Friday, September 01, 2006

Journalism in Lebanon

(Originally published as Journalisten im Libanon in the Frankfurter Allegemeine Zeitung, 7 August 2006)

BEIRUT: Israel provides foreign journalists upon arrival with a ‘welcome’ pack that includes useful contact numbers, maps, political speeches, and background information on UN resolutions and the conflict with Hizbullah. Journalists also have the possibility of embedding with Israeli troops and the dubious advantage of air raid sirens warning of incoming Hizbullah rockets.
None of this is the case for journalists on the other side of the border.
Journalists that were not already based in Lebanon when the conflict kicked off had to take a circuitous route via Syria after Lebanon’s one and only international airport was put out of action when Israeli warplanes destroyed the runway.
At the Syrian border, journalists are met with indifference by Lebanese border officials. Other than the mandatory entry form to fill in and a passport stamp, journalists are on their own; no maps, telephone directories or bundles of paper of useful information.
What kind of environment journalists were entering was evident before even crossing the border.
In the first week, tens of thousands of Lebanese fled to Syria, and the borders were inundated with people and vehicles clogging the roads. And with the main highway to the border destroyed by Israeli warplanes, vehicles had to take alternative routes through the mountains and hope they were not targeted like the smouldering wrecks of trucks, buses and cars to be seen on the drive to Beirut.
The capital is a city marred by war; the usually bustling streets empty and incessant traffic jams a distant memory.
But food and drink is available, and the odd restaurant and bar are open for business. Refugees are to be seen housed in schools, hotels and university dormitories, and veiled Muslim women walk the streets of the Christian areas that have taken in the displaced.
Although the war is being fought in the south, bombs have been dropped on the north of Beirut, the city itself and heavily in the now desolated southern suburbs, where Hizbullah’s headquarters were based.
Hizbullah organized a tour for journalists to visit the destroyed area of Haret Hreik the day after the bombings.
“They guided us through parts of the destroyed areas, calling us to retreat when jets were heard overhead,” said American journalist Jackson Allers.
Trying to get into the southern suburbs without authorization proved to be harder, with Hizbullah members patrolling the area on motorbikes.
“In Baalbek it was easy, in the southern suburbs it wasn’t,” recalled Dutch journalist Peter Speetjens. “It took an hour to try and get past the guards and we still weren’t let in.”
Other than the political, business and refugee stories to be done in Beirut, journalists have flocked to the areas that have been hit the worst by Israeli attacks, the areas around the Bekaa Valley town of Baalbek and the southern port city of Tyre.
Speetjens took the opportunity of the 48-hour Israeli ceasefire last week to visit Baalbek.
“The Israelis said there would be no bombings in Lebanon, but we didn’t want to take the chance. Just in case we put TV on the car with tape, as PRESS is too long to spell out.”
He said he was allowed to enter the destroyed sections of Baalbek, accompanied by a Hizbullah member dressed in a “shirt, trousers and pair of house slippers.”
But with Israeli drones flying overhead throughout the day, Speetjens said he started getting concerned for his safety as the minutes ticked away for the end of the ceasefire.
“Every time we passed a truck on the way back I felt edgy, as they had been hitting trucks and bridges,” he said.
Speetjens fears were not allayed upon return to Beirut however.
“I am a bit concerned about working at my office, as it is next to a big bridge. Some people refused to come, but I lowered the metal window shutters, just in case.”
To the south lies the front line, the route beset with bombed-out bridges and craters taking people up to six hours instead of the pre-war hour and a half journey.
“Driving past Sidon to Tyre with the road empty and destruction everywhere I started to tense up,” said US radio journalist Ben Gilbert, who spent 10 months off and on in Iraq.
“As a BMW passed I wondered if the driver was a suicide bomber. Then I realized the stress factor was linked to Iraq. It’s a Pavlov-ian response, my body reacting to a danger I was used to.”
Other than the danger of air and artillery strikes, Gilbert said reporting in Lebanon was not comparable with Iraq, where over 100 journalists have been killed in the past three years.
