Media over matter: dissecting the 'Burj Al-Barajneh incident'

What to believe: the TV news coverage or your own eyes? The residents of the Burj Al-Barajneh camp got a crash course in media distortion when a dispute over a hubble-bubble was blown out of all proportion.
By Zeinab Rahhal
Lebanon, Bourj Al-Barajneh Palestinians refugee camp. ©S.M /
The flawed reporting of the Burj Al-Barajneh incident led 150 families to pack their bags for fear of a full-blown war. © AFP

BEIRUT, Nov. 23, 2007 (MENASSAT.COM) - If a doctor tells a patient to lay off the salt and spices, presumably there are clinical reasons for the patient to heed the doctor's advice.  There may be resistance to this advice because salt and spices are great additives to food, nonetheless heed the advice one must. It's the food that will provide the sustenance, not the spices.

In Lebanon, news is like a form of food, and theoretically the news is meant to nurture a person with the cold hard facts - to keep a populace informed. But in practice - it is the salt and spices in Lebanon that often become the focus of the news - in this case political affiliations or the agenda of a media outlet are overshadowing the need to report events with accuracy.

Somebody call a doctor, as a failure to report news events with accuracy in Lebanon is a sure formula for the country to sink into a deeper political malaise than it is already in at present.

Take a recent recent shooting incident that occurred in the Burj Al-Barajneh Palestinian refugee camp in the suburbs of Beirut. After noon prayers on Friday November 16, gun fire erupted in the camp.

Muhammad, a resident of the camp, said: "The clash started on Thursday night - Friday morning over the delivery of hubble-bubble. The Palestinian security committee contained the argument without incident. The clash re-erupted on Friday after the prayer when a young man from the Al-Bashir family insulted another from Al-Habet family. The man from the Al-Habet family then attacked the man from the Al-Bashir family who, after being knocked down, got up, reached for his machine gun and started shooting."

Fatah did not interfere in the quarrel at first, but, as Muhammad said, "when the bullets reached the Fatah offices, hitting one its guards, members of Fatah security then began firing back towards the direction of the original gunfire."

Muhammad's eyewitness testimony was confirmed independently by similar accounts told by other eyewitnesses. The facts in this case indicated the gun battle was started because of a family dispute.

Then the Palestinian authority leader in Lebanon, Abbas Zaki, started adding his own 'spice' to the story: he accused elements of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine's General Command of shooting at the Fatah office.

Another eyewitness pointed out that, contrary to Zaki's accounts, "the Popular Front's General Command actually went to the site of the incident and tried to contain the situation in collaboration with the camp's security committee. Its forces didn't fire one bullet. It was only the young man from Al-Bashir family who belongs to As-Saeka," another, Syrian-supported Palestinian group.

Now let's compare this testimony to what went out on the local news.

The Naharnet website reported the gun battle was between elements of Fatah and the PFLP-General Command -- going so far as to say that machine guns and artillery shells were used -- causing many injuries within the ranks of the two organizations.

Back in the camp, one resident told me: "The fighting was over within minutes. No one was killed. Only one man was wounded and he was the guard of Fatah's office. As for talk about shells and missiles, it was all lies and fabrications".

Another Burj Al-Barajneh resident agreed, "The only thing that was shot were bullets, unless they saw something that we in the camp did not see".

Al-Jazeera channel was the first to carry the news. Its correspondent reported that clashes had erupted between Fatah and the Popular Front in the Burj Al-Barajneh camp - in line with Zaki's statements.

Al-Arabiya channel reported the incident the same way and hurriedly secured "live coverage."

Locally, the website of Michel Aoun's Free Patriotic Movement carried the report of Al-Jazeera but added a "correction" which said that the incident gun battle was a personal quarrel that then developed into a political incident because the two sides in the clash were close to the Palestinian factions, Fatah and the PFLP - General Command.

The Lebanon Files website that only Friday morning was reporting on alleged violence between Palestinians and Lebanese living on the outskirts of the Burj Brajneh camp, now said that the original clash erupted between Fatah and the PFLP - General Command when the GC attacked a Fatah office.

Later, the Lebanon Files posted an amended statement by General Sultan Abu Al-Aynayn in which the General described the incident as being personal.

But the damage was already done. People rarely remember later additions or corrections to stories after their original release.

The current government’s March 14 website reported the news as taken from Reuters which quoted security sources as saying that members of two families loyal to two rival Palestinian factions exchanged gunfire.

