Reporting Hezbollah: At your own risk?

Foreign journalists are finding it increasingly hard to work in Hezbollah-controlled territory in Lebanon. In several incidents in the past few weeks, journalists have been detained and interrogated for hours. MENASSAT asked Haji Wafa of Hezbollah's press office to explain.
Flipping burgers at Beirut's Buns & Guns restaurant, 'where a sandwich can kill you.' © AFP

BEIRUT, August 26, 2008 (MENASSAT) – Buns & Guns, a hamburger restaurant in the Dahiye, Hezbollah-controlled South Beirut, has recently shot to international fame. Dozens of local and foreign journalists have flocked to the war-themed restaurant, where the waiters wear flack jackets and the muzak is gunfire. For the owner, it is a fun way to sell hamburgers; for the journalists, it is a fun way to talk about Hezbollah.

So why is it that several foreign journalists have been picked up by Hezbollah militiamen and interrogated for hours after they had visited Buns & Guns?

David Hury, a French journalist, was detained on August 12, taken to different locations and questioned for six hours about his professional and private life before being released.

On August 15, two visiting Brazilian journalists, Marcos Losekan and Paulo Pimentel of Globo TV, and a Beirut-based Brazilian journalist, Tariq Saleh, who works for the Brazilian service of the BBC, went through almost the exact same experience.

The Brazilian journalists went home and produced a sensationalist segment, using footage of their own detention, in which they claimed to have been "kidnapped" by the "terrorist organization Hezbollah."

Reporters without Borders, the Paris-based press freedom organization, put out an alert saying they had been "arrested."

For journalists working in Lebanon, being detained by Hezbollah is nothing new. Some consider