“It’s great to be able to walk around and not worry about the possibility of your head being cut-off. In Iraq you can’t do random interviews and the level of US hatred is so high it’s dangerous to be a foreigner. Here you can walk out of the hotel, meet someone and immediately do an interview,” he said.
Journalists are also not hampered by censorship restrictions, as the Israelis and Americans impose on journalists when embedded with military forces in Northern Israel and Iraq.
“You can go and drive anywhere you want in the south, soldiers won’t stop you, but it is risky. I think it would be great to meet Hizbullah fighters and embed with them,” said Gilbert.
Journalists have met Hizbullah fighters while out in the field however. “We managed to talk to a few Hizbullah fighters and saw how well trained they were,” said Hugh McLeod, a journalist for Scottish newspaper The Sunday Herald. “They took our names, telephone numbers and publication details. They were very professional and clearly followed a drill.”
Without the option of embedding with Hizbullah, journalists are confined to the beleaguered city of Tyre and excursions to neighbouring villages to see the aftermath of Israeli military strikes.
“You can hear the war but you don’t see it directly. It’s very strange,” McLeod said.
Due to the danger of visiting the frontlines, and communications hampered by power cuts and drones affecting telephone coverage, McLeod said staying up to date was problematic.
Equally, food, water and fuel supplies are running low in Tyre, and the Israelis had carried out a commando raid on a building on the outskirts of the city.
“The main problem is that there is no guarantee you will be safe,” McLeod added. “Even today two guys were killed on a scooter near a chicken rotisserie we used to eat at. It was a shock for everybody.”
Former journalist and English teacher Mohamed Ajami, from the southern town of Nabatiyeh, joined the growing ranks of fixers and translators now working with foreign journalists when the conflict started.
He said the accommodation media personnel are staying at in the old part of Tyre, all clustered around a specific hotel, had weak foundations and lacked defences.
“We are sitting ducks. Just because we are with the media it doesn’t mean we are immune from attack,” he said.
Out on the road it is the same story, with no guarantees that media vehicles will not be targeted, as has occurred to dozens of cars, vans, and ambulances, and even UN positions.
“There is no way you can ring the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) and say we want to go to Bint Jbeil,” said McLeod.
Visiting outlying towns and villages during the aerial ceasefire, Gilbert said the roads were eerily quiet.
“It is scary because no one is on the streets as you pass through towns that should have 5,000 people. You can see for miles, hear the drones, and know that someone in Israel can see you and could press a button. Hopefully they can see TV emblazoned on the car,” he said.
For freelance journalists such as Gilbert the risks of leaving Tyre are even higher than for the major media outlets, which have GPS systems to pinpoint their exact location in relation to Israeli bombardments and scout cars to go ahead and check the safety of certain routes.
“If your car breaks down and you are all alone, what happens? I don’t know the south very well and you are in a battle zone, so you try to attach yourself to a convoy of journalists or civilian vehicles. There is definitely safety in numbers,” said Gilbert.
Miraculously only one journalist has been killed so far, a young Lebanese photojournalist killed in a missile strike while travelling by taxi to the south.
But Ajami thinks it is only a matter of time before more journalist lose their lives.
“If the conflict goes on journalists will be killed, there are a lot down here, and the chances of casualties are high,” he said.
With journalists largely confined to the relative safety of Tyre, McLeod said reporting involved visits to refugees, hospitals and schools or “ambulance chasing.”
“But a week ago two ambulances were hit, so we are more wary now,” he said.
Ajami said the other danger journalists faced was the possibility of being cut off from the rest of Lebanon, as there is now only one road out of Tyre.
Indeed, with the Masnaa border closed following an air strike last week, there is only one route out of Lebanon, the northern border with Syria. If any more transport links to the north are destroyed, the country could be completely isolated from the world, and journalists would be stranded alongside the Lebanese.
“We are in the same boat as the Lebanese, there is no possibility of being evacuated,” said Gilbert.

