Attacks on the Press 2006: Lebanon

Israel’s summer offensive in Lebanon was filled with danger for hundreds of journalists who braved bombs and bullets to cover fighting between Israeli forces and Hezbollah guerrillas. The offensive began after guerrillas abducted two Israeli soldiers and killed eight near the Lebanese-Israeli border. During the 34-day conflict, one journalist and a media worker were killed, media facilities were bombed, and several reporters suffered injuries from Israel Defense Forces’ (IDF) fire.

The media’s first casualty was Hezbollah’s Al-Manar TV. Just days into the fighting, Israeli missiles leveled the station’s headquarters in the southern Beirut suburb of Haret Hreik and separately struck two Al-Manar TV transmitters, one near Baalbek, northeast of Beirut, and another in Maroun al-Ras in southern Lebanon. Station officials had long expected such an attack in the event of hostilities with Israel.

Israel acknowledged targeting the broadcaster, accusing it of propaganda and incitement. Al-Manar never appeared to have served any discernible military function that would have made it a legitimate target under the laws of war. Despite the bombings, Al-Manar managed to broadcast largely uninterrupted, according to international news media.

Critics have attacked the station for airing anti-Semitic content and propaganda videos that glorify violence. After the fighting began, Al-Manar dropped its sports and entertainment shows, limiting its programming to a mixture of news and talk shows, Quranic recitations, and propaganda.

During the offensive, Israeli forces singled out other media infrastructure for targeting, sometimes with lethal consequences. On July 22, Suleiman al-Chidiac, a technician for the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation (LBC), was killed during Israeli air attacks that destroyed television transmitters and telephone towers in Fatqa, north of Beirut and well away from the fighting in the south. On the same day, Israeli warplanes struck towers in Terbol, near Tripoli in northern Lebanon, belonging to Al-Manar TV, the state-run channel Tele-Liban, and Future TV, as well as cellular telephone network towers. In al-Qura, also in the north, Tele-Liban technician Khaled Eid was seriously injured in an attack on a telecommunications tower belonging to the station. The stations’ terrestrial transmission was interrupted, but they continued to broadcast via satellite.

Journalists covering the fighting, which was heavily concentrated in the country’s south, were vulnerable to Israeli air strikes. Several international broadcasters and news organizations had made the Mediterranean port of Tyre their base in the south, and many reported IDF targeting of vehicles on the roads. Journalists in the city, which is 55 miles (90 kilometers) south of Beirut, said any vehicles, including TV vehicles, traveling between towns and villages were targeted by Israeli planes if spotted on the road. One journalist who ventured into the area was Layal Najib, 23, a freelance photographer for the Lebanese magazine Al-Jaras and Agence France-Presse. She was killed July 23 by an Israeli missile while traveling in a taxi to cover Lebanese civilians fleeing north. She was hit by shrapnel from a missile on the road between the villages of Sadiqeen and Qana, local media reported. She died at the scene.

Other journalists narrowly averted serious injury or death from what they alleged was deliberate Israeli fire. On July 22, a convoy of Al-Jazeera, Al-Arabiya, and Al-Manar vehicles was chased by Israeli fighter aircraft, which fired missiles on the road behind them as they approached an already bombed-out bridge near the southern village of Hasbaya. The journalists said they managed to get away on back roads, but the planes followed and again trapped their vehicles by firing missiles at the road ahead of them and behind them. “Their cars were clearly marked ‘Press’ and ‘TV,'” said Nabil Khatib, Al-Arabiya executive editor. The journalists alleged that Israeli aircraft fired missiles in order to prevent them from covering the effects of Israel’s bombardment of the area around the town of Khiam, in the eastern sector of the Israel-Lebanon border. The IDF denied that Israel was targeting journalists and said it was instead “targeting the roads because Hezbollah uses those roads.”

In early August, the Israeli military dropped leaflets warning that all vehicles traveling on roads south of the Litani River would be attacked–a move that heavily circumscribed the movements of journalists reporting from the south and complicated the efforts of TV crews to get footage out of the area. A subsequent statement from the IDF warned, “This is a combat zone from which terrorists operate, and as such, we cannot guarantee the safety of journalists in the area.” At around the same time, Scott Anderson of The New York Times Magazine, Magnum photographer Paolo Pellegrin, and their driver were wounded when they attempted to cover the immediate aftermath of an apparent attack by an unmanned drone aircraft on an individual on a main road in Tyre. The three men, who, like the other journalists, were traveling in cars clearly marked as press vehicles, suffered concussions and shrapnel wounds.

