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Reporting of Developments in the Middle East

Aired July 30, 2006 - 01:30:00   ET


FIONNUALA SWEENEY, CNN INTERNATIONAL HOST: Hello and welcome to this special edition of CNN's INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS where we examine how the media are covering the top stories. I'm Fionnuala Sweeney in the Israeli port town of Haifa.
Well we've been here now for the last 15, 16 days or so and rockets have been raining down on top of this city. Sometimes it results in casualties and deaths. Other times the city almost returns to some semblance of normality. But that is not always the case because as soon as the air raid sirens start up, the shutters come down on the shops and people then go back into their homes and it's been pretty much like that over the last week or so.

There had been a lull in the rocket attacks which allowed people to come out and the city was returning somewhat to normal, but over the last few days with the intensity of the rocket barrages still increasing and certainly not decreasing, Haifa is pretty much a city in standstill.

Well, some of the journalists who have descended on the region to report this conflict, we will be talking to them. First, though, let's take a look at some of the key media issues.

War is infinitely difficult to report on. There's the danger factor, a bid for balance, and with any story, a duty to get it right. Howard Kurtz reports on how the veterans step up to the plate.

HOWARD KURTZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The war in the Middle East has been a challenging one for media organizations to cover and, veteran journalists say, a dangerous one as well.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's just a matter of luck. You try to keep yourself safe, but that's all you can do.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So we were in an area where all these Katyusha rockets were coming in and of course we're vulnerable, being in this area as well, so, yeah, I would say that this is more dangerous than the initial invasion during the Iraq war.

KURTZ: This has been, in many respects, a war of images. Hezbollah has been giving Western correspondents tours of bombed out areas of Lebanon. But are they being used because they have no chance to do any independent reporting on whether there are guerrilla fighters or weapons in these residential areas?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Clearly, in that environment in the southern suburbs of Beirut, the Hezbollah controls the only way we can get into those areas, is with a Hezbollah escort and absolutely when you hear their claims they have to come with a - more than a grain of salt. You have to put in some journalistic integrity.

They come with a health (ph) warning that we cannot vouch for everything that Hezbollah is saying.

KURTZ: The intensity of the fighting has produced increasingly polarized coverage in the region, with the Israeli press closing ranks behind that country's controversial bombardment of Lebanon.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There is a consensus in Israel, and you can see its effects in the media, that this time Israel was attacked in the sovereign land of Israel by Hezbollah, a terrorist organization, and Israel is in a war.

KURTZ: And even Arab and Lebanese media outlets that had been critical of Hezbollah have rallied behind the group, deemed a terrorist organization by the U.S. government.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Israel is the enemy here and as far as the Arab media is concerned the mainstream media is run by governments and it's not exactly independent in the sense it is not going to seek to get balanced coverage of both sides.

KURTZ: A controversial war produces controversial coverage which is why American news organizations are also drawing flak for tilting one way or the other on a subject in which it is impossible to please all sides. Howard Kurtz, CNN, Washington.

SWEENEY: Still to come on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, from Lebanon to Israel, how the coverage differs in each country, stay with us.


SWEENEY: Welcome back. I'm Fionnuala in Haifa, northern Israel. And we're looking at the media's coverage of the current conflict in the Middle East.

Hundreds of journalists are scattered throughout the region. Most have just arrived in the past two weeks. CNN's Miles O'Brien describes what it's like to hit the ground running.

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN HOST: It's 8:20 Sunday morning and welcome to our world. We certainly don't travel light. About 40 pieces of luggage, some of it pretty big. And look at what it takes to keep me on the air. Two producers, Justin and Tracy, and two cameramen, well, one is actually a camerawoman, Pelen and Dave.

Our driver is Yanid (ph), his English, metza-metza (ph).

Now Dave is my kind of guy. He likes gadgets a lot. Watch what happens as he and Pelen play with some new walkie-talkies they have.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Testing. Testing. One-two-one-two-one-two. Can you hear me?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I can just hear you ...