The same pro-government website then posted the story as it was reported by the French press, which also stated that the clash erupted between Fatah and the General Command. The website used statements given to Lebanon's New TV channel by Ahmed Jibril, the secretary general of the PFLP- General Command - who was not an eyewitness to the gun battle.

Was the outbreak of violence a result of the presidential selection in Lebanon? Jibril said he did not exclude the possible eruption of intra-Palestinian or Sunni-Shi'a clashes in the Burj Al-Barajneh camp.

Sunni - Shi'a clashes in the camp ahead the elections?

The ‘spices’ were overpowering the taste of the food!

Other media outlets also linked the violence to the presidential nomination. On pro-opposition Otv channel, the spokesperson for the Free Patriotic Movement questioned whether the incident was a rehearsal for possible future violence if the government and opposition forces failed to agree on a president.

The news-ticker of the pro-government TV station, Future Television, quoted Fatah's leader, Abu Al-Aynayn as saying that the gun battle in Burj Al-Barajneh camp was because the pro-Syrian Al-Saeka organization had shot a member of Fatah.

Al-Mustaqbal [Future newspaper] insisted that the PFLP-General Command was causing  "intra-Palestinian strife" in the Burj Al-Barajneh camp. The paper was also quoted as saying that one member of the pro-Syrian Al-Saeka movement intentionally fired at the Fatah office while standing in front of the General Command's office. In the ensuing fight, Al-Mustaqbal reported that personal guns, light and mid-sized machine guns and shells were used.

The 'salt and spice' to this news event being a familiar refrain from government loyalists, namely that Syria was behind this and all of Lebanon's woes.

On Saturday morning, newspapers carried a multitude of reports on the incident; Al-Anwar, An-Nahar, Al-Liwa and the English-language Daily Star newspapers all covered the event, relaying the same misinformation as the day before: that the clash was between elements from Fatah and elements from the PFLP-General Command and that three people were injured.

Then there were the outside cooks in this news stew.

The Kuwaiti Al-Seyassah newspaper, for example, considered the clash to be indicative of the fact that the Palestinian camps in Lebanon had returned to the forefront of events, confirming talk about some regional sides trying to tamper with Lebanon's security by way of the Bourj Al-Barajneh camp, similar to what happened a few months ago in the Nahr Al-Barid camp in the North.

Al-Akhbar newspaper, for its part, reported that the dispute between the Al-Bashir and Al-Habet family was due to "the hassling of a young woman" -- which sounded a bit more like a telenovela than real fact.

Still, a few of the local outlets managed to provide some accuracy to the reporting, concentrating on the food and not the ‘spicy’ rumors and uncorroborated facts that had characterized most of the coverage.
In its evening newscast, NEW TV talked about a familial clash which almost "turned into a military one".

The Hizbullah-run Al Manar Television reported that the incident was a personal argument between two families that was given a political dimension because the two men involved belonged to Fatah and the General Command.

As-Safir newspaper reported Saturday that a clash which broke out between young men from two Palestinian families evolved into an exchange of gunfire. It added that  a rumor had circulated in the camp and spread panic among the residents; that the clash was between Fatah and Hamas - mirroring the clash being played out in Occupied Palestine.

What wasn’t reported – news that was not fed to the people  - was that the rumors of infighting between Hamas and Fatah caused many people to gather their light belongings and flee Burj Al-Burajineh, since they feared they would have to face the same fate as the inhabitants of Nahr Al-Barid.

Al-Hayat newspaper was the only one to address the size of the media attention that accompanied the "family dispute" turned armed clash.

"How did they get here so fast?", is what Muhammad, referring to the local news reporters, wondered.

As an eyewitness, Muhammad was quick to condemn the bulk of the media coverage. He, like other camp residents warned of the potential for creating an “unhealthy” situation in Lebanon if media coverage didn’t become more responsible.

"God only knows what could happen [with such inaccurate reporting]. My brother who lives in the camp did not know about the clash when they started their live broadcast. They [the media] made everyone go crazy. A hundred and fifty families left the camp because of their stories", Muhammad said.

In the end, this clash in the Burj Al-Barajneh camp was but one incident in a litany of potentially dangerous events that occur in Lebanon. If inaccuracies in the reporting have the power to displace families as they did with the reporting of this family clash, what could other ‘salty or spicy’ embellishments do to possibly incite further violence.

The media be warned. Muhammad promised that, "in case there is another problem in the camp, I will be the first one to target the media outlets!"

Another camp resident, Nisrine, is still baffled by her media experience.

"I was watching what was happening from the window while the television was broadcasting something completely different,, and I asked myself: Do they want us to question our own eyes and believe them instead?!"