To cover or not to cover Nahr Al-Bared

The cliché that truth is the first casualty of war made a successful comeback at Nahr Al-Bared this year. But don't shoot the messengers.
By Rita Barotta, Staff Writer
TRIPOLI : Advertising campaign poster supporting  the lebanese army. © Caroline Poiron /
The battle of Nahr Al-Bared whipped up unprecedented patriotism in Lebanon. It also made any criticism of the army tantamount to treason. © Caroline Poiron /

BEIRUT - Abu Mahmoud, 65, is sitting in front of his television set in his Beirut home, watching events unfold in the Nahr Al-Bared refugee camp.

"Look at what is happening", he cries out. "There are bombs and destruction. Our innocent children are dying. The problem is that this journalist who is covering the event is standing thousands of meters away from it. How do you expect us to believe what is happening?”

Like many other Lebanese, Abu Mahmoud is trying hard to imagine what is really happening in Nahr Al-Bared, and to make sense of the avalanche of reports from TV reporters in bulletproof vests doing their stand-ups outside the camp.

 “The army's reputation is at stake”, he decides, when asked what he thinks about Nahr Al-Bared and the role of the army.

"Of course, the army's reputation is at stake", adds Um Karim, a neighbor who managed to eavesdrop on the conversation despite the fact that she was struggling with several heavy grocery bags. "But don't you think that it is high time this play ended? They issue the same reports every day. Do they really think we are that silly?”

What is clear is that with the break of dawn on the first day of the field confrontations on May 21, 2007, two “camps” emerged, not on the ground but in the media and in particular in the print media.

The first camp stated that the army was paying the price for the government’s mistakes (the opposition camp), while the second declared its undying support of the military institution (the loyalist camp).

Some considered that the army was the victim of the political predicament, and lamented the absence of military equipment - a failure of the current government to provide for the army, while others believed that the very existence of the Lebanese state was being decided at Nahr Al-Bared.

According to a study by An Nahar analyst Michel Abu Najm, who dissected the coverage of Nahr Al-Bared by Lebanon's largest-circulation newspapers, Al-Akhbar and An Nahar, the clashes between the army and the media were revealed from the very first day of the battle. He recalls "the flood of army statements aiming to correct or clarify information published in the press."

This army command did not hesitate to warn some journalists that it would resort to the judiciary after it considered some articles to be harmful to “military morale”, since they were based on information gathered from sources close to the Islamic jihadist fighters.

Were these warnings typical of the nature of the relations between any army and the media? Was it the typical media predicament of whether reporting the truth would jeopardize the army and its tactics? (An argument that was certainly used by the army command.) Or did it go even further, and was questioning the army communiqués, even implicitly, considered high treason throughout the Nahr Al-Bared saga?

Since these questions are still prevailing even after the end of the battle, we put them, despite their “rudeness,” to Colonel Antoine Beshaalani, the head of the press and public relations department at the Lebanese army information directorate.

Colonel, was the Al-Bared battle adequately covered by the media?

"It is true that we didn’t let anyone enter the camp and didn’t allow anyone to take pictures or shoot the battle. Since the beginning, the camp was closed to the media. However, we did not conceal anything from the press. The dangers were uncountable. It was our duty to protect the journalists."

But some accused you of concealing information.

"The aim was to maintain security. Would you believe me if I told you that until this day, there are mines everywhere? That everything issued by the information directorate was true? The situation was dangerous and our statements were as clear as diamonds. Why would we conceal information? Was it in our favor?"

Nahr Al-Bared as seen by the journalists

Abu Mahmoud experienced Nahr Al-Bared from the confines of his home. In contrast, there were those who lived it up-close and personal, or at least from the surrounding army checkpoints or the rooftops of neighboring houses.

They were the journalists who covered the event with their bodies and equipment.

They had watched the progress of the battle from the beginning until the final victory.

During the three months of the Nahr Al-Bared battle, Lebanese TV viewers became accustomed to hearing news anchors and reporters ending a segment on Nahr Al-Bared with: "And that is all we have to report."

For once, it was more than the usual cue to the technician - an American reporter might have said "And now back to you, Jim".

In their sign-offs, Lebanese reporters were also saying: this is all we are allowed to report.