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Myth busting n Beirut

Reporting on the Middle East for Brazil proves difficult

by Paula Schmitt

Reporting on the Middle East for Brazilian viewers is no easy task. The world has been fed so many half-truths from this region that I spend most of my time having to concentrate on the other halves. So, when my report is about Iran’s wish to enrich uranium, I must explain to my TV audience that the only country in the region with nuclear weapons is Israel. And then I must clarify the principle of MAD – mutually assured destruction – and deterrence power. Making this intelligible on television is challenging, but essential.

When I report, say, on Israel’s massacre in Beit Hanoun, I must give Israel’s official excuse for the attack. But, once I mention their justification – “to defend against the Palestinian rockets” – I feel compelled to add that, in the past five years, all the rockets launched from Gaza have killed fewer than ten people, less than half the fatalities in one day in Beit Hanoun.

Myth busting is as difficult in Brazil as anywhere else. To give an idea of the pro-Israeli bias in the Brazilian media, for the first half of the war, I was the only Brazilian reporting from Lebanon with sound and image. All the other chief correspondents were in Israel, watching the launching – rather than the landing – of the missiles.

Though we accept that objectivity doesn’t really exist, it is the duty of every journalist to present the best arguments of all sides involved. In my program, I usually have two minutes – within the 40-odd minutes allocated for all the news of that day – to tell a story. Yet, despite the short time, I don’t try to summarize with a ready-made verdict. What I do, rather obsessively, is try to know everything I can from all sides involved and present the best arguments. Like a judge, the audience deserves a good prosecutor arguing against, and a skilled lawyer speaking for, to reach the fairest judgement.

But, it is hard to even present the facts right when one has to compete with, say, that bastion of world media, CNN. On December 1, the day of the Hizbullah demonstration, Hala Gorani spent the afternoon saying there were “up to 200,000” people demonstrating. She didn’t say “at least 200,000”, a common face-saving device to avoid accuracy. But it didn’t stop there. CNN’s footage corroborated the ‘miscalculation’ by focussing the camera only on Martyrs’ Square. With only a very small part of the scene in the frame, the images miraculously backed up Gorani’s estimate. Later on, Brent Sadler ‘corrected’ the truth by upgrading the “up to 200,000” to “at least 200,000”. He was not lying, although he was probably 800,000 short of the truth.

And speaking of truth, when Christiane Amanpour makes a two-hour ‘documentary’ about Al Qaeda and chooses not to mention that America was one of its main sponsors in Afghanistan, good reporting starts to sound like a conspiracy theory, showing that even the most high-profile reporters do not know of, or choose to ignore, the whole truth.

One of the best Brazilian correspondents, a personal friend whose honesty and seriousness is beyond doubt, was here to cover the events in Martyr’s Square. When I suggested that many Lebanese thought that Israel may have been involved in Pierre Gemayel’s assassination, he looked at me like he was staring at a crackpot. But that was little wonder: he had never heard Israel accused by a former American ambassador to Lebanon of trying to kill him in 1980, nor was he aware of the USS Liberty incident or the Lavon Affair.

Yes, the Middle East is full of conspiracy theories and Israel is often the main suspect by default. But, to believe in all conspiracies is as naïve as to dismiss all of them unexamined.

Yet in Lebanon, unlike in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, it is harder to understand who is the victim and the perpetrator – especially when the task is to give each side’s best argument. When I report that Fouad Seniora accuses the opposition of staging ‘a coup’, Brazilians will no doubt laugh: street demonstration is the ultimate weapon of democracy, and we got rid of a corrupt president using that very tool. The Hizbullah cause also has the support of left wing Brazilians who see an imbalance in the social dynamic of Lebanon, particularly in the new downtown. I have received emails from Lebanese-Brazilian viewers mockingly referring to Nijmeh Square as Rolex Square, and Martyrs’ Square as Bank Square, a reference to a new bank development.

On the other hand, Hizbullah’s tactic of accusing anyone against its agenda of being pro-Zionist has little room for appreciation, as does accusing Seniora of being pro-America, when one knows the links between Hizbullah and Iran are all too obvious. In fact, I could say with almost certainty that most Brazilians would rather live under the worst American government than under the best Islamic Republic. Freedom, for us, is sacred. Unlike Iran, but much like Lebanon, Brazil allows people to believe in what they want, and chador-wearing women will always be welcome on our bikini-infested beaches.

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