Journalists under the gun in Beirut.
Beirut wasn't always a place journalists feared. Once a city of glittering, sun-drenched elegance, it was a prize assignment for Western journalists. But in the lasat ten years, Beirut has become a danger zone. Journalists have been threatened, shot, kidnapped, run out of town and bludgeoned to death. In a city ruled by anarchy and terror, they are inviting targets for Arab government and groups that feel maligned by their reporting.
By 1980, after five years of vicious civil war, the city was in ruins and divided into rival fiefdoms ruled by armed gangs. Reporters had to contend with an array of competing political factions, each of which had its own ideas about what constituted fair and balanced reporting. Says New York Times Beirut bureau chief John Kifner, who covered Lebanon from 1979 to 1982 and returned to Beirut this spring, "I continually had to go back and forth between rival militias, each claiming to have a just cause and each hating the others' guys. Security was a nightmare."
The nightmare became omnipresent in 1980, when Syrian President Hafez al-Assad launched a campaign of terror against journalists who wrote about political unrest in his country. In the summer of 1980, Reuters Beirut bureau chief Bernd Debusmann was critically wounded by Syrian gunmen, and Le Figaro and the BBC moved their offices from Beirut to Nicosia, Cyprus, after Western intelligence agencies confirmed reports that their correspondents were on a Syrian hit list. "Beirut could be frightening because of the high level of random violence," says Jim Muir, one of the BBC correspondents who was targeted by the Syrians. "But when you get yourself on a hit list, life becomes very different. The airport was closed because of shelling for two days before I could leave. My heart jumped every time someone walked by me with their hands in their pockets."
In May 1981, Kifner also learned just how unnerving Lebanon could be when he and fellow Times reporter William Farrel, along with Jonathan Randal of The Washington Post, Julian Nundy of Newsweek and William Foley, a photographer for the Associated Press, were arrested by fighters from Ahmad Jibril's Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, at a road-block outside Damour in South Lebanon. The journalists were carted off to jail where they were stripped, roughed up, threatened and thrown into tiny windowless cells for sixteen hours, after which they were released with profuse apologies.
It wasn't until some ten months later, however, that Kifner reported the incident, and then only because Ze'ev Chafets, head of the Israeli Government Press Office, charged in an interview with Times Jerusalem bureau chief David Shipler that the media had suppressed this and other negative stories about the P.L.O. and Syria because journalists feared retaliation. (Chafets reiterates this charge in his book Double Vision, recently published by William Morrow.)
William Farrell, who says the experience in Damour was "very scary," denies Chafet's charge. "We didn't want to look like a bunch of macho journalists who had survived a hairy incident," he explains. "The same day we were released, twenty-one Lebanese civilians were killed during a shelling attack on Beirut, and the SAM missile crisis in the Bekaa Valley was heating up. What do you think was the most important story?"
Many Beirut-based correspondents gave the P.L.O. high marks for its tolerance of criticism from the press. The Washington Post's Loren Jenkins, who shared a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting from Lebanon in 1982 with Thomas Friedman of The Times, says the organization acted as the press's guardian angel. "One lived with greater security when the press was under the protection of the P.L.O.," he says. "It is a well-known fact that the P.L.O. provided security for reporters, protected the press center in the Commmodore Hotel and intervened with lefist groups when necessary. No one is doing that now."
Not every correspondent gave the Palestinians such a good review. "Although they were generally pretty democractic," says Jim Muir, "I've known reporters who were detained or run out of town by the P.L.O. for being too critical. And if they got it in their heads that you were a C.I.A. spook or a Zionist spy, you'd better pack your bags."
There was considerable speculation among Western reporters about whether the P.L.O. was involved in the July 1981 bludgeoning murder of ABC's Beirut stringer Sean Toolan. Toolan's battered body was found in a West Beirut alley shortly after the network aired a special documentary on 20/20 titled "The Unholy War," linking the P.L.O. to the K.G.B. and international terrorism. In an interview in February 1982, Chaftes alleged to Shiper that Toolan might have been murdered by the Palestinian organization in revenge for ABC's unflattering documentary. But most of Toolan's colleagues in West Beirut don't think the killing was politically motivated. "It was a sex-related killing," said a British journalist who was drinking with Toolan the night he was murdered. "Toolan was having several affairs with married Arab women. You can't do that in the Arab world. If it was a serious political killing, you wouldn't have been able to identify the body."
Although the debate still rages in some quarters about whether the P.L.O. intimidated or protected the Western press corps in Beirut, reporters generally agree that the Syrians were absolutely terrifying. After the shooting of Debusmann and the departure of Le Figaro and the BBC, reporters delayed filing sensitive stories about Syria until the Arab media had broken them.
