After the carnage of this past weekend in the Middle East, two previous incidents seemed to fade into insignificance — and that’s 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 “mightier than the sword,” 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 Hezbollah’s al-Manar TV, and the convoy attack carry the markings of an ongoing campaign against news organizations by virtually all of the protagonists of the region’s many conflicts. Its precedent was the 1999 NATO/U.S. attack on Radio Television Serbia, which killed 19 staffers.
The targeting of “enemy” 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 “legitimate” 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. There’s no doubt that 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 declining 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-Jazeera’s bureaus in Kabul and Baghdad. The reality is that until al-Jazeera came along in 1996, the term “television journalism” 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 “independent” 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-Jazeera’s 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 weren’t 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 The One Percent Doctrine, in the aftermath of the Kabul bombing, “Inside the CIA, and the White House, there was satisfaction that a message had been sent to Al Jazeera.”
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, “The stations that are showing Americans intentionally killing women and children are not legitimate news sources.”
The question, of course, becomes: “Legitimate” according to whom? 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 country’s top print editor was killed.
Today, there is - as the International Federation of Journalists put it - “the appalling perception” that journalists from many of those same news organizations are in Israel’s gun-sights.