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Lebanon’s Daily Star Does Not Shine

Canadian-Israeli journalist and blogger Lisa Goldman travelled to Beirut last month to report for PJM on life in Lebanon a year after the war and returned shortly afterwards to film a story for Israel's Channel 10. Goldman wasn't surprised by the angry reaction to her reporting from Hezbollah's al-Manar station and al-Jazeera television. But she was taken aback by the distortions and lies printed about her in the English-language Daily Star. Since the Beirut-based newspaper didn't bother to get her side of the story, she responds here.

by
Lisa Goldman

Bio

July 19, 2007 - 2:39 am

In journalism there are two types of hatchet jobs – the kind that results from laziness and ignorance, and the kind that is simply malicious.

Two Israeli journalists scrap ethics for scoop,” an article published 17 July in the Lebanese Daily Star, falls definitively into the latter category.

Nour Samaha, a 22-year-old woman from England who has been working as a reporter for less than one year, opposes the idea of Israelis reporting from Lebanon. Instead of expressing this opinion where it belongs – on the op-ed page – she sets out to promote her agenda by obtaining selective quotes, using irresponsible, inflammatory language and making statements about my report for Israel’s Channel 10 that are demonstrably false. She disguises her personal agenda as news, and her editor played along, by making it the lead article on page three.

It is rather telling that the reporter did not contact me for a response. Nour’s colleague at the Star, Hani Bathish, did obtain my email address from a mutual acquaintance before the article was written. I was copied on the response, and immediately wrote to Hani, suggesting we speak via Skype or a landline (Israelis can call Lebanon from a landline, although the reverse is not possible).

However, neither Hani nor Nour responded. This is discourteous, certainly; more seriously, it is a violation of basic journalistic ethics. While it is true that there is a law in Lebanon that prohibits media outlets from quoting Israelis, that law is frequently flouted – as witnessed by the fact that the Star regularly publishes opinion pieces by Israelis.

The headline implies that I knowingly violated journalistic ethics to obtain a “scoop,” – a claim I will address below. But the subheadline, “Jewish reporters endanger lives of Lebanese citizens interviewed under false pretences,” is worse than inflammatory: it is blatantly anti-Semitic. A Jew! Quel horreur! Does that mean that it would have been acceptable for a Muslim, Christian or Druze Israeli reporter to “endanger lives of Lebanese citizens”? I am wondering what the issue is here: my ethnicity or my nationality? Confusing, isn’t it? The continuation of the article is even more confusing – probably because it obfuscates the truth and ignores facts.

Nour interviewed the same caf√© bar worker I interviewed for my Channel 10 report. The barman, whom I’ll call M., told the reporter that I misquoted him, lied to him and misrepresented myself. He even told her that I gave him a false name.

None of this is true.

I told M. that my name is Lisa, which is obviously indisputable; I told him I work for a European newspaper; and I told him I was born and raised in Vancouver. These facts can be confirmed with a quick Google search. I also told M. that the interview might be broadcast on television. He did not ask which television station, and I did not volunteer the information – for obvious reasons.

I stopped in at the caf√© by chance, for an iced coffee on a hot afternoon. M. and I started chatting, and I enjoyed talking to him. I thought Israelis would be interested in hearing the political opinions of a hip, handsome young man from Beirut who worked at a trendy caf√© that looked just like a caf√© in Tel Aviv, so I asked M. if he would like to be interviewed, and he agreed with alacrity. I did not ask him any leading questions, and obviously I can prove that, since I have the original 25-minute interview on videotape (M. had a lot to say). At one point in the interview I asked M., who had earlier volunteered the information that he grew up in the Dahiyeh – the Hezbollah-dominated Beirut neighborhood – whether his parents’ home had been damaged during the war. He said that it was not damaged because it was outside the security square, and then he elaborated upon his response by explaining what the security square was – a large area, of approximately 500 apartment blocks, where all the Hezbollah leaders live.