O'BRIEN: That's because he's sitting right next to you. I have complete faith in this team.

We're on our way to meet Shlomo Josephsburg's (ph) family. They live in Haifa and they're living in fear right now. Pelen met his brother, Ilan (ph), on the plane coming in and we're going to meet him first, south of Haifa, out of harm's way.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: When you hear the siren, actually, you have about 45 seconds to go to a shelter. Yeah, right.

So it's like lottery. You don't know where it's going to fall. It is going to go in your house or in the neighbor's or any other place and you just wait, sit in here.

O'BRIEN: Now, as we got nearer to Haifa, Ilan calls with word there is trouble ahead.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: John Roberts is on the ground in Haifa from the hotel overlook and he said from their location he could hear nine explosions in the neighborhood.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Ilan said that when his brothers called, when the bomb - when the air raid sirens were going off and while they were on the phone with him, in the shelter they could hear the explosions.

O'BRIEN: So let's go right there.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So maybe that doesn't make sense that we're driving directly there.

O'BRIEN: Not long after we got to Shlomo's house, we heard our first air raid siren.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Justin, Justin (ph).

O'BRIEN: OK. So we're inside the house. We're headed up to a safe place. Where is it?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Over here? I don't know where Justin is. Do you know?

O'BRIEN: Justin was on his own. The closer we got to Haifa, the more we heard the sirens. Several times we heard them. Several times we had to stop and take cover.

Now for Pelen, these were moments worth recording in her journal.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You have to get the dialogue, you know. The dialogue is real. When it's right there, that's when it's more open and that's when it's most believable.

O'BRIEN: Real is what we're all about.

It's now 5:23 Eastern Time which means it is 12:23 here. And now we're going to go out and do about five hours of live television. AMERICAN MORNING. So here is Israeli afternoon. Wouldn't be bad living here in this time zone. Get a lot more sleep, that's for sure.

SWEENEY: One Lebanese journalist, a television anchor May Chidiac has overcome many challenges. She survived an assassination attempt in Beirut last year and after a long road to recovery has just returned to work.

Hala Gorani has her story.

HALA GORANI, CNN CORRESPONDENT: This isn't just any makeup session for Lebanese TV star May Chidiac. It's her first time on the air since she survived a car bomb attack against her 10 months ago. That bomb cost her her left arm and leg.

Earlier at her Beirut home, she talked about her television comeback.

MAY CHIDIAC, LEBANESE JOURNALIST: I move the sign of the cross. I say I have to handle things in the proper way. I go, I have to forget that it's the first time after 10 months and I'll have to be on air as normal as I can.

GORANI: Chidiac was one of more than a dozen outspoken critics of Syrian influence in Lebanon targeted by assassins last year. She survived, but others did not. And call it a coincidence, after seven months in a French rehabilitation center, May Chidiac returned to Lebanon just in time to witness a brand new chapter of political violence in her country, 24 hours before the war broke out in Lebanon.

And she says she is glad she did.

CHIDIAC: I believe in God so I consider it maybe it was about time to come back and to be able to participate in the - and help Lebanon in a way or another, in my way, maybe.

GORANI: Over the last 10 months, Chidiac has often been hailed a symbol of defiance and survival for overcoming great adversity. But now, she says, she wants people to stop viewing her as anything other than a journalist.

CHIDIAC: Because it's so difficult, maybe, to reach the expectations of people if they all the time consider you as the symbol. It's difficult on the long run so it's much better for me and for them to forget about what happened to me.

GORANI: She's opinionated and outspoken. She says Hezbollah should be disarmed. As for Israel and Lebanon's other neighbors ...

CHIDIAC: Every time we find ourselves in the middle of the conflict - a regional conflict and conflict between the big powers in the whole world. That means Iran, the United States and also between Israel and Syria.

GORANI: Chidiac says her injuries and prosthetic limbs have changed her body but not her mind. She insists on driving the same make of car with the same license plate number she had on the day she was almost killed.

