One of the awkward facts of life for journalists here is that our colleagues keep disappearing. Kidnapping has become a standard occupational hazard.
The kidnapping worry helps us forget the other small problems of life, like car theft. Friends congratulated me last September when my treasured Volkswagen Golf-GTI was stolen as I worked late writing about the abduction of Soviet embassy officials. "It's a blessing in disguise," my taxi driver Ali assured me. "You won't have to drive around on your own anymore."
Since March 1984, at least 20 journalists on assignment in Beirut have been seized by gunmen. Seven are still missing, including Associated Press correspondent Terry Anderson. The latest victims were members of a four-man French television crew from "Antenne-2." They had come here with scores of other French newsmen to cover the fate of four French hostages who were kidnapped in Beirut last year. Unfortunately, the Antenne-2 reporters became part of the story.
Journalists here worry about the spasms of street fighting, the frequent car bombings and the danger of being grabbed on the way to work. But these worries are simple compared to the professional problems that keep us awake at night. We worry that the risks of getting the story have become greater than the international importance of the story; and we worry that in this anarchic environment, our profession is being degraded.
The sense of physical vulnerability is less anguishing than the sense of being manipulated by obscure forces and groups. These groups want to use journalists -- not only as a platform but as players in the unending drama of hostage-taking for political purposes. We feel trapped between our duty to report the facts and our suspicion that in doing so we are "providing terrorists with oxygen," as British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher put it.
A reporter's life here is also complicated by threats, explicit and implicit, from the people we cover. There is a thin line between exercising due caution and self-censorship. How many journalists in this environment have tried seriously to probe beneath the surface of Hizbullah, exploring its link to Islamic Jihad, its financing, the directives it receives from Tehran or factions of the PLO? For those who try to report these issues, there is always the danger of getting killed.
Summing up the dilemma of journalists here, Jim Muir, a veteran free-lance journalist in the area, offered this comment: "The Middle East is a dangerous area where you constantly risk your life or your reputation." We try not to lose either.
Beirut has always been a tough place to work as a reporter, but the situation has gotten much worse in the last four years. When Syrians and Palestinians ruled West Beirut before the 1982 Israeli invasion, a reporter could calculate the dangers that any specific story involved. But now, with shadowy organizations loose in West Beirut and actually targeting journalists, the violence and attempts at intimidation have become embedded in the process of covering the news.
The hostage story is a special problem. With 17 foreigners still held captive in Lebanon, we cannot ignore the stream of communiques and Polaroid prints issued to the media by a growing list of spectral organizations. Though we're aware that we ourselves are hostage to whatever illusion of truth or falsehood such groups wish to convey, we often find ourselves unable to avoid their media ploys.
The most recent example was the distribution on March 10 of gruesome pictures of French sociologist Michel Seurat -- half naked, his head tilted to one side, with his eyes half-closed. To emphasize the grisly point, Islamic Jihad threw in two more pictures: one of an open coffin and another of a sealed casket engraved with a cross. All this to demonstrate that the group had been serious when it announced several days earlier Seurat's "execution" on charges of espionnage.
Two days before Seurat's pictures were released to an international news agency, intermediaries for the kidnappers offered to sell a photograph of the Frenchman to two other news agencies. They refused. Such offers to sell information to the highest bidder have multiplied since the TWA hijacking, when the miltiamen got the idea that Western journalists might be willing to buy "scoops." In the last several months, for example, there have been offers promising footage and pictures of the American hostages.
The Beirut press corps feels extra pressure when the hostages here become big issues in the West, as happened during France's latest electoral campaign. Our desire to provide accurate yet skeptical coverage can raise some delicate problems. Some of us have had nagging doubts, for example, over our handling of claims and statements by Islamic Jihad about the French hostages. Should we have speculated in our stories on March 5, as many of us did, that Seurat's execution may not have actually happened? Did we thereby push the kidnappers to provide us with more concrete evidence, like the gruesome photos?
