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. “Their cars were clearly marked ‘Press’ and ‘TV,’” Nabil Khatib, executive editor of Dubai-based pan-Arab channel al-Arabiya, told the Committee to Protect Journalists. Israel says it was “targeting the roads because Hezbollah uses those roads.”
It’s true that Al-Manar is a mouthpiece for Hezbollah, but it’s also true that 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 Hezbollah’s 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 America’s cynical support for the Israeli assault.
There is no doubt that south Lebanon’s roads have become highways of death, and that cell phones and their signals have become a strategic tool. But it’s also true that the recent incidents must be seen in the context of what the International Federation of Journalists has called a “pattern of targeting” of journalists in recent weeks. 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. Al-Jazeera has long operated with relative freedom in Israel, 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 “appalling 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. As CJR Daily has noted, freelancer and Time stringer Christopher Allbritton recently revealed on his weblog that “[t]he Party of God has a copy of every journalist’s passport, and they’ve already hassled a number of us and threatened one.”
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 groups.
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 jingoism among many Arab journalists mean news organizations on both sides are seen to be part of the war effort. The historic standing of the media as independent, reporting all perspectives without bias or distortion, was frittered away. But that does not mean journalists deserve to die.
Reporters without Borders has called for an investigation to determine whether the Geneva Conventions have been violated in Lebanon. But there is plenty of wiggle room in current international laws. Indeed, a Pentagon legal directive states, “Civilians and civilian property that make a direct contribution to the war effort may also be attacked…”
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.