Open Season on Journalists in the Middle East


Richard Moore

Original source URL:

Published on Wednesday, August 2, 2006 by
Open Season on Journalists in the Middle East
by Lawrence Pintak

After the carnage of this past weekend, they would seem to fade almost into 
insignificance ­ and that¹s understandable, but they bear noting.

The Israeli destruction of TV transmission towers in Lebanon and an attack on a 
media convoy in south Lebanon are emblematic of a grim fact: the media have 
become targets ­ and weapons ­ of war.

The pen may be ³mightier than the sword,² but in recent years, the sword has 
left a trail of spilled ink ­ and blood. It is time for an international law 
banning targeted attacks on the media.

In the Middle East, the conscious targeting of journalists appears to have 
become an accepted part of war. The Israeli destruction of the transmission 
towers of several Lebanese channels, including that of Hezbollah¹s al-Manar TV, 
and the convoy attack carry the markings of the ongoing campaign against news 
organizations by virtually all of the protagonists of the region¹s many 
conflicts. Its precedent was the 1999 NATO/U.S. attack on Radio Television 
Serbia, which killed 19 staffers.

The targeting of ³enemy² broadcasts is nothing new. It dates back at least to 
World War II. Nor are reporters around the world strangers to retribution. The 
history of journalism in Lebanon itself is littered with the bodies of reporters
who angered the powers-that-be. Even foreign reporters sometimes fall victim.

As a Beirut-based correspondent in the 1980s, I had to leave the country for a 
year after death threats from a pro-Syrian militia; one of my cameramen was 
literally blown in half, the sound technician killed and the driver crippled by 
an Israeli tank shell fired directly at them; and several of my friends ended up
hostages of Hezbollah or its allies.

What has changed in recent years is the degree to which the media as a whole has
specifically and systemically become a ³legitimate² target of war. In Beirut in 
the 1980s, we were kidnap targets because we were the last Americans in town. 
Now, reporters are targeted because they are reporters.

Further complicating the situation is the nature of live television itself. 
Real-time broadcasts from the battlefield can compromise military operations and
endanger troops. Yet that argument can also provide convenient cover for darker 
motives. Silencing reporters from independent ­ or semi-independent ­ news 
organizations because they are inconveniently showing the bloody outcome of war 
or refusing to parrot the official line is a dangerous development ­ for 
reporters and for democracy.

In the Middle East, this new era can be traced to the U.S. bombing of 
al-Jazeera¹s bureaus in Kabul and Baghdad. At its root is the power of satellite
television. Warts aside, the reality is that until al-Jazeera came along in 
1996, the term ³television journalism² was an oxymoron in a region where all 
television and most of the print media was controlled by governments. Arabs 
depended on Western broadcasts for their ³independent² information.

Al-Jazeera changed the rules of the game. Suddenly, Arabs were seeing their 
region through an Arab prism. Many protagonists found that very inconvenient.

The U.S. destroyed al-Jazeera¹s Kabul bureau at the beginning of the Afghan war 
when the channel was one of the few news organizations in the Afghan capital. 
Al-Jazeera was providing footage that directly contradicted U.S. claims that 
civilians weren¹t being harmed. The same thing happened during the Iraq 
invasion, but this time other Arab broadcasters were hit as well. As Pulitzer 
Prize-winning journalist Ron Suskind reports in his book about the secret war, 
in the aftermath of the Kabul bombing, ³Inside the CIA, and the White House, 
there was satisfaction that a message had been sent to Al Jazeera.²

Countless similar messages have been sent in the years since. Whatever the 
source ­ whether governments or insurgents of various stripes ­ the central 
theme has been the same: Report the way we want you to or you will not be 
allowed to report at all.

That attitude was summed up by the top U.S. military spokesman on Iraq, Maj. 
Gen. Mark Kimmett, who told reporters during the invasion, ³The stations that 
are showing Americans intentionally killing women and children are not 
legitimate news sources.²

The question, of course, becomes: Who decides what is ³legitimate?² Just last 
year, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was fulminating over coverage of 
anti-Syrian protests in Beirut. Not long after, a leading Lebanese TV anchor had
her arm and leg blown off in an assassination attempt and the country¹s top 
editor was killed.

Today, there is ­ as the International Federation of Journalists put it ­ ³the 
appalling perception² that journalists from many of those same news 
organizations are in Israel¹s gun-sights.

The Israeli government said it bombed three sets of telecommunications towers 
deep in the Christian heartland to cripple Hezbollah cell phone communications. 
But the attacks, which killed one technician and injured another, came just days
after Israeli helicopters rocketed the Beirut headquarters of al-Manar, the 
controversial Hezbollah television station, wounding seven people.