Several French newspapers, indignant over the Seurat pictures, decided against publishing them. "We have chosen not to publish the image of blackmail over death," Le Parisien wrote in a small notice at the center of a white rectangle -- the space that would have been used to reproduce Seurat's grim photograph. Le Matin explained its similar decision: "It seems to us that the cup is full, we cannot remain indifferent to such acts of cruelty and content ourselves with following the professional routine. By deliberately ignoring these pictures, we are merely contributing to the whole country's rejection of participation in the game of the assassins."
With at least five American hostages still in captivity, American news organizations cannot ignore the kidnappers. Given the gravity of the hostages' situation and the torment of families waiting for some word on their fate or sign of life, any restraint by the media could be seen as luxury at the hostages' expense.
Beyond the spurts of interest in the hostages, the Beirut story seems to many, here and abroad, to have become numbing and repetitive. The violence in Lebanon that once triggered passionate debate and dominated world news no longer captures much outside attention.
Interest in purely Lebanese affairs has dimmed. The recurrence of shelling, brutality, death and destruction -- in the absence of any ideology or workable solution -- has reduced disaster in Lebanon to meaningless triviality. In part because of the kidnapping of Americans, the American press is virtually gone from Lebanon, but for rare and brief visits by one or two enterprising correspondents at times of crisis; the story has moved on, and the attention of journalists and editors has wandered away to other places, where kidnappings and senseless danger are not the order of the day.
One "tragic sideshow" here, as the Anglican church envoy Terry Waite put it, was a battle last November between Moslem militias. The battle, which left two hundred people dead, trapped Waite and the journalists covering his mission in a West Beirut hotel.
The battle involved a quarrel over what flags should be displayed in public in West Beirut -- those of the militias or that of the Lebanese government. There had been shooting in several parts of the city that day. Eventually, the presence of scores of reporters and television crews at the Commodore Hotel attracted hooded militiamen with shoulder-mounted recoilless rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and machineguns -- and encouraged them to demonstrate their combat skills in the hotel lobby. We had gathered there the day before for an ill-fated press conference by Waite on the progress of his effort to negotiate release of the American hostages.
Television cameras that had been set up outside the hotel to film Waite crossing the street from a news agency office caught the attention of a militiaman standing by an earth mound nearby. He fired a shot at nothing in particular. The driver of a yellow-and-black Austin happened to be driving down the street. He was killed instantly. A German television correspondent, who declined to be named, insists the militiaman was putting on a show for the benefit of rolling cameras, since there were no other gunmen in sight.
Meanwhile, the fighting got worse -- preventing rescue workers from getting near the car. Goskun Aral, a Turkish photographer working for the French Sipa agency, joined Visnews soundman Ali Moussa, a Lebanese, in a rescue effort. They dragged the injured man, Raja Fuleihan, an administrator at the American University Hospital, from the car under a hail of machinegun fire. Other photographers displayed a different kind of courage. They braved the shooting and clicked away at their colleagues. Aral missed the picture but got a herogram from his agency just the same.
Another tragic sideshow was a Syrian-backed offensive by leftist militias against the northern Lebanese port of Tripoli last September. The Tripoli fighting killed at least five hundred people, devastated the heart of the old city and left the maze of arcaded stone souks by the seafront badly battered. The story attracted minimal coverage.
While many Lebanese stories receive little notice, others may receive too much attention. For example, the movement last January of Syrian armor, men and material from the Bekaa Valley to peaks overlooking President Amin Gemayel's home region provoked heavy media coverage -- partly because it came in the aftermath of Christian defiance of a Syrian-brokered peace accord. The Syrian buildup and Moslem calls for Gemayel's ouster, punctuated with rounds of mountain shelling of the Christian heartland, set the journalistic adrenaline flowing again. After hearing unreliable local radio reports of an imminent Syrian-backed offensive and forecasts of the president's downfall, some reporters got carried away.
