Lebanon: Reporter reflections from Beirut

May 15th, 2008 | Posted in Beirut, Hezbollah, Lebanon, Independent Media, Politics, Solidarity
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    Lebanon government cancels measures against Hezbollah.

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    Broadcasts from Beirut III Photo: © Zoriah

Interview with Raed Rafei, a Lebanese reporter working with the Los Angeles Times.

On Wednesday, May 14th, Lebanon’s government moved to reverse key decisions taken last week aimed at Hezbollah, including a decision to dismantle Hezbollah’s independent telephone communications system and a controversial move to replace a head security personal at Beirut’s international airport with sympathies towards the Lebanese opposition. Today’s government decision to reverse these decisions was announced minutes prior to this interview, creating a backdrop soundtrack of celebratory gunfire from opposition supporters in Beirut.

Arab media outlets have played a central role on the ground in Lebanon and throughout the Middle East in shaping popular opinions on the ongoing conflict. This interview also focuses on the recent Hezbollah orchestrated shut-down of Future T.V. a television network owned by Saad Hariri, the son of Lebanon’s former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, infamous in Lebanon for a strongly pro-government stance. Also this interview outlines the reflections of a Lebanese journalist working in the context of the current conflict in Lebanon.

Raed Rafei: Can you hear that, the gunfire? Lebanon’s government has just decided to revoke their two recent decisions concerning Hezbollah, the first regarding the telephone network and the second, their decision to replace the security head at Beirut’s international airport. Hope that the gunfire outside is only opposition supporters celebrating the government decision tonight, not anything more!

Stefan Christoff: Alright, to start can you describe the current situation in Beirut and the importance of the recent decisions taken by the government of Fouad Sinora concerning Hezbollah.

Raed Rafei: Well what has happened recently in Beirut was a realization of what many Lebanese have been fearing for the past year, which is not a civil-war but the beginning of serious civil strife in the country. Death tolls from the recent fighting aren’t clear until now, however in the past days many people have been killed in fighting, Sunni, Shi’ite, Druze. A situation that is very, very disturbing for the Lebanese as it brings us back to the very dark days in the Lebanese civil-war.

Now things in Beirut are much more calm, as we wait on for political solution, however it’s still very, very tense. Now regarding the two government decisions, now the government trying to minimize the importance of these two decisions. First they were saying that Hezbollah is building a parallel phone network in Lebanon, that this phone network and that it isn’t only serving the Lebanese resistance but is being used for other purposes, expanding rapidly beyond control. Lebanon’s government decided that this phone network must be tossed.

Now the second decision revolves around the security for Beirut’s airport, which the government claims is being monitored by Hezbollah. Lebanon’s government wanted to change the security head at the airport, a person was basically following directions from Hezbollah. Hezbollah viewed these decisions as a violation of an agreement within the government to not touch the resistance in Lebanon, without a collective national dialog.

Stefan Christoff: As we speak gunfire is going off, so can you talk about what’s happening now outside your home in West Beirut?

Raed Rafei: Well this is a little disturbing, the gunfire, as it sounds similar to the firefights last week in Beirut. Fighting was very tense at times in West Beirut late last week. Now that the government has decided to reserve it’s two decisions aimed at Hezbollah, immediately celebratory gunfire is being fired throughout West Beirut. Now the opposition is declaring victory on the Lebanese T.V. networks.

Stefan Christoff: Today officials from the Arab League convened in Beirut, can you talk about this meeting?

Raed Rafei: In general people in Lebanon don’t have a very positive image of the Arab League, as they have been trying unsuccessfully to mediate the situation in Lebanon for months and months. However it’s certainly positive that the government has decided to reverse their two decisions.

Clearly brokering meaningful negotiations in Lebanon today is very, very difficult, as it’s not clear on which points the two opposing sides will agree to discuss or negotiate on.

Hezbollah wants to only discuss potentialities for a future government and Lebanon’s electoral laws. Pro-government forces, currently in power, want to discuss the internal security for the country, meaning Hezbollah’s weapons.

Now the question remains if these two political sides will at least find a common ground for negotiations in Lebanon.

Stefan Christoff: Can you talk about the current situation in Lebanon and it’s ties to the war between Israel and Lebanon in 2006?

