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Middle East: Reporters Face Challenges In Israel, Lebanon

By Jeffrey Donovan and Dominik Breithaupt A journalist examining damage from an Israeli air strike on Tyre on August 7 (AFP) PRAGUE, August 10, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Reporting on the war between Israel and Hizballah is a vastly different experience depending on which side the journalist is working from.

In Israel, reporters are faced with government public relations officials who organize trips to visit families of victims of Hizballah attacks or border towns damaged by the Shi’ite militia’s rocket strikes.

In Lebanon, on the other hand, foreign reporters are faced with a much more chaotic situation. The government is under siege; its information apparatus is far less organized than Israel’s; and Hizballah guerrilla fighters are hardly amenable to organizing trips to the front.

“The Israeli government is well known for having a well-oiled PR machine, and they know how to tell their story to the outside world," said Stuart Williams, a British journalist working in Beirut for Agence-France Press. "No one has any time here to even think about doing such things. Everything here is done under people’s own initiatives. Maybe people go with UN aid convoys and things like that. But the idea of being bused by the Lebanese government to see something is not something that we’re really aware of here.”

However, Hizballah has been quick to show foreigners scenes of Israeli-wrought destruction, particularly in southern Beirut’s Shi’ite neighborhoods.

"I was once on one of these tours," said Markus Bickel, a freelance journalist in Lebanon who works with media outlets in Austria and Switzerland. "There you run quite quickly through one of the maybe four or five streets around the former Hizballah headquarters which was destroyed and [there you can] take photos and talk to people who have stayed there. And after half an hour, it’s all over and everyone goes back to the city center."

Hard To Reach The Front

For many reporters, the sound of machine-gun and artillery fire is about as close as they get to witnessing actual fighting between Hizballah and Israeli forces.

Ali Sajjadi is a reporter for Radio Farda, which is affiliated with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, in northern Israel. For almost all the time he has been covering the conflict, it has not been possible for him to cross the border into Lebanon with the Israeli military.

“I was not on the front," Sajjadi said. "I couldn’t go there; they don’t let you go there. And some roads into the front are basically blocked. It was included in my reports is that what I can see is what people’s reactions [are] to the war, and the life of the people here under the war situation. But not really on the front, no.”

Just this week, though, Israel finally started offering to embed television reporters with military units fighting in southern Lebanon. But it remains impossible for foreign journalists to embed with Hizballah guerrillas.

Devastated Infrastructure

Israeli warplanes have pounded southern Lebanon for a month, destroying bridges, roads, and other infrastructure. AFP’s Williams says that for a reporter, just getting to the south such as to the city of Tyre is a dangerous challenge.

“People manage to get there," Williams said. "The roads are bad, but it’s possible, although as you’ve heard this bridge has been demolished outside Tyre, which makes getting to Tyre even harder. You have to get dropped off by a taxi at the Litani River and then get picked up by another one or walk once you’ve crossed it. And the only way to cross it is with a ladder or a log that’s been strategically placed in the middle of the river. To get one person down there or back isn’t too hard. Obviously, if you’re a big aid convoy, to get yourself down there in a truck is impossible at the moment.”

While the Lebanese government and Hizballah officials are pretty good at getting their message out to the press, Alberto Stabile -- the Jerusalem correspondent for the Italian daily “La Repubblica” -- says the Israeli government’s information efforts are about as professional as can be.

“I would say that as usual," Stabile said. "It’s very efficient. It’s also attentive to the needs of the various media outlets, whether they are print, electronic, etc. After all, this is hardly the first time that Israel has mobilized its information services.”

Describing What They See

But while the treatment is efficient and organized, reporters in Israel are faced with a barrage of official press briefings and statements. For some, that means Israel is often able to shape the news as it sees fit.

But Stabile disagrees. He says journalists enjoy complete freedom in Israel and are not forced to repeat the government line.

“If I decide to go to the funeral of an Israeli soldier where the soldier’s sister clearly accuses the state, the head of the government, where she basically kicks out the army’s chief rabbim, nobody comes to tell me that it didn’t happen or that what I saw wasn’t true," he said. "Nor does anybody tell me what I can or can’t write.”

If there is a positive aspect for reporters in this conflict, it’s that only one has been reported killed. That is unlike nearby Iraq, where last week the watchdog group Reporters Without Borders announced that 100 journalists have been killed since the start of the war in March 2003.

The Middle East Crisis

The Middle East Crisis
Israeli tanks poised on the border with Lebanon on August 2 (epa)

CLASH OF ARMS: Since mid-July, Israel has been battling Hizballah guerrillas in southern Lebanon and carrying out punishing air strikes throughout the country. International efforts to broker a cease-fire have met with one obstacle after another, as civilian casualties mount and a humanitarian crisis unfolds. Since Hizballah is closely supported by Syria and Iran, the conflict threatens constantly to develop into a regional conflagration.... (more)


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