In July, a controversy erupted when two Israel journalists traveling under foreign passports came to Lebanon to report on the country a year after the summer 2006 war. The pair, Lisa Goldman and Rinat Malkes, was taken to task by Nour Samaha of the Daily Star, who wrote that the journalists “not only broke Lebanese law, but also violated codes of ethics in journalism and endangered the lives of those they interviewed.”
Goldman defended herself against several of Samaha’s statements. But one phrase in particular stood out in her response: “Ramez Maluf, professor of journalism at the Lebanese American University, is quoted in the article as saying that Israelis interested in news about Lebanon should rely on the wire services. That sounds a lot like ‘let them eat cake.’ Me, I prefer a more substantive meal. Given the tsunami of congratulatory emails I have received from both Lebanese and Israelis, it seems pretty clear that there is a great hunger for human-interest reporting that goes beyond conflict and war — and that the average Lebanese and the average Israeli share a preference for a real meal over cake, too.”
This merits a closer look. Maluf’s point that Israelis should satisfy themselves with wire reports is more a political statement than a professional one. Journalists, at least the better ones, will rarely subscribe to constraints placed on them by governments. Indeed, should they? That doesn’t mean it’s the duty of a journalist to break the law, but one has to be realistic: to ask of individuals whose job it is to gather information that they satisfy themselves with stockpiling wire reports is a bit much.
The matter of Goldman’s ethics or whether she endangered the Lebanese she talked to can be debated. There certainly are dangers to interviewees if an Israeli journalist doesn’t work carefully. However, it is inconsistent to hold against Israelis that they remain ignorant about their neighbors in the Arab World, only to turn around and blame them for trying to remedy that failing. Most Arab television stations have correspondents in Israel, and all broadcasted live last year during the Lebanon war. Goldman’s impulse to be selective with the truth about herself in Beirut came from the lack of a similar opportunity afforded to Israeli journalists.
One of the questions raised by the discussion of Goldman’s and Malkes’ stay was whether it was time to grant Israeli journalists an opportunity to report from Lebanon, in the spirit of open communications. There are pros and cons involved, and the political implications are significant.
First, it’s time to dispel a myth. Israelis or correspondents for Israeli media have long been reporting from Lebanon. Goldman and Malkes did not invent the wheel. The journalists have done so by entering Lebanon on foreign passports, as Goldman and Malkes did, while showing credentials from newspapers of countries with which Lebanon has no problems. So, for example, a journalist might write for an American newspaper, but also file for an Israeli publication. The journalists’ chances of returning to Lebanon may be blown once the Lebanese find out, but that doesn’t change that the loophole is often exploited.
Second, for diplomatic and security reasons it would be absurd to expect either the Lebanese government or Hizbullah to sign off on opening Lebanon up fully to Israeli correspondents. It’s not going to happen, nor can we forget that the Israelis do censor news reports at their end. A free flow of information is unlikely, so we have to think of an alternative.
Is allowing tightly controlled access to Israeli journalists better than the current ambiguity? The answer will provoke hackles from those who believe the Israelis must make scarce. But what if Israeli journalists had been taken on a tour of the destroyed quarters of Bint Jubayl and Beirut’s southern suburbs last year? What if they were shown the bridges and factories needlessly destroyed because Israel didn’t quite know what it wanted to do in Lebanon once the war began? What if they were taken on a tour of Lebanon’s morgues at the height of the bombings?
Oddly enough, Hizbullah would have a much better sense of the latent advantages here than those who insist on remaining politically correct. In fact, once the political implications of allowing Israelis to enter Lebanon under some form of political control are grasped by Israeli officials, it is the officials themselves who might begin protesting the Lebanese sojourns. However, the Israeli media would insist the trips continue, because, as Goldman put it, journalists prefer a full meal to eating cake.
That is assuming of course that the hypocritical equilibrium existing now is not the best solution for all. We call the Israelis scoundrels for entering Lebanon under false pretenses; they call us intolerant for failing to allow them into the country except under false pretenses; and everyone remains happy. Yet the point is being missed: information will cross borders whether we like it or not. Who will best get his information across?