Reporting during wartime: the great divide in the Middle East

Eric Silver in Jerusalem on the pressure to shield the Israeli public from bad news
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The Independent Online

Nahum Barnea, the star political commentator on Yediot Ahronot, Israel's biggest-selling daily paper, began his most critical column of this second Lebanon war: "I'm sitting in the stand like a football fan, and I'm angry because my team is not winning."

Like many of his colleagues in the Israeli media, he is acutely aware that the public remains upbeat about the war aims, while reporters and analysts are increasingly pessimistic about the chances of achieving them. He wrote that introduction, he explains, as "a way to convince the readers that I'm not enjoying the blunders, enjoying the misfortunes, of our own army".

Israeli viewers, listeners and readers (and most journalists) see this as a just war, provoked by Hizbollah although Israel withdrew from Lebanese soil six years ago. A Tel Aviv University poll last week found 93 per cent believing the assault on Lebanon was justified, while 87 per cent thought the army's performance was good. Another poll in the tabloid daily Ma'ariv last Friday logged 73.5 per cent confident that Israel would win in the end.

The public doesn't want to hear bad news. "They hate us for it," Barnea says, "and they let us know it through the web." But the local media, competing with each other and the world media, couldn't withhold the information even if they wanted to.

The cameras and reporters are on the border, in the towns and villages that have been shelled or rocketed, in Israel and Lebanon. They film the carnage. They interview distressed civilians in the shelters, edgy soldiers in their tanks. And they deliver it by satellite in real time.

"There is almost no censorship," says Ze'ev Schiff, who has covered all his country's wars for the heavyweight Ha'aretz daily since 1967. "Sometimes, the press can break a story before the army headquarters gets the information from the field. Almost 90 per cent of the secret information is out immediately."

Israeli TV and radio are broadcasting non-stop war news and commentary. The papers devote dozens of pages to it. They profile Israeli casualties, interview the grieving families, cover the funerals. Retired generals pontificate in studios (most are sure they could do the job better).

Gadi Wolfsfeld, a Hebrew University professor of media studies, explains: "The fact that the war had such tremendous support among the public led the media to express their support in many different ways. They identify with the soldiers; they give the government plenty of time to speak; they are concerned most about our victims and less about the other side's victims."

He detects less hysteria in the coverage than in the past. "Israel's media tend to be pretty sensationalist. After the Palestinian intifada broke out six years ago, there was a lot more fear-mongering. The coverage this time is much more restrained."

The journalists admit that they are partisan. This is a war in their own yard. But they insist, with justice, that they are not relaying propaganda, not holding back. They criticise the military for relying too much on air power and waiting too long to send armoured and infantry brigades across the border. Schiff said that management of the war had been incompetent: "Hizbollah was struck from the air in many places and paid dearly, but not dearly enough. The battle did not end in one fell swoop as many had expected. The IDF is strong, but its power has not been properly used or exhausted."

David Horovitz, editor of the English-language Jerusalem Post, says: "I'm trying to produce a paper that informs people honestly and gives them the means to judge, a sense of the various positions being advocated and the dilemmas involved. At no point have I asked a commentator or reporter whether we really want to say something because it might be selling Israel short or might upset our readers."

Schiff, who had two stints in Vietnam in the 1960s, confesses that he'd be much happier covering British troops in Iraq than Israelis in Lebanon. "Here, the family is involved. I would never expose operational secrets. I accept limits that I'm imposing on myself. If I know that, 10 minutes ago, special forces in helicopters took off for Baalbek, I wouldn't say it. But when I concluded that the war was being mishandled, I said so. People didn't like it, but I wasn't endangering lives."

Nahum Barnea is comforted that, while his readers are impatient with criticism of the army in time of war, they come round in the end. "Public opinion is very critical towards the government and towards the army if the results don't fit the expectations."