Legends of the Lebanon War

(Originally published in the Frankfurter Allegemeine Zeitung as Legenden im Libanon-Krieg, 14 August, 2006)

BEIRUT: The old adage ‘the first casualty of war is the truth’ is as applicable to the Israel-Hizbullah conflict as any other war.
Disinformation has abounded from the get-go, with spurious statements made by officials, photographs doctored by the media, and web blogs full of claims and counter claims.
Israel’s justification for the war, and bombardment of civilian areas, has also rested on what now appear to be dubious claims.
The first claim is that the action that sparked the conflict, the seizure of two Israeli soldiers by Hizbullah on July 12, was carried out on Israeli territory. But according to Amin Hoteit, the retired Lebanese army Brigadier-General responsible for demarcating the Blue Line between Lebanon and Israel in conjunction with the United Nations in 2000, the Israeli soldiers were attacked and captured on Lebanese territory.
“They were taken on a road 120 meters inside Lebanon near Aitaa el Chaab,” Hoteit said on Friday. “There is no fence, no sign, and they [Hizbullah] did not cross any demarcation of Israeli territory. It is an uninhabited forest area only used by the resistance [Hizbullah]. We blocked the road after demarcation.”
Hoteit’s claim tallies with statements issued by Hizbullah and the Lebanese police following the incident that were not picked up by the mainstream media.
“Implementing our promise to free Arab prisoners in Israeli jails, our strugglers have captured two Israeli soldiers in southern Lebanon,” Hizbullah stated on July 12. Hizbullah had warned the Israelis several times in the past that the group would capture and detain Israeli soldiers if they entered Lebanon and would use them in an exchange of prisoners.
The Lebanese police said the two soldiers were captured as they “infiltrated” the town of Aitaa al-Chaab inside Lebanon.
Israel’s second claim involves the targeting of civilian areas in Lebanon, which Israel justifies by claiming Hizbullah fighters are hiding among civilians and using residential areas to store arms. But the evidence on the ground seems to point the other way, according to analysts, NGOs, villagers and the party itself.
Israel claims its bombardments are aimed at destroying Hizbullah facilities and incapacitating infrastructure used to transport armaments and supplies to the guerrilla force. However, the attacks have not prevented Hizbullah from firing thousands of rockets into Northern Israel but have left over 1,000 Lebanese civilians dead, a million displaced and caused an estimated $2.5 billion in infrastructure damage.
“Hiding behind civilians is the only reason the Israelis can come up with, even if they are hitting a kindergarten or a school. In general 90% of their targets are against civilian targets, and in some cases hit the residences of Hizbullah leaders,” said Abass Awali, who has worked with the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) for over 20 years.
Little is known about Hizbullah’s military tactics but as analysts point out, the group does not engage in conventional warfare and uses guerrilla tactics.
Fighters are known to operate from their hometown regions, with locals not knowing whether a neighbour is a Hizbullah fighter or not.
“Hizbullah operates clandestinely as the area is strewn with informers,” said Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, a professor at the Lebanese American University and expert on Hizbullah.
She said fighters carry their own supplies to avoid detection or interaction with villagers, and use a simple but effective way of communicating by telephone or walkie-talkie. “‘Meet me by my uncle’s shop’, or ‘next to my girlfriend’s house’.” No names, and no addresses.”
Villagers that had fled the village of Safaa, 20 kilometers south-east of Tyre near the Israeli border, a week ago said they saw no sign of Hizbullah fighters in the area.