In April 1981, American journalists in Beirut heard credible reports that Syrian troops had massacred hundreds of civilians in the Central Syrian city of Hama. They sat on the story for weeks, however, until it was reported by the Iraqi government radio station in Baghdad. Then they forwarded the Iraqi account to their papers in the United States. The only major U.S. paper to publish a piece on the mass murder, two months after the fact, was The Washington Post, whose reporter Edward Cody wrote from Washington that the massacre was not widely publicized because of Syrian threats and attacks on journalists in Beirut.
In February 1982, journalists there again heard reports of a brutal massacre in Hama, and this time they rushed to Damascus to cover the story. The Syrian government denounced both the reports of the story and the publications in which they were run. "Syria is more quiet and stable and secure than a number of American cities," Syrian Information Minister Ahmed Iskander Ahmed told Western reporters in Damascus. But the road to Hama was closed to foreign correspondents. "Journalists are cautioned, with emphasis," wrote Michael Kennedy of the Los Angeles Times, "to stay away from Hama if they value their lives." By the time journalists visited the city, about ten weeks after the massacre, much of it had been "bulldozed as flat as parking lots," wrote Thomas Friedman, then the New York Times Beirut bureau chief.
More recently, stories about President Assad's ill health and the ensuing power struggle between him and his brother Rifat have been handled gingerly by the Western press. Last winter, when the editors of The New York Times Magazine asked Friedman to write a "backgrounder" on Syrian affairs, he declined, reportedly citing security reasons.
Even conservative, pro-Western Arab regimes have, on occasion, threatened reporters' sources in Lebanon. In 1980, Helena Cobban, then a Beirut correspondent for The Christian Service Monitor, filed several dispatches about corruption and political unrest in Saudi Arabia. Cobban says her main source for the city, a Saudi national in Beirut, was abducted by Saudi agents soon after the stories were published.
After the Phalangists gained the upper hand in Beirut following the Syrian and P.L.O. withdrawal from the city in August 1982, Western journalists complained they were being subjected to a campaign of Phalange-inspired intimidation. In the most notorious incident, after Washington Post correspondent Loren Jenkins and New York Times reporter Colin Campbell investigated the Phalangist massacres at Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in September 1982, they were told to leave Lebanon within twenty-four hours or be killed.
The Phalangists also strong-armed other reporters. In October 1982, Christian Science Monitor correspondent Trudy Rubin was threatened in East Beirut by the head of the Phalangist military police, Dib Anastas, who, says Rubin, screamed when she entered his office, "We know how to take care of people who write lies." Rubin says Anastas mistook her for Helena Cobban, who had written several articles critical of the Phalange.
In the fall of 1983, reporters discovered they had a new enemey: the virulently anti-Western terrorist group Party of God, which claimed responsibility for the killing of 241 American marines and fifteen-eight French soldiers in Beirut that October. The group is also said to have been responsible for the March 7, 1984, kidnapping of Jermey Levin, the 51-year-old Beirut bureau chief of Cable News Network, who disappeared on his way to work. Although the network has received no ransom note, CNN spokeswoman Judi Borza says, "We have reason to believe he's alive."
Also this year, on August 29, a group calling itself the Moslem Socialist Revolutionary Organizations kidnapped Reuters Beirut correspondent Jonathan Wright while he was in the Bekaa Valley. Wright escaped from his captors in September and returned to London. He was the second Reuters reporter to return unexpectedly to London this year. In March, another correspondent left Beirut after a rocket burst through her bedroom wall.
Although Beirut is still the best listening post in the Arab Middle East, reporters are increasingly reluctant to risk their lives there. The number of foreign journalists in Beirut has dropped from 400 in 1975 to less than 200 today. In a climate of constant fear, they are leery about probing too deeply into the affairs of radical Arab regimes and organizations. Consequently, significant stories have been missed or underreported. The P.L.O.'s reign of terror against local inhabitants in South Lebanon, the divisions within Al Fatah that led to a mutiny in the organization last year, the Phalangist domination of Lebanon's central government and the extent of Iranian involvement in Lebanon's principal Shiite organization, Amal, are all stories that were missed or inadequately reported.
Covering the Middle East from Lebanon is hard enough during relatively quiet times, but when intimidation is added to the equation, a difficult job becomes impossible. Jenkins, who has been in and out of Lebanon dozens of times and is currently reporting from Latin America, says, "I've never seen any place as ugly--or as potentially dangerous for reporters--as Lebanon."