Friday, February 08, 2008

Misleading the world about Lebanese politics

Misleading the world about Lebanese politics
By Marc J Sirois
Daily Star staff

FIRST PERSON By Marc J. Sirois

Only a complete fool would expect Western media outlets to consistently provide full, fair and well-informed coverage of any Arab country, let alone Lebanon. Even for a partial fool like myself, though, it is nonetheless surprising and disappointing when some of them fail even to try. The latest opportunity came Wednesday night after the leader of Hizbullah, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, and the leader of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), MP Michel Aoun, appeared on television together to mark the second anniversary of their alliance. The joint interview, taped earlier and broadcast by the FPM's Orange TV, ran for more than three hours, itself a foreign concept for Western audiences accustomed to hearing politicians in 10-second sound-bites.

More to the point, in the current Lebanese context of politics via captured media, the interview qualified as a major news event. It might have been a canned performance that fulfilled expectations of Nasrallah's charisma and erudition causing him to outshine his ally, but given the nature of their relationship and the rarity of the Hizbullah leader's public appearances these days, it more than merited substantial coverage. So how did the wire agencies keep their customers informed about the matter? On this occasion, the best of the lot was a dispatch of about 450 words that got the most important stuff right: It emphasized that Nasrallah was joined by a "Christian ally;" it explained that they and their partners want veto power in the next government in order to protect themselves; and it reported that while the opposition retains a positive view of the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), it wants the investigation into the shooting deaths of several protesters on January 27 to be "serious and decisive."

Unfortunately, this article had been preceded by one from another service that mostly missed the point. The piece carried no overt bias, but it got bogged down on a single issue; that of Hizbullah's stance on the probe of the shootings and how this might affect the consensus presidential candidacy of the LAF's commander, General Michel Suleiman. What is more, it made no effort at all to mention the reason for the interview, namely the anniversary of a historic alliance between the Shiite leader of Lebanon's largest party and the head of the biggest Christian bloc in Lebanon's Parliament. In fact, Aoun was mentioned only in the very last sentence, which dismissed him as "a Christian leader who is part of the opposition alliance."

Even this was better than what a third agency did: For about 18 hours, one of the largest providers of information on the planet was completely silent on a key development in a country whose travails have far-reaching implications for the entire region. Then it made me wish the silence had not been broken. While mentioning that Aoun was part of the interview, this article also made no mention of the occasion, instead dwelling almost exclusively on Nasrallah's comments on the summer 2006 war with Israel - and maintaining an air of thinly veiled hostility toward the cleric's organization.

Specifically, the sayyed referred to the final report on the conflict recently released by the Israeli government's Winograd Commission. While under no illusions that the authors of the document intended to do his group a service, Nasrallah said it supported his contentions that Hizbullah won the war and that the Jewish state had been planning to attack for months. Regarding the second point, the agency stated that Nasrallah "gave no evidence to back up his claim." It would take a battery of super-computers to handle the increased electronic traffic if the agency in question were to add the same caveat every time a political figure made a similarly unsubstantiated assertion(think Bush and his buddies before the Iraq war). But it does not do so, because the purpose of the phrase is not to inform the reader but rather to mislead him or her by impugning the credibility of the speaker. So when one of Nasrallah's domestic or foreign detractors makes the fabulist charge that a general strike or a public demonstration called by his group is a "coup d'etat," no one applies this standard of "evidence." If they did, they might have to note the judgment of many analysts that if Hizbullah were to undertake the violent overthrow of Lebanon's government and no outside power intervened, Lebanon's government would be violently overthrown. Regarding the "pre-planning" theory, Nasrallah is hardly alone in subscribing to it- and there is strong circumstantial evidence to support it. For one thing, the notion dovetails nicely with a central tenet of the neoconservative militarism that has guided the Middle East policy of Israel's number one ally, the United States, since 2001: the idea that Arab and Muslim forces opposed to Israeli and American hegemony can and should be "taken off the board." For another, there are very few governments that would launch a full-scale war over the capture of two soldiers and the deaths of a few more. There is also the fact that the troops involved were reservists: There is an argument to be made that only an ignorant cretin or a Machiavellian genius would send anything but his best troops to guard a border as tense as that between Lebanon and Israel. No one has ever accused Israel's then-defense minister, Amir Peretz, of possessing intellectual gifts (especially when it comes to matters martial), but that might simply have made him a perfect scapegoat for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert - who is widely known as a highly skilled political operator.

We may never know if the war was a case of the Israelis' springing a trap a few months early, but to brush off the argument that they did is to ignore a considerable number of facts. On the plus side, at least the agency in question seems to have stopped referring to Nasrallah as "the black-turbaned cleric." Digressions of a partial fool aside, no one is demanding that Western news providers constantly pad their copy with exhaustive explanations of how what is now Lebanon has been caught up in the struggles of larger powers for millennia. It would be nice, though, if they would manage generally to provide a little relevant context to their reportage and to refrain from poisoning their copy with a noxious brew of double standards and insinuated slander.

Marc J. Sirois is managing editor of THE DAILY STAR.

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