Pro-Israel forces broadcast anti-Hezbollah propaganda and intimidated local reporters through the radio station Al-Mashraqiyeh, which Lebanese journalists believe broadcasts out of Israel and is affiliated with exiled members of the South Lebanon Army, Israel’s military ally during its occupation of southern Lebanon in the 1980s and 1990s. The radio station singled out Al-Jazeera correspondents Katia Nasser and Abbas Nasser, accusing them of aiding Hezbollah and said, “The noble Lebanese will hold those who supported Hezbollah in destroying Lebanon to account.”

Israeli forces were not the only source of concern for reporters. Some journalists reported attempts by Hezbollah guerrillas to control their movements and intimidate them. Freelance reporter Christopher Allbritton reported on his Web site that Hezbollah officials kept copies of individual journalist passports as a possible way to leverage positive coverage, and that they had harassed and threatened reporters in some instances. Hezbollah operatives denied some reporters access to areas controlled by the movement and shepherded others on carefully orchestrated media tours where they were barred from filming certain neighborhoods. At least one journalist said guerrillas threatened to kill him if his crew filmed Katyusha rocket launches by Hezbollah fighters.

Although the Israel-Hezbollah conflict dominated headlines, it was not the only press freedom story that concerned Lebanese journalists. A year after Lebanese journalist Samir Qassir was murdered in a Beirut car bombing, the perpetrators remained at large. So, too, did those responsible for the maiming of LBC’s May Chidiac and the murder of Al-Nahar‘s Gebran Tueni, both of whom were victims of car bomb attacks in 2005. The three incidents occurred amid a series of assassination attempts and attacks on journalists and political figures in Lebanon following the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri in February 2005.

In December 2005, the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution authorizing the International Independent Investigation Commission probing the al-Hariri killing to “extend its technical assistance” to Lebanese authorities for their investigations into attacks on journalists and other political figures over the previous year. It also called on U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to “present recommendations to expand the mandate of the commission to include investigations of those other attacks.”

Lebanon’s heavily politicized media are a reflection of the country’s sectarian-based political system. Major political figures and groups own or control major media that often reflect their views. But taken together, they make up a diverse media landscape that, by regional standards, is among the most vibrant. Still, self-censorship persists for journalists, who face any number of legal and bureaucratic hurdles.

One such barrier is the courts, which enforce tough press laws that stipulate jail time and heavy fines for libel and other press offenses. In March, a state prosecutor brought criminal charges of defaming President Emile Lahoud against the pro-Hariri daily Al-Mustaqbal; its editor-in-chief, Tawfiq Khattab; and writer/talk show host Fares Khashan. The charges were brought four days after Al-Mustaqbal published an interview with Johnny Abdo, former Lebanese ambassador to France and former army intelligence chief, in which he criticized Lahoud’s performance. According to The Daily Star, Abdo was quoted as saying that “under Lahoud’s mandate, the Presidential Palace was turned into an unsuitable place to hold dialogue, and Lahoud’s presence violates the constitution, because the constitution says the president is the symbol of unity.” The journalists faced up to two years in prison. Al-Mustaqbal, owned by the al-Hariri family, said its journalists faced 12 charges related to defaming the president and members of Lebanon’s parliament.

Like many of its neighbors, Lebanon suffered repercussions from the worldwide controversy involving the September 2005 publication in a Danish newspaper of cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad. Public protests over the cartoons took place in Beirut in February and led to tension between Muslim and Christian communities. In Beirut, Muslim protesters set fire to the Danish embassy and rampaged through a predominantly Christian neighborhood. News photographers and cameramen at the scene were roughed up and some equipment was destroyed. The New York Times reported that a Dutch news photographer was beaten when several demonstrators mistook him for being Danish.

The government of Iran continued to demand information about two Iranian diplomats and a journalist who disappeared in 1982. In a May 18 interview with As-Safir newspaper, former Lebanese Forces head Samir Geagea said the militia abducted and killed the Iranians, including Tehran-based Islamic Republic News Agency photographer Kazem Akhavan. Akhavan disappeared in Lebanon on July 4, 1982, along with officials from the Iranian embassy in Beirut. They were believed to have been kidnapped at a checkpoint near the northern city of Byblos. Iran has maintained that the men might still be alive and held in Israel.