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Media Matters: August 11, 2006

August 11, 2006, Volume 6, Number 12
By Jeffrey Donovan and Dominik Breithaupt

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."

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.

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."

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. (Originally published on August 10.)

On July 31, Iraqi journalist Ali al-Yassi, a former RFE/RL correspondent now working for Alhurra television, was beaten by Iraqi police while reporting from the Arasat district of Baghdad on the kidnapping of employees of the Iraqi-U.S. Chamber of Commerce (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 1, 2006). Al-Yassi discussed the attack and the challenges facing journalists in Iraq in an August 3 telephone interview with RFE/RL Iraq analyst Kathleen Ridolfo.

RFE/RL: What happened to you on July 31 in Arasat?

Ali al-Yassi: While I was going to cover a story about the kidnapping of 25 employees [of the Iraqi-U.S. Chamber of Commerce] with my camera crew and assistant, I found about three or four civilians carrying weapons guarding the [Chamber of Commerce] building. The street was empty.

In front of this building, there was a restaurant. I headed straight for the restaurant. The [restaurant employees] told me, "You cannot take your camera and shoot [footage] there because already those guards have arrested a crew." About 30 or 40 minutes before we arrived, [the police] arrested [another Iraqi film crew] and took their camera. So I kept myself in that restaurant and I made short interviews with the [restaurant] workers and they told us what happened during the kidnapping.

While I was doing my interviews, we were surprised by a police patrol. It was actually four or five cars from the police. And they came straight away to the restaurant, and I showed them my I.D. and I told them, "I work for Alhurra TV and [this] was my crew, and we are trying to take some interviews." And they said: "It's OK. You can do your interviews and you can also [film] the building and you can take a film for our patrols right there." And I said: "OK. It's quite better for us."

RFE/RL: These were uniformed police?

Al-Yassi: Yes....

After [some time passed], I told my cameraman to go to the street to shoot [footage of] the building. After two minutes, I was surprised by six civilians with weapons. One of them, I can bet that he was the leader, he was wearing a sport[suit and] carrying a gun, he came shouting at us, insulting us, especially the cameraman.... He insulted me and he beat me.

I was shocked. The police didn't move and didn't take any step [to intervene].

RFE/RL: The police were watching this?

Al-Yassi: Yeah, just watching me [be beaten].

RFE/RL: These civilians that were beating you, were they the same ones you saw outside the [Chamber of Commerce] building when you arrived?

Al-Yassi: Yeah, and also [some of them had come] from inside the building.

RFE/RL: Who were they? Police or militia?

Al-Yassi: Actually, I didn't know who [they were]. But after five or six minutes, the police interfered and they released us from them. I went to the commander of the police patrol, and I [asked] him: "How can you stand there watching? Why didn't you interfere? Why did you let this happen?"

RFE/RL: What did he say?

Al-Yassi: He was an officer, muqaddam [lieutenant colonel].

Then the office told me: "I can't do anything for you. You don't know [who they are]. All I can tell you is that those guys are from the police." [Al-Yassi later clarified that the officer told him the men in civilian clothes were from the Office for Confronting Capital Crimes (Maktab Mukafaha Jara'im Al-Kubra)].

RFE/RL: Was the officer afraid of these men [in civilian clothes]?

Al-Yassi: Yeah, absolutely.

RFE/RL: Did you get any formal response from the government?

Al-Yassi: Unfortunately, they didn't say anything. They had a press release -- not concerning the accident, but in general. The Interior Ministry said in a statement that the presence of members of the media in Arasat led to the destruction of evidence [interfering in a crime scene]. The press release referred to members of the media as troublemakers.

RFE/RL: As an Iraqi journalist who is out on the street every day, how has the situation changed for you in the last six months or the last year?

Al-Yassi: We worked in dangerous matters for a [long] time. I was threatened, and I've been held hostage [by the Imam Al-Mahdi Army militia] in Al-Sadr City and in Al-Najaf, but they released us. I accepted what they did to us, even if they insulted us or beat us [and] held us hostage. I can [excuse them] because they don't know...they are not a state, they are not the government. But when a threat comes from a government, this is the problem. This is the main problem; you are not dealing with certain groups [whom] you do not know.

RFE/RL: You were taken hostage twice?

Al-Yassi: Yes. In Al-Sadr City in the first conflict [2004] and in Al-Najaf [Al-Yassi later clarified that he was kidnapped in Al-Kufah during the first standoff between the Al-Mahdi Army and coalition forces in Al-Najaf in the spring of 2004. In both cases, he was abducted by the Al-Mahdi Army].

RFE/RL: Did they threaten you?

Al-Yassi: Actually, [in Al-Kufah] I was very afraid because there were a lot of people there and most of them were [uneducated]. So, when they noticed me, they [called me] an agent, saying I worked with the Americans. Even if they didn't know who I [was]; they just realized I was a journalist.

RFE/RL: Now, when you look at the situation in Baghdad and what is happening, what do you think?

Al-Yassi: It is horrible. To work as a journalist here, it is very horrible. We are asked to go and make a stand-up [report] in the street. Right now, especially in the last two months, I really feel afraid to go out in the street and make a [report] because a lot of our colleagues have been killed or assassinated in the Al-Mansur Street or in another street....

RFE/RL: Do you have any protection when you're out on the street?

Al-Yassi: No.

RFE/RL: Do you now feel afraid from both sides, militias and the government?

Al-Yassi: What happened to me [left] me confused. I can't judge myself right now, because it's [only been] four days since what happened to me. I can't make any reports or go to work....

RFE/RL: And how are your fellow journalists coping now with the security situation in Baghdad, are they working?

Al-Yassi: [I know of] three or four reporters who have left their jobs and [I know of others] who have received threatening letters. Some reporters work without showing their face or using their names.

RFE/RL: Does the security situation affect the way you do your job? Do you avoid some areas of the city?

Al-Yassi: Most of the districts in Baghdad are dangerous now, but I take the risk because it is my job. I go to those places even if it is dangerous. But right now, I feel that my soul is broken. I can't go anywhere. I need to have some rest in order to know which way I'm going. (Originally published on August 4.)