When The Daily Star, Lebanon's leading English-language newspaper, ceased publication and laid off its entire staff earlier this week, my whole life flashed before my eyes—as did the history of the Arab world since the 1950s that the paper both chronicled and reflected in so many ways. The Daily Star bookended my entire journalistic career, which included my first job as a reporter there in 1973 and my most recent position in journalism as its executive editor from 2003 to 2005.
When I started that first job after college in 1973, I was itching to report and write stories that, I imagined, would bring peace and prosperity to the Middle East and the wider world. My initiation was not as I had anticipated; on my first day at The Daily Star, at its office just off Riad al-Solh Square in the heart of Beirut, the paper's then editor-in-chief, Jihad Khazen, assigned me to write a feature about the problem of cockroaches in the city. World peace and justice would have to wait.
Eager to show what I could do, I researched cockroaches from every dimension of their creepy lives. I spoke with biologists at the American University of Beirut; representatives of foreign companies that sold the chemical weapons of mass destruction that killed household insects and pests; municipal officials for the city of Beirut in charge of sanitation; and fellow citizens who shared with me a common disgust with these hardy little beasts. I spent hours in the library and made several trips to the area under my apartment's elevator, where our resident cockroaches found safety, expanded their families and planned terror sorties into our homes.
A week of research later, I wrote my first article as a full-time professional journalist that told readers everything they needed to know about cockroaches, and probably a few things they didn't want to. It remains, I'm proud to say, a classic in the category of cockroach journalism. And now, as I recall my 50-year-long personal association with The Daily Star, it reminds me why that little newspaper played such an outsized role in the Arab public sphere from its founding in 1952 until this week. This was due to its location, its management, its language and the relentless drive of its mostly young staff.
The Daily Star always seemed able to minimize the pressure of external financiers, and because it was in English, it could publish material that Arabic-language media feared to disseminate, so as not to anger their backers.
- Rami G. Khouri
Thanks to the force of personality and professional aims of the late Kamel Mroue, who founded it in 1952, and his widow Salma and son Jamil, who carried it through difficult days during and after the Lebanese Civil War, The Daily Star in its early years was able to transcend its peripheral status as a small, English-language daily in an Arabic-speaking country and region. The determined owner-publishers appointed highly qualified top editors like George Hishmeh, Jihad Khazen, Raphael Calis and others, who consistently motivated their staff to practice and produce the best possible brand of journalism they could.
They were not shielded from the constraints of money and ideology that shaped journalism—and mostly shattered it—across the Middle East, which has long been politically controlled by either conservative monarchs or mostly hapless soldiers who seized power in coups. But Lebanon, and Beirut at its heart, were an Arab anomaly. Power was not concentrated in the hands of a single man or family, but rather was defined by deep cultural and political pluralism that generated a lively press and an even livelier society.
Outside money, from Arab and other foreign interests, greased much of the media that could not possibly survive only on sales and advertising in such a small market of a few million people. The Daily Star always seemed able to minimize the pressure of external financiers, and because it was in English, it could publish material that Arabic-language media feared to disseminate, so as not to anger their backers. In fact, the Lebanese media—pluralistic, professional and relatively free in a region of autocracies—became the arena where rival Arab and other foreign powers could express themselves, stake out public positions and openly criticize their foes in print and, later, on the air, as satellite news flooded the region.
These factors all converged to allow The Daily Star to carve out a unique regional role for itself; for years, it was shipped to and sold the next day in numerous Arab countries. It provided foreigners in the region with news from their home countries, as well as deep insights into the Arab world. For foreign residents of Beirut and Lebanon, it also provided practical information for their daily lives, like the opening of new beach clubs and restaurants, a mega-world of cultural events, and, of course, updates on the ubiquitous cockroaches. (Note: For those who still suffer this dread, keep in mind that cockroaches fear humans more than we fear them, which is why they scamper away when they sense us in their presence. The best way to minimize them in your home is to keep spotlessly clean areas where food, warmth and damp converge, like underneath refrigerators and kitchen stoves.)
The Daily Star struggled and closed once during the civil war, but it came back with renewed vigor in the 1990s, after the war had finally ended. At one point, it published jointly with the International Herald Tribune and was distributed across the region, from Cairo to Amman to Doha. But it could not survive the impact of the twin ravages of the advent of digitized media that sharply reduced advertising revenues and readers, and a corrupt, uncaring political class that seized Lebanon after Syria withdrew in 2005, ending its 29-year occupation. That ruling sectarian oligarchy, which remains in place today, syphoned off state funds for their own private wealth, while allowing educational, water, transportation and energy infrastructure to all deteriorate, savaging the private banking system and finally driving the country into its current bankruptcy and near-total collapse.
The demise of The Daily Star is a moment of sadness. But it is also a moment of celebration—to recall and honor what the newspaper did achieve against terrible odds of war, corruption, incompetent national management, and the global forces of digitization, globalization and polarization.
- Rami G. Khouri
By the early 2000s, other Arab countries also no longer needed mouthpieces in Lebanon, as every autocratic regime set up its own satellite television channel and hired digital henchmen to assault their enemies on social media, whether they were fellow Arabs, Iran, Israel or foreign powers like the United States. Like many newspapers across Lebanon and the region, The Daily Star was unable to overcome the new challenges it faced despite heroic efforts by its staff, in part because of the erratic ways of its newest owners, who are linked to the family of former Prime Minister Saad Hariri.
The demise of The Daily Star is a moment of sadness—a time to mourn a plucky and meaningful institution that launched the journalism careers of hundreds of young men and women in Lebanon, as it dared to report the news seriously and fearlessly in a politically unserious and fearful region. But this is also a moment of celebration—to recall and honor what The Daily Star did achieve against terrible odds of war, corruption, incompetent national management, and the global forces of digitization, globalization and polarization. The spirit and daring professionalism that always characterized the paper's publishers, editors and staff have not died, but have been scattered again to the four corners of a turbulent world in constant change.
When it is quiet at night in Beirut, and I walk gingerly to not disturb any scheming cockroaches, I do not fret the inevitable demise of another Arab newspaper. Rather, I look around and see so many new online Arab publications and successful, determined journalists working in Arabic, English and French. I smile when I remind myself that so many of them stand on the shoulders of hundreds of journalists who once worked at The Daily Star and dozens of other Arab publications that dared, in their day, to try and create Arab societies where human dignity, justice, truth and the rule of law matter. You cannot ask much more than that from any journalist or citizen.