I do not know where M. got the idea that I gave Channel 10 viewers the impression that he spoke of Israel in a positive light. Again, he is probably back-pedalling because he feels duped, which I can understand. But he can rest easy, because there is nothing in my report to support the contention that he spoke well of Israel. He says he does not trust Israel, that he thinks Israel will attack Lebanon again this summer. He states clearly that he bases his belief on his interpretation of what he calls “the holy books of the Jewish.” I’m not sure what book, or books, he is referring to, and I don’t suppose M. would be too convinced by my assurance that Israeli foreign policy is not conducted according to the precepts of the Hebrew Bible.

Of course M. is now retracting what he told me – forgetting, obviously, that the whole interview is on tape. He is a macho young guy who feels that he was duped by a woman, which he finds humiliating. Since I can prove that he was not misquoted, and that nothing he said was taken out of context, and since M. must know this, I guess his objection lies not with the fact that his statements were broadcast on television, but that they were broadcast on Israeli television. These are obvious issues that Nour should certainly have taken into account when writing her article, in the name of responsible reporting, but she breezily ignores them in her rush to promote her agenda.

I did not “…misinform viewers that only one small section of the southern suburbs was hit by Israel” in my report for Channel 10. The only mention in that report of the damage caused to the southern suburbs comes from M., who volunteered the information without any prompting from me. I did not extrapolate from his statement, but merely let it speak for itself. Since I doubt that Nour speaks Hebrew, she might want to obtain a copy of my report from Hezbollah’s Al Manar, which managed to dub it into Arabic for broadcast less than one hour after my report was seen on Channel 10. Perhaps then she would manage to get her fact straight. The guys at Channel 10′s Arabic desk told me that the Manar staff did a bang-up job on the translation.

Nour writes in her report that I “admit” I did not visit the Dahiyeh. That makes it sound as if I made some kind of nefarious confession, which is not the case. In fact, I stated that I could not enter the Dahiyeh, because there was a checkpoint at the entrance to the area where Hezbollah security personnel would Google my name and discover immediately that I am Israeli. I admit that it’s true I could have walked up to the Hezbollah security guys, presented my Israeli passport for inspection, and said “Hey guys, what’s up? I’m here to take a look at the damage my country’s air force caused to your neighbourhood last summer. Do you mind if I wander around, maybe do a bit of filming? I’d really like Israeli audiences to get an accurate picture of what happened here.”

I wonder what Nour thinks would have happened to me if I had done that? Would they have hugged me, offered me coffee, waved their arms and said, “ahalan wa sahalan, welcome”?

I agree, it is not pleasant to be put in a position of having to lie. I tried to avoid doing that as much as possible, which is why I wandered Beirut on my own and did not hire a local translator or driver, who might later be tainted by association with the dreaded Jew. However, accusing me of unethical behaviour is what we in Israel call chutzpah, given that the reporter failed to contact me for a comment – which is basic Journalism 101, as I’m sure the esteemed professors of journalism who are quoted in the article will confirm. The bad ethics rap is rather disingenuous, given that I risked abduction and imprisonment by the Hezbollah if I declared that I was an Israeli citizen.

Ramez Maluf, professor of journalism at the Lebanese American University, is quoted in the article as saying that Israelis interested in news about Lebanon should rely on the wire services.

That sounds a lot like “let them eat cake.” Me, I prefer a more substantive meal. Given the tsunami of congratulatory emails I have received from both Lebanese and Israelis, it seems pretty clear that there is a great hunger for human-interest reporting that goes beyond conflict and war – and that the average Lebanese and the average Israeli share a preference for a real meal over cake, too. Why is the reporter so opposed to the idea of humanization? Surely breaking down walls can only be a good thing.

The point is that the wire services are not doing a good job. Given that so many Israelis expressed pleasant surprise at seeing Beirut as a beautiful, cosmopolitan city rather than a war zone, it is obvious that we are not obtaining an accurate picture of life in Lebanon.