“My neighbours may be Hizbullah, but I never saw any weapons. They are invisible warriors, we know nothing about them,” said Abass Ayoub, now living in a school in the Christian village of Safra, north of Beirut, where he has taken refuge with his family.
Ayoub said his only encounter with a Hizbullah fighter was when he was trapped for two days along with 20 others in a kitchen when the building was bombed.
“The fighter called to us that he had brought food and water, and left the supplies under a tree. He told us to come and get it, then left, but we were stuck,” said Ayoub.
Ghorayeb conceded there was “no way to be sure” that Hizbullah were not operating in and around villages. “But from sound reasoning, would they operate that openly? There are too many collaborators [with Israel].”
Awali said Hizbullah had altered its strategy from the 1982-2000 fight against Israel in the South.
“Their strategy is completely different from the last occupation. They would bring the rockets to a position and fire it from there, but this is not the story at all now. They have their own bases in the valleys and not in the villages,” he said. “This also explains how they are able to keep firing rockets at Israel.”
Hizbullah adamantly denies that it uses civilian areas to launch rockets and store heavy weapons.
“Military experts have said Katuysha rockets cannot be fired from buildings, it should be done from an open field,” said Ibrahim Moussawi, political spokesman for the Hizbullah-backed TV channel Al Manar. “The Israelis have also not given us any evidence of hitting arms caches. There would be sizeable explosions if they did.”
However, in the battle for the southern town of Bint Jbeil, Israeli Defence Force Captain Doron Spielman claimed residents were “trapped” inside the town by Hizbullah fighters, BBC News Online reported.
“Hezbollah blockaded the city before the battle began, and we now know at gunpoint forced the Lebanese residents to stay inside the city,” Spielman said.
Saad-Ghorayeb said the claim was “ridiculous,” as Hizbullah would not alienate members of its support base and logically would not need to threaten residents to stay in Bint Jbeil.
“How could villagers leave anyway? Vehicles could not leave the area and there is a curfew, why would they need to be held at gunpoint?”
The greatest condemnation of Israel’s military tactics have centred around the bombing on July 30 of a four-story residential building in the southern town of Qana that killed 28 civilians, mainly women and children.
Reporters at the scene said they had not seen any Hizbullah fighters in the area at the time, none of the bodies recovered from the rubble were those of militants, and rescue workers had found no weapons in the building that was targeted.
In a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report on the attack, the group said, “Israel has not presented any evidence to show that Hezbollah was present in or around the building that was struck at the time of the attack.”
Kenneth Roth, HRW’s executive director, has blamed Israel for targeting civilians in Lebanon. “The pattern of attacks shows the Israeli military’s disturbing disregard for the lives of Lebanese civilians. Our research shows that Israel’s claim that Hezbollah fighters are hiding among civilians does not explain, let along justify, Israel’s indiscriminate warfare…In the many cases of civilian deaths examined by HRW, the location of Hezbollah troops and arms had nothing to do with the deaths because there was no Hezbollah around.”
However, with journalists, NGOs and independent observers not able to access villages in the south due to the conflict, and both sides providing disinformation, there is no definite proof Hizbullah has not resorted to using ‘human shields.’
Former General Hoteit’s claim, on the other hand, needs to be further investigated by the international community.