Clancy Chassay in Beirut on how the Lebanese media has set aside differences of opinion

Since the outbreak of war 25 days ago, Lebanon's sectarian and often highly polarised media outlets have been forced to agree on something: condemnation of Israel's three-week attack on the country. Between news broadcasts, TV networks play minute-long video montages to moving music depicting Lebanese victims of the Israeli air strikes.

Some channels are running footage of the destruction in the south and Beirut's southern suburbs, while others play the national anthem. But beneath the purported unity in condemning Israel, the entrenched sectarian differences are still prevalent.

The Lebanese media was instrumental in expressing the division that arose in the country following the assassination of the popular former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Hariri's killing saw the withdrawal of Syrian forces and increased Washington's role in Lebanon. A rough polarisation emerged between those who believed a degree of US patronage would best serve the development of the post-Syria Lebanon, the "March 14 Forces" and those who felt more comfortable relying on support from Muslim Iran, embracing a less entangled Damascus as a brother nation.

The news media allied to these two perspectives in varying degrees as each camp fought to defend its position. Those fond of cementing ties with America attacked their opponents for their intimacy with Syria, widely viewed as responsible for Hariri's killing. Those opposed to the US derided their opponents for cosying up to Israel's prime benefactor and the power behind the hugely unpopular war in Iraq.

Mustaqbal (Future), owned by the Hariri family, is a Sunni channel that reflects the March 14 Future movement. With the Prime Minister, Fouad Siniora, a member of Future, the channel strongly backs Siniora's position on ending the conflict through a ceasefire and gradual disarmament of Hizbullah. Also pro-March 14, LBC (Lebanese Broadcasting Channel) is a Christian channel that recently severed its links with the right-wing party The Lebanese Forces, and has echoed the concerns of the Christian community. However, LBC's correspondent in southern Lebanon, Sultan Sulayman, has received praise for his balanced coverage.

NBN is partially backed by the Shiite parliamentary speaker and head of the Amal movement Nabih Berri, and has run pro-resistance footage. It has lost viewers in recent years to pan-Arab channels such as Al-Jazeera.

The new, and relatively independent, station New TV has taken viewers from all the major channels, and has shown strong support for the Shia, the south and Lebanon in general. But it has been public opinion that has altered news coverage in favour of Hizbullah. According to a poll by the Beirut Center for Research and Information, 87 per cent of the Lebanese people supported Hizbollah's retaliation against Israel. The surprising find was that 55 per cent of Christians supported Hizbullah's seizure of two Israeli soldiers.

Hizbullah has its own channel, too. Launched in 1991 to publicise the fight against the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon, which ended in 2000, Al Manar repeatedly runs video montages showing past military operations, and clips condemning Israel and America. But it also airs Israeli TV footage, displaying the damage Hizbullah's rockets have caused in northern Israel. The Qana massacre received extensive coverage on all Lebanese networks.

Al Manar has paid a high price for its connection to Hizbullah. Its main studios in Beirut's southern suburbs were destroyed in the first week of the conflict, along with one of the channel's transmitters.

Newspapers in Lebanon also operate along sectarian lines and coverage has altered in line with that of the TV channels, although political alliances are still there. Pages are full of photographs depicting destruction, and Lebanon coverage dominates the pages. Al Ballad, a new, independent paper with a very high circulation, has a mixed editorial stance. An Nahar, a well-respected paper known for its strong anti-Syrian sentiments, has retained its March 14 leanings.

Its editor, Gebran Tueni, a fierce opponent of the Syrian presence in Lebanon, was killed by a car bomb in December last year. The Arabist/Leftist As Safir has spoken out strongly against the Israeli attacks. Ad Diyar, a Qatar and Saudi-backed newspaper sometimes described as Baathist and seen as very tolerant of Syria, has been more careful.

One journalist has been killed so far. Layal Nejib, a Lebanese photojournalist, died last week in an Israeli aerial bombardmentwhile on assignment in the south.