.

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