All quiet on the Northern front

Nothing is allowed to interfere with Lebanon's summer of peace and increased tourism revenue – especially not the deadly fighting in Tripoli, which has gone all but unreported in the Lebanese media.
tripoli gabal ali
At least twenty-three people have died since the fighting in Tripoli began in June, but you would hardly know it from reading the Lebanese papers. R.R.

TRIPOLI, July 29, 2008 (MENASSAT) – Life comes to a standstill in northern Lebanon when the fighting starts between the Sunni Muslim area of Bab Tebaneh and the Alawite district of Jebel Mohsen.

The international road that connects Tripoli to the northern districts of Minyeh, Dinneyeh and Akkar, where more than 500,000 people live, is closed off.

The motorway to Syria, usually packed with trucks, is also cut off.

Last Sunday, after the guns fell silent once again, more than 2,000 families from the affected areas had sought temporary refuge in hospitals and schools in other parts of Tripoli – some without homes to go back to.

Meanwhile, most of Lebanon is busy celebrating the Doha accord, which ended the May fighting and paved the way for the election of a new president and the formation of a government of national unity.

Lebanon's tourism sector is reliving the 2006 summer season, which was set to break new records until it was cut short by the 34-day war with Israel.

The cultural sector has been revived as well with the Baalbeck, Byblos en Beiteddine festivals all drawing big crowds.
According to a Citigroup report published this week, even the Lebanese economy has been surprisingly robust despite two years of political tension and occasional fighting.
It is a rosy picture which the Lebanese media have been eager to propagate, even if it came at the expense of covering the ongoing fighting between Sunnis and Alawites in the North.

It bleeds but it doesn't lead

Lebanese newspapers, with no exceptions, have managed to play into the euphoric feeling in the country's capital Beirut, where the fighting in the North has been relegated to an annoying footnote given the recent progress on the political front.

On July 28, two days after the latest bout of violence and amid much unrest in the North, the daily newspaper As-Safir dedicated just one headline to the fighting in Tripoli: "7 dead and dozens of wounded – [Interior Minister] Baroud oversees a new deployment plan for the North – the governmental statement is written with the blood of Tripoli's poor."

There was nothing about Tripoli in As-Safir's inside pages.

As-Safir is no exception. Most Lebanese papers have been happy to publish the official statements about the Tripoli fighting, with little investigative reporting coming from their own staff.

There has been a complete absence of reports explaining the historic tension between the two areas, Bab Tebaneh and Jebel Mohsen, and the role of the main players involved in the fighting, and there has been no follow-up on the state of the wounded; no testimonies or interviews have been published.

As for the daily newspaper An-Nahar, it raised the number of dead from the latest violence. Its headline read: "9 dead and 33 wounded – Mufti shocked by security forces' reluctance – March 14 demands a disarmed city – Tripoli burning with the governmental statement and president Suleiman hurries the deployment of the army."

As with As-Safir, there was no mention of the Tripoli fighting in An-Nahar's inside pages.
In the leftish daily Al-Akhbar, some information about the incident appeared in the local news pages, but again there was no coverage of the repercussions of the fighting – what it meant for the displaced families, the local economy and more. The paper featured only profiles about the dead and the wounded, and about some fighters as well.

The other major paper, Al-Mustaqbal wrote this headline: "Attacks on the city leaves 6 dead and a number of wounded – Evacuation starts – March 14 calls for a weapons-free city."

Partisan reporting

To its credit, Al-Mustaqbal did dedicate two columns on the inside pages to Tripoli: one a profile of the Arab Democratic Party, the Alawite party aligned with the Shiite Hezbollah-led opposition, another a stunted history of the Alawite sect. (The Alawites are an offshoot of Shia Islam.)

But true to the tradition of Lebanese partisan reporting, Al-Mustaqbal, the mouthpiece of the Sunni Future Party and the pro-Western parliamentary majority, devoted most of its analysis to condemning Arab Democratic Party leader Rifaat Ali Eid, without sourcing the information.

Al-Mustaqbal’s reporter, Ala' Bashir, did write an elaborate expose of the Tripoli situation on June 23, but it focused almost exclusively on the Sunni area of Bab Tebaneh, with only one sentence devoted to the Alawite section of Jabal Mohsen: "There were three casualties, whose names cannot be identified because armed people had sealed off the area."

Al-Akhbar's reporter, Abdulkafi Alsamad, also wrote about the events on June 23. He wrote, "Tripoli's clashes are the fiercest since the eighties and no one can control the street," condemning the government for not providing more security.

Perhaps the only real in-depth coverage came from Tripoli's own daily newspaper, Al-Tamadon, which focused on the social and economic living conditions in the two affected areas.

As for the five other small newspapers published in Tripoli, these were turned into war bulletins, with three of them aligned with the parliamentary majority (Al-Adib, Al-Insha, and Al-Bayan), and one with opposition (Al-Raqieb).

In the national press, only one report has been published to date about the effect the clashes are having on daily life in Lebanon's second largest city. The daily Aliwa ran an article in late June about how the fighting was affecting Tripoli residents and those of other regions in the North, such as Akkar province. The report stated that much of the north has been paralyzed economically because of the fighting.

Many obstacles stand in the way of in-depth reporting about the Tripoli stand-off, both Al-Akhbar's Abdulkafi Alsmad and Al-Mustaqbal's Ala' Bashir told MENASSAT.

Fear of death

According to Alsmad, the problem is the lack of journalists motivated or willing enough to get all points of view in the fighting. He also pointed out that low wages and a fear of reporting outside of party lines had made it dangerous on many fronts.

Alsmad told MENASSAT about two photographers who were assaulted trying to get the other side of the story, and were subsequently convinced by their editors to just ignore the events.

"Lebanese newspapers generally just don't care enough about the marginal areas of Lebanon, which begs the question how much coverage there would have been if the same fighting had been in Beirut or on Mount Lebanon?" Alsmad said.

He added, "The crisis in the North is not simply a question of pro- or anti-government supporters. There is historic animosity between the Sunni and the Alawites in these Tripoli neighborhoods."

Alsmad admitted his own main reason for not covering events properly was his fear of dying during the fighting.

Bashir agreed with Alsmad when it came to the dangers inherent in trying to talk to all sides.

"We tried to approach Jebel Mohsen last Wednesday [July 27] but we were shot at," he said.

"I tried to be objective in my coverage. I did all I could, but for me, [as an Al-Mustaqbal reporter,] entering Jebel Mohsen is simply impossible when things are tense."

One thing is clear. Little has changed in the way Lebanon's press covers the North since the 105 days of fighting between the Lebanese army and a radical Islamic group holed up in the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr al-Bared during the summer of 2007.

During that conflict, in which at least 400 people died and the entire refugee camp was reduced to rubble, the Lebanese press also suffered from a lack of substantive reporting, which was partly due to restricted access but also to a lack of resources devoted to news coverage in this region.

No new field offices were set up in the North after 2007, despite the fact that the foreign media have consistently characterized this region as a tinderbox waiting to blow up.