Magda Abu-Fadil, the director of the journalism program at the American University of Beirut, is quoted in the article as saying, “In general terms, I don’t think you should assume a false identity unless something like national security is involved or the public good is at stake, like saving someone’s life,” she said. “But this is not the case here – this situation does not fall under the category.” Here, it seems that Nour has used a quote that contradicts her thesis. On the one hand she claims that I endangered lives by interviewing Lebanese for Israeli television; but on the other hand, she uses a quote from a professor of journalism who says that the saving of a life was NOT at stake. So, which is it? Is it endangering peoples’ lives by interviewing them for Israeli television or not? If it is, then surely I was justified in omitting mention of my Israeli citizenship. If it is not, then Nour’s claim that I endangered Lebanese lives is simply false.

All the Arab news media outlets have correspondents in Israel and the Palestinian territories. They include the big names like Al Jazeera, Al Houra and Al Arabiyya, of course, but Nour might be interested to know that Al Manar has a correspondent in Ramallah and East Jerusalem, and LBC has a correspondent in Israel too.

Why, then, are Israelis barred from reporting from Lebanon? Why are Arabic-speaking television viewers allowed the privilege of live reporting from Israel, while an Israeli reporter who does a pre-recorded, human interest report from Lebanon is accused of violating ethics and endangering lives? Surely there is only one word to describe this situation: hypocrisy.

I would also like to point out that there are several precedents for Israeli reporters with dual citizenship reporting from Lebanon. In 2002, for example, an Israeli-French reporter, Gideon Kouts, was caught reporting for Israeli television from a Francophone nations’ summit in Beirut. According to this report in the Khaleej News from October 20, 2002, Mr. Kouts “…was immediately stripped of his media accreditation and was barred from reporting the summit anymore….[however], he was not expelled from the country and, according to a Press Centre source, no further action was expected against him.” “His nationality is not the problem. The problem was he was working for an Israeli TV for which he was not accredited for,” said the source.

So Mr. Kouts was not arrested. He was not accused of endangering lives. He was not even expelled from the country! The Press Centre did not mind that he was Israeli – just that he was reporting live for Israeli television. And Mr. Kouts was doing political reporting, while I was merely doing human interest reporting – and not live, but pre-recorded.

Frankly, it sounds to me as though Hezbollah is creating a climate of fear in Lebanon. How else to explain the fact that both Al Jazeera and the Daily Star allowed Al Manar to set the agenda in reporting about my little adventure in Lebanon?

I cannot imagine that the educated, cosmopolitan Beirut residents, whom I so enjoyed meeting and speaking with, would wish to kill me or the people with whom I spoke. Nor can I imagine that the Lebanese government would send out hit men to hunt down and kill “ze Joo” or those with whom she spoke. I can only conclude that the reporter is referring to fears of retribution from the Hezbollah. In that case, it seems as though criticizing me is rather like shooting the messenger. Surely Hezbollah should be held accountable in the article for creating an atmosphere of fear and censorship, which is curtailing freedom of the press in Lebanon – a country that prides itself on its openness and freedom.

I came to Beirut the first time to experience the city and its people and share that experience on PJM and on my blog. I fell in love with the city, and I wanted Israelis to see the Beirut I saw – the cosmopolitan, beautiful and cultured metropolis that is strikingly similar to Tel Aviv. That is why I returned, a week after my first visit, to do the report for Israel’s Channel 10.

I had no nefarious intentions. I did not do it for the money (the amount I was paid would probably cover dinner for four at a nice restaurant in Manhattan) and I did not do it to obtain a scoop. I did it because I really believe in breaking down walls of ignorance and misunderstanding, and in using journalism to inform – not promote political agendas. I’m very sorry that neither the Star nor Al Jazeera seems the least bit interested in hearing my side of the story.

All the basic precepts of journalism were ignored in the writing of this article. There is no fact checking, no statement from the source and no attempt to appear balanced. Frankly, I am shocked that the article made it past the editors. And I have to wonder, now, if the Star has any credibility at all.

Lisa Goldman is a freelance Canadian-Israeli journalist, who blogs at On the Face. She lives in Tel Aviv.
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