Raed Rafei: During Israel’s attack on Lebanon in 2006, the vast majority in Lebanon rallied behind Hezbollah, as the country was being attacked by an outside force that was destroying the country.

Since this war tensions between the pro-government forces and the Hezbollah-backed opposition have been growing. Today we are living through a direct consequence of the 2006 war, as this war made it clear, despite the national unity against Israel at the time, that there are two different directions that the main national political forces are pulling Lebanon toward.

Hezbollah is at one side, the pro-government forces are one the totally opposite side. So reconciling these differences is extremely difficult.

Stefan Christoff: From a journalistic perspective can you describe the key differences between pro-government forces and the opposition, also the way that these differences impact people’s daily lives in Lebanon.

Raed Rafei: Prior to the Rafik Hariri’s assassination in 2005, Hezbollah wasn’t really a major element within Lebanon’s political process. After the assassination it became clear that Hezbollah’s role in Lebanon, their ideology as a resisting force to Israel was in danger. Since this time all Hezbollah’s internal moves in Lebanon have been to attempt to increase their power and influence within the governmental decision making process.

Hezbollah is basically saying that Lebanon’s must not become a U.S. friendly country, a country that backs pro-Israel policies in the Middle East, that Lebanon must resist U.S. imperialism in the Middle East. Also Hezbollah works to defend their allies in the region, Syria and Iran, which are coming under attack for taking anti-U.S. and anti-Israel positions within the Middle East.

On the other side the Lebanese government is claiming that Hezbollah no longer has a role in Lebanon, as most Lebanese territory is no longer occupied by Israel. Only Shabba Farms, a small part of Lebanon, is still occupied, which Lebanon can liberate through diplomatic means. Also the government is claiming that Hezbollah is trying to implement an Iranian or Syrian vision for Lebanon’s future. Even going so far to claim that Iran is developing a base on the Mediterranean through Hezbollah. This vision is tied to the pro-government forces labeling recent events in Lebanon as an Iranian coup.

Stefan Christoff: Now concerning your reporting on the current situation in Lebanon. You wrote a post on the LA Times website called, Lebanon: A hellish experience for journalists, in which you detailed the attack on Future T.V. in Lebanon this past week, could you detail this incident?

Raed Rafei: It’s important to outline this event carefully. Hezbollah didn’t firebomb or launch a military attack on Future T.V., basically Hezbollah carried out a calculated action against Future T.V.

Hezbollah entered the new studios for Future T.V., cutting all the equipment cables, effectively stopping the station from broadcasting. Confusion surrounds this event because Future movement has different offices and media outlets. One Future T.V. studio that is no longer being used was burned by a pro-Hezbollah party, supporters of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, fulfilling a longstanding vendetta between this party and Future T.V. It’s important to talk about this incident clearly.

However the fact that a media outlet in Lebanon was forcefully shut-down by the opposition, is certainly revolting. This event is one small part within a larger war between the Hezbollah backed opposition and the western-backed government. This war also operates through propaganda, as both sides heavily use media as a tool.

Hezbollah hasn’t until now attempted to justify or explain in a major way their move to shut-down Future T.V. In their calculations surrounding this event, they most likely thought that despite the denunciations they would receive, it would be much less costly to have a pro-government propaganda machine operating during the conflict last week. In Hezbollah’s thinking, this incident was calculated, in that it shut-down a T.V. station propelling sectarian thinking between Sunni and Shi’ite communities at this critical time.

Stefan Christoff: Can you talk about Future T.V., the critiques towards this particular station and more generally the role that news media plays in the conflict in Lebanon today?

Raed Rafei: Basically all T.V. networks in Lebanon are an extension of the political parties or forces that own them. Independent stations operating in the country are a minority, in the 1990’s there was an active effort to tie media outlets to the major political forces in the country. Most media outlets are mouthpieces for major political parties in Lebanon.

Certainly there shouldn’t be any attempt to undermine freedom of expression for the media in Lebanon, however there needs to be an independent monitoring force in Lebanon to halt the media’s role in spreading rumors and false messages at sensitive times such as now. Sadly all major media outlets in Lebanon are strongly influenced by major political parties in the country, they play the game.

Clearly there is a problem with the messages that Future T.V. broadcasts, however this problem should be dealt with in another way, in a time of peace.