When reporters reached the "front" at the village of Dhour Chweir, held by the National Syrian Social Party, the action was considerably less than expected. The only battle we witnessed was actually provoked by the presence of photographers. "Give them what they want and get it over with," barked an NSSP commander over the radio to a militiaman giving us a guided tour through a muddy cabbage patch leading to a deserted trench overlooking President Gemayel's home village of Bickfaya.
Our guide gave his orders, a few rockets were fired and within seconds the response from the Lebanese army thundered across the valley -- sending us diving for cover. The photographers got their picture of a crouching militiaman firing his shoulder-mounted weapon at close range, and we drove back to Beirut.
The most disconcerting and tormenting journalistic experience for most of us was coverage of the five-week Shiite-Palestinian camp war last May and June. Covering the fighting and trying to verify the allegations became a game of chance -- and also a matter of dealing with serious threats.
Shiite Amal militiamen besieging the embattled Palestinian shantytowns drove reporters away with warning shots. "I'll knife you to death if you dare come back here again," one crazed militiaman warned me at the entrance to the Bourj Barajneh camp. Meanwhile, reports were filtering out from fleeing refugees and other eyewitnesses about atrocities inside the camp.
We were totally dependent on Palestinian sources because Amal was maintaining a blackout on what was going on inside the camps. "Our big mistake and something we did wrong was not allowing reporters to go inside the camps," Amal official Ghassan Seblani later admitted. Excited by first accounts of cold-blooded killings inside the Palestinian Gaza hospital, the London Sunday Times drew parallels with the Sabra and Chatila massacres in 1982.
"Evidence has started to mount that large-scale killings of civilians took place in the Sabra and Chatila refugee camps in Beirut . . . hundreds of Palestinian civilians are thought to have been killed . . . the latest reports of killings in the camps appear to be a replay of the massacres in Sabra and Chatila in 1982," the Sunday Times wrote on May 26, 1985.
The 1985 battle in the camps was brutal and savage, but the estimates of civilian deaths were probably inflated and the parallels to 1982 overdrawn. Palestinian civilians who managed to escape were followed and harassed, scores were kidnapped and some patients were dragged out of the hospital in cruel conditions. The difference from 1982 is that the victims then had been mostly defenseless civilians, while the killing in the camps last year came in the midst of heavy combat, with many casualties on both sides.
The BBC broadcast reports about the killing in the camps all day on May 26, prompting an indignant phone call by Shiite Amal leader Nabih Berri to the British ambassador and a threat by Islamic Jihad to journalists. Some news agencies, fearful of reprisals against their local and foreign staff, chose to water down their stories; others decided against using them altogether. This caution, born out of a "climate of terror" was interpreted by some critics as a "conspiracy of silence" among the press corps here.
The critics need to consider that the journalists who remain here are doing their jobs under difficult conditions. Despite the militiaman's warning that day at Bourj Barajneh, for example, I went back later and pieced together the best account I could for The Washington Post. I also did something else -- I advised my editors of the threats so that they would be aware of the conditions under which stories were being filed to them.
Another day, while waiting at the entrance of Bourj Barajneh for the evacuation of wounded Palestinians last May, I was approached by militiamen who asked me to point out British correspondents working for the BBC. I told them I didn't know any and discreetly told my British colleagues about the request. They left Beirut the next day.
One week into the TWA hijacking crisis, I was hauled out of a press conference by a senior militia official for a "chat." He asked me about a colleague working for another major newspaper, while leafing through a large portfolio of that reporter's press clippings that had been sent from the U.S.
"Tell him if he persists in his line of reporting, we can no longer guarantee his safety in Beirut. I cannot control my men. You cannot expect my people to respond to shelling with nice words or to displacement with flowers," the official said. Several weeks later, after my own clippings landed on his desk, I was also given a warning. Again, I advised my editors.
Despite the risks, the guilt that plagues some of us for still being alive in a country of unfathomable madness, someone has to stay behind and cover it. It is not altruism but small satisfactions and perhaps addiction to the defiance of adversity that keep most of us going.