Bar Journalism

(Originally published, in translation, in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung entitled Im Krieg hinter der Bar, 26/08/06)

During the media frenzy that the situation in Lebanon warranted over the past month, numerous news outlets ran the rather staid story of Lebanese bars open for business and people partying with abandon, seemingly callous to the destruction inflicted on the country.
The story was popular for numerous reasons, but high on the list has to be the ease of such a report. The journalist could go out for a drink after a day in the field, whip out a notebook, and get a story at the same time as enjoying the spectacle.
In some cases the story only involved visiting one of the few open bars in Beirut or venturing into the mountains to the restaurants and clubs transplanted from the capital in Broumana and Faraya.
The Lebanese nightlife story has been a popular one for the past several years for visiting journalists and pundits alike, remarking on the cosmopolitan clientele, the fancy interiors, designer music, and broad array of cocktails. A nightlife scene not rivalled anywhere in the Arab Middle East.
It is also a story that people in Europe and America could easily relate to, and perhaps even more so in a complex conflict where southern Lebanon is so different from Westernized Beirut.
In the Beirut and Broumana bars you can find cosmopolitan, multi-lingual youth willing to talk, whereas in the south a translator is needed and you cannot have such an easy exchange of views.
Some bar and restaurant owners were keen to talk to journalists, but the owner of Torino, one of the few bars to stay open in Beirut in the first weeks of the conflict, shied away from the exposure.
German-Lebanese Andreas Boulos said his small cafĂ©-bar was a “journalist hub” before reporters travelled to the south to report from the frontline. “Many had in mind the southern stories of destruction and this side, Lebanon still partying, but I really didn’t see it that way. I said come for a drink and take a break.”
For many Lebanese going to a bar was exactly that, a simple form of escapism away from the conflict, power cuts, and the confines of home to enter a world they were familiar with.
The Lebanese also have the unenviable experience of knowing how to survive during a war and maintain some semblance of a normal life.
Indeed, in 1982 during the civil war, the US Marines reportedly thought they had landed in the wrong country on seeing Lebanese tanning themselves on the beach in Jounieh, a Christian city north of Beirut that was the main nightspot during the war years.
What many of the nightlife articles failed to point out, however, was that Lebanon has always had such extraordinary disparities. The wealthy have always been able to party, dropping $8 for a drink, while the majority of the country earns just over $10 a day and are limited in their entertainment options
In the recent war this disparity was not as evident, many of the wealthy having left the country or hunkered down in the mountains, and nearly all bars and restaurants closed. Everyone else was sitting out the conflict at home, glued to a TV screen watching history unfold.
With people making minimal money, if at all, during the conflict, it was equally only the better off and the employed, journalists included, that could afford to go out for a meal or a drink.
“It was like journalistic tourism,” said Boulos, referring to the number of foreign journalists that descended on Beirut in the first week of the war. “But it was fun to see them also, journalists from all over the world: Australians, Polish, Japanese, Italian, South African, Spanish and, of course, Americans. It became a nice place for people to let out their stress.”
But also a place for journalists to mix work and pleasure, make connections and in a couple of cases, hire bar-goers as fixers and translators.
Boulos said he was repeatedly asked by journalists to be interviewed for television, newspapers, magazines, and radio.
“I didn’t feel harassed but the amount of journalists in the first four or five days was a shock. I was firm about not being filmed and interviewed, but couldn’t deny them interviewing customers if they were ok with it. They have always written on nightlife in Lebanon, how great and so on.”
Boulos was also asked to be in a documentary and write a five-day diary on his life that would be counterbalanced with a diary from Israel.
But aside from the diary suggestion, minimal attention was paid to the story behind the scenes, the trials of running a bar during a war and an economic siege, with the standard story revolving around why customers are there, what they think of the war, and the bar owner’s opinion of the customers.
Boulos himself encountered numerous logistical problems, power cuts, rising costs and emotional scenes.
“I had higher expenses during the last month [than usual], beside the stress factor. There was minimal electricity, which was a big problem as I had to pay for a generator, and prices went up on fresh goods. But there was no shortage of alcohol.”
Boulos was lucky however to have had staff live in the area and willing to work.
“We didn’t stay open for business’ sake, but to be morally independent and productive in any form. And when we worked we forgot what was really happening; it was better than sitting at home.”
But with stress levels high and emotions often running even higher, Boulos said his bar was the scene of a lot of drama, where lovers spent their last hours together before being separated by evacuation and heated alcohol-induced arguments resounded into the early hours.
With a tenuous peace now in place Lebanese nightlife will gradually drift down from the mountains and back to the capital, although with many bars and restaurants likely to have gone bankrupt and the city centre dependent on non-existent tourists, it may be a while before journalists report again on Lebanon’s once notorious nightlife.

135,000 bombs dropped on Lebanon

The Israeli Armed Forces (IDF) launched 5,000 missiles, five-ton bunker-buster bombs and cluster bombs as well as anti-personnel phosphorus bombs each day into Lebanon for 27 days -- totaling over 135,000 missiles, bombs and artillery shells. During the last seven days of the war Israel launched 6,000 bombs and shells per day -- over 42,000, for a grand total of 177,000 over a heavily populated territory the size of the smallest state in the US. In contrast, the Lebanese national resistance launched 4,000 rockets during the entire 34-day period, an average of 118 per day. The ratio was 44 to 1 -- without mentioning the size differentials, the long-term killing effects of the thousands of un-exploded cluster bombs (nearly 50 killed or maimed since the end of hostilities) and Israel’s scorched earth military incursion.
The proportion of civilian deaths to soldiers was 41 to 116 or 26% of the total Israeli dead (but if we only consider Jewish Israelis and IDF members the proportion 23 to 116 or 16% of the Jewish dead were civilian.) Clearly the Lebanese resistance was aiming most of its fire at the invading IDF. In contrast, in Lebanon, of the 1,181 so far known to have been killed, 1088 were civilians and only 93 were fighters. In other words 92% of the Lebanese dead were civilians -- over three times the rate of civilians killed by the Lebanese resistance and almost six times the rate of Jewish civilians killed (the only ones who count in the Lobby’s propaganda machine). To put it more bluntly: over 47 Lebanese civilians were slaughtered for each Jewish Israeli civilian death.

(From The Lobby and the Israeli Invasion of Lebanon: Their Facts and Ours
by James Petras)