At about the same time, a convoy of reporters from several Arab satellite 
channels was attacked by Israeli jets. ³Their cars were clearly marked ¹Press¹ 
and ¹TV,¹² Nabil Khatib, executive editor of Dubai-based pan-Arab channel 
al-Arabiya, told the Committee to Protect Journalists. Israel says it was 
³targeting the roads because Hezbollah uses those roads.²

Al-Manar is a mouthpiece for Hezbollah, but several of the other Lebanese and 
pan-Arab channels affected in these incidents have taken strongly anti-Syrian 
and anti-Hezbollah positions over the past year. Their initial coverage of the 
crisis condemned Hezbollah¹s actions, but as the Israeli response intensified, 
their reporting, complete with graphic images of the carnage, has become 
strongly critical of the Jewish state and what is widely seen as America¹s 
cynical support for the Israeli assault.

There is no doubt, south Lebanon¹s roads have become highways of death. And cell
phones have become a strategic tool. But the incidents must be seen in the 
context of what the International Federation of Journalists has called a 
³pattern of targeting² of journalists in recent weeks.

Al-Jazeera has long operated with relative freedom in Israel (the dirty little 
secret of this conflict, which the U.S. media rarely talks about, is that all 
reporters in Israel are subject to strict military censorship). But since the 
conflict began, its correspondent has twice been detained by the Israeli 
military and one of its camera crews was fired on.

There has also been a string of other incidents in both Lebanon and Gaza. The 
³appalling perception is of soldiers opening fire on unarmed journalists and of 
intimidation of Arab journalists to keep them from covering the news in the 
Palestinian territories and in Lebanon," says IFJ General Secretary Aidan White.

The latest incident came Thursday, when a cameraman for Palestine TV was 
seriously wounded when his team was fired on with rubber bullets.

"We were wearing vests indicating that we were media workers," said one of those
involved. "But an Israeli army tank located 150 meters away began firing towards
us. We began to run but the shots continued."

Meanwhile, threats from various Palestinian factions likewise make journalism in
the Occupied Territories treacherous for Westerners and Arabs alike. In Lebanon,
where Hezbollah dictates where the media can and cannot go, few are likely to 
forget it was Hezbollah itself that elevated the kidnapping of journalists to an
art form. ³The Party of God has a copy of every journalist¹s passport, and 
they¹ve already hassled a number of us and threatened one,² Time freelancer 
Christopher Allbritton recently revealed on his weblog.

War is dangerous. Journalists know the risks. But there is a big difference 
between being hit by a piece of shrapnel or catching a stray bullet and being 
purposely bombed, kidnapped or beheaded, the fate of Wall Street Journal 
reporter Daniel Pearl at the hands of Islamist militants in Pakistan. In Iraq 
alone, some 74 media workers have been killed since the invasion, many in 
targeted assassinations. Even Arab channels like al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya can 
no longer operate there because of attacks on their staff by various armed 

Journalists themselves bear some responsibility for this weaponization of the 
media. Flag-waving by the U.S. media in the wake of 9/11 and a mirror-image 
mobilization among Arab journalists mean news organizations on both sides are 
seen to be part of the war effort. The historic concept of an independent media,
reporting all perspectives without bias or distortion, was squandered. But that 
does not mean journalists deserve to die.

Reporters without Borders has called for an investigation of whether the Geneva 
Conventions have been violated in Lebanon. But there is plenty of wiggle room in
current international laws. A Pentagon legal directive states, ³Civilians and 
civilian property that make a direct contribution to the war effort may also be 

In an age when satellite television transmits real-time images from the 
battlefield, and when media drives public opinion which itself drives policies 
of war and peace, clearer legal protections for journalists are required.

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has in his hands a proposal for an international
law that would make it a war crime to specifically target journalists. Events 
now unfolding in the Middle East underscore the urgency of its passage.

Let¹s not be naive. The UN hasn¹t been able to protect itself ­ its Baghdad 
headquarters was leveled by a car bomb, four UN peacekeepers were killed last 
week in an Israeli attack on their base in south Lebanon, and the UN offices in 
Beirut and Gaza were sacked over the weekend. Besides, even mass murderers 
rarely face international justice. A UN resolution is not going to stop attacks 
on journalists by governments or non-state actors ­ but it will at least send a 
symbolic message back to those seeking to muzzle the press.

As al-Arabiya¹s Nabil Khatib, who has seen 11 of his staffers killed in Iraq 
alone, recently told me, ³This, with time, could build momentum where insurgents
or military will be less violent. Now they feel they have a free hand.²

Lawrence Pintak is the director of the Adham Center for Electronic Journalism at
The American University in Cairo. A former CBS News Middle East correspondent, 
his books include Beirut Outtakes; Seeds of Hate: How America¹s Flawed Middle 
East Policy Ignited the Jihad; and, most recently, Reflections in a Bloodshot 
Lens: America, Islam & the War of Ideas. He can be reached at lpintak ~at~


Escaping the Matrix website
cyberjournal website  
subscribe cyberjournal list     mailto:•••@••.•••
Posting archives      
  cyberjournal forum  
  Achieving real democracy
  for readers of ETM  
  Community Empowerment
  Blogger made easy