Stefan Christoff: Now concerning your experiences in Beirut these last week. Can you describe what people have been saying to you as a journalists this past week. Now we are hearing consistent gunfire as we speak, so can you describe your experiences on the streets in Beirut this past week?

Raed Rafei: I live in West Beirut and people are so tired from the events this past week. Most people at this stage are tired and simply want an end to the crisis, they are willing to accept almost any political solution that brings down the violence experienced within the past week.

Now the problem is that in areas such as Tripoli, which is predominantly Sunni, people are extremely angry about what happened in Beirut. A growing rhetoric exists in the country that defines Lebanon in sectarian terms, classifying people or areas as Sunni or Shi’ite, feelings of hatred between religious communities is growing today in Lebanon. Tripoli is an example, however there are other areas where these feelings are quickly developing in Lebanon. People are becoming more irrational in the current context.

In covering recent events, people in Beirut were extremely suspicious, always asking for my papers, even after explaining that I was a journalists, people would still ask where I come from in Lebanon, my background. In covering the conflict in an area where Hezbollah is more powerful, people were generally suspicious until they feel that I support their cause. This sectarian reality is very disturbing today in Lebanon.

Stefan Christoff: Let’s talk more on the recent events, many people who are sympathetic to the political goals for the opposition, who are critical towards U.S. policy in the Middle East or Israel are critical towards the recent actions from Hezbollah. It could be argued that internal military action in Lebanon between the opposition and the government will never result in a compromise, that Hezbollah’s actions will never win over the supporters of Future movement or Walid Jumblat to the ideas that propel the opposition. Can you offer any critiques towards recent actions by the opposition in Lebanon from sources or outlets that are generally considered sympathetic to the opposition for example Al-Akbar newspaper.

Raed Rafei: Clearly Hezbollah realizes that the country is highly polarized. Hezbollah most likely didn’t think that they would loose a great deal of their support base in pursuing this most recent operation, as the people opposed to Hezbollah in Lebanon would remain against them, while the very strong popular base that supports Hezbollah would continue to support the opposition.

Clearly there are ethical questions surrounding Hezbollah’s engagement in this internal fighting in Lebanon. As Hezbollah has repeatedly stated that they would never turn their weapons to the inside. As Hezbollah has attempted to maintain an almost holy image in Lebanon for years now. Last week after Hassan Nasrallah gave a press conference in which he was questioned on the possibility for Hezbollah to use weapons inside Lebanon, a justification was made by Nasrallah that the recent events were a utilization of Hezbollah’s weapons to defend their weaponry, which isn’t a convincing argument to many in Lebanon.

Now this debate on Hezbollah using their weapons inside Lebanon is a very big debate, as many are very worried. Recent events could be viewed as an effort from one political group to impose their political will on the country, simply because they are stronger militarily, in this case it’s Hezbollah.

Hezbollah on the other hand explains that the recent military actions were extremely limited, that it was a response to an attack from the government, that it was self-defense. Hezbollah is saying that the recent events show that the goal isn’t to take over Beirut, or anywhere else in Lebanon, that they want the political process, or negotiation process to start immediately and that negotiations are the only way to find a long term solution. For this reason Hezbollah quickly handed over areas overtaken in Beirut to the Lebanese Army.

Stefan Christoff: Finally can you talk about your work as a journalist working in Lebanon? You wrote that it’s exhausting reporting on this internal conflict, much more exhausting than reporting on the 2006 Israeli attack on Lebanon. Can you talk about your work as a journalist in Lebanon within the context of the current conflict?

Raed Rafei: Clearly it’s exhausting, because as a Lebanese journalist you become involved in the conflict, it consumes you. Apart from covering the conflict, also I am a citizen sitting at home, hearing all the shooting and witnessing all the terrible events. Clearly throughout the past week, I was worried about the safety of my family of all my friends, of everyone in Lebanon, while trying to report fairly on the recent events. This constant worry makes working in these conditions very difficult.

Raed Rafei is a Lebanese reporter and a blogger working for the Los Angeles Times in Beirut, you can read Raed Rafei’s writing at the Los Angeles Times.

Broadcasts from Beirut III: A Tadamon! interview project aiming to highlight progressive voices from the ground in Lebanon on the ongoing conflict, voices independent from major political parties…

Broadcasts from Beirut is broadcast in audio format on CKUT Radio in Montreal…

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