Chidiac may not want to be a symbol of strength anymore, but she may not have a choice. Hala Gorani, CNN, Beirut.

SWEENEY: And up next, we hear from two journalists covering the Middle East conflict from a very different standpoint. Stay with us.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN HOST: You drive around and it doesn't look like anyone's around and all of the sudden your eyes, it's almost like adjusting to the dark and you realize there are people who are watching you, guys on motorcycles talking on cell phones and passing by.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's a scramble to get the wounded out of the bomb zone.

SWEENEY: Welcome back. We're talking about the media's coverage of the crisis in the Middle East and to discuss the challenges facing journalists here, I'm joined now by Zohar Rahm (ph) who works for a Haifa- based Israeli television station and Mat Jiyan (ph), who works for China's official news agency, Xinhua.

Tell me, first of all, how long have you been in Israel, when did you come here? Just very recently, I understand.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I have been here for only five weeks. I work for the bureau of Xinhua News Agency in Jerusalem. I will be here for two years as a permanent correspondent and my duty is to cover all the news to the China population.

SWEENEY: So you just arrived here when the soldier, Gilad Shalit, was kidnapped in Gaza.


SWEENEY: And what's it been like covering for five weeks. It's been pretty hectic.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yeah, actually it was my first time on duty. That means I was in charge of all the news reports about the kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit in Gaza and I was really busy that week.

SWEENEY: So you have been working pretty much around the clock since you got here. Where has this particular story, the war in Lebanon taken you?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: About a week ago I was in Haifa and I stayed in the North (ph) hotel. Suddenly I heard the bombings, the sound of the bombings, about five times or six times and then I rushed outside and I saw the bombing on the seashore. Suddenly - I didn't know how the people there were like, I was very - care about the people there.

And then I heard one people, two people were killed in that attack. I think the war is really terrible and horrible.

SWEENEY: Is it the first time you had seen anything like that?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yeah. That's the first time I saw the real bombing. And I saw the smoke.

SWEENEY: And how much preparation does Xinhua give a journalist when they come to a danger or a war zone like this?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Before I came here I worked for Xinhua about three years and I prepared myself for the language. First I practiced English and Hebrew and then I write feature stories for a long time in case I'll take the whole responsibility here. Because it's the real hot spot in the world.

SWEENEY: In terms of physical danger, were you given any preparations or were you sent on any courses about how to protect yourself?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: No, but all the people told me that be careful with yourselves and don't rush through the borderline. But I forget this and actually I just come back from the northern borer.

SWEENEY: Well, we'll talk about that in a moment, but Zohar, you are based here in Haifa, so what's it like when you see a whole plethora of television crews and print journalists from all around the world descend on this city.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, it's funny that - two funny things. The first is to see you guys from all over the world come here. I think more funny is to hear our mayor who is not available for us because he is on CNN. Maybe he is on Channel 2. We are used to seeing him every day or every few days here on our station. Now we hear that he is on CNN, maybe he is going to another network. It's funny but we get used to it. It's only two weeks but it looks like normal today.

SWEENEY: And tell me, how does your station cover whenever a rocket hits here? What was it like in the beginning when the first rockets began to fall?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think like when you are a fan of a football team or any sport team. The game starts and you don't really believe that your team is going to lose. Like that, we and all the citizens here in Haifa, we knew the danger from the Hezbollah rockets. We hear about it. We talk about it for years but we didn't really believe that it was going to hit here in Haifa.

When the first rocket bomb was here I think it was quite scary but unlike your networks or the Israeli national networks, we don't deal with Hezbollah, we don't deal with the Lebanon fighting and what happens in Beirut. We deal only with the lives here of the local people here. A lot of things that you don't see on any other station.

SWEENEY: Of course, when a situation evolves like this, everybody is trying to find ways of covering it in the most efficient way possible and after a while, this is now into the third week of this conflict, things settle into a routine. Not necessarily the war, but how you cover the war. Has that been the case for you?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes we are doing it differently. First, we know all the shortcuts in Haifa, so we can be first of any bomb hitting but most of all we are looking around the places that was crashed (ph). I'm just coming back from a show that I did in one of the shelters here downtown, in one of the neighborhoods and all the media came to see where the rocket of the Hezbollah hit but if you go two streets up the road, you can see different things. You can see people in shelter even though the army tells you in Haifa you don't have to go to the shelter, you just have to be in a safe place.

But they are living in buildings that are 60 or 70 years old. It's not a safe place. So what they are doing, they are going to the shelter and that's where the Israeli government for all the last years didn't do a good job. All the public shelters are not prepared, are not air conditioned, it's hot here you can see, I'm sure, in the summer here, and that's what we are dealing with, the bomb, people who are getting hurt, of course, but what happens in a mile or two mile radius from them, trying to see the way the people are acting in real life.

SWEENEY: At a very local level.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yeah. What is opened. What is closed. What a few people (ph), what they need and I think what we can see here in the citizens while we are here in the government and the Cabinet, tell the people here in Haifa, be strong and the same time exactly they don't - how do I say? They don't help people to be strong, to stay strong. They don't give any support to the people here in Haifa, that's when we come and that's when we try to help, because we are a local station, because we are in such a small resolution, we can help these people.

SWEENEY: And of course, obviously, being Israeli and being with an Israeli television station in Haifa, you have obviously, you're at war, you're on one side of this conflict, and you have a view, but Jiyan (ph), working for Xinhua, you are looking at it from another point of view. You can to Gaza, you can go to the West Bank and how do you cover a story that has very clear, defined parameters.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yeah, as you say we are on the third (ph) side and we must ask the people in Gaza and West Bank and we are also asking the opinions of Israeli people. For example, I'm in Haifa right now and when I cover the stories, the conflicts between Israel and Lebanon - Hezbollah, sorry, I interviewed the Haifa citizens and then I go to the Arabic community and asked what they think about Hezbollah and the Israeli government and I got quite different answers. It will help us to be neutral, to view this conflict more clearly.

SWEENEY: Let me ask you. Israel has a very well evolved, defined media organization here, in the sense that every day at the hotels, for example, the Foreign Ministry gives out a pamphlet telling what is happening today, which press briefing is there and who might be available for interview, all geared at the Israeli side of the story.

How much have you used the services that the government provides here.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We use - 90 percent of the access is really convenient. We will attend the press conference. Yesterday I joined the press conference of Livni, the foreign minister of Israel and I also joined a tour that was organized by the foreign minister.

We went on a tour from Nahariya the northern city of Israel and then we went to the site that was attacked by the Katyusha and we went to a hospital that admitted civilians - wounded civilians from the attack, yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Working very different even from the Israeli national reporters. They are using the beeper all the time and getting a report also from the army and from the spokesman. We are not - we are dealing with the people in the area, the people that are in the neighborhoods and in Haifa, we have a problem here, we have a problem there, a rocket fell here, a rocket fell there. We have those beepers and we get those announcements but we don't use them.

SWEENEY: Jinyan had a point, though, that she goes to talk to Israeli Jews living in this city and then she goes to talk to Arabs living in the city and the population is pretty much 50-50 but she hears a very different point of view from the Arabs living in this city.

Is the Arab voice represented in your coverage?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yeah, for sure, for sure but when you are dealing with living together here in Haifa, with the coexistence here in Haifa of Jewish and Arabs, you see a very good coexistence here in Haifa but people think about Lebanon or bombing Lebanon, it's very different because we are not dealing with is it OK if Israel is bombing Beirut or is it not OK, is it too much, but casualties in Beirut, since we are not dealing with it in our show, you don't hear opinions from the Israelis that it's OK and the Arabs that it's not OK. We're not hearing it. We're just trying to see if the coexistence here in Haifa is hurt with this war.

SWEENEY: (inaudible), thank you both very much for joining us.

And that is all for this special edition of INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS. I'm Fionnuala Sweeney in Haifa in northern Israel. Join us again next week for another look at how the media are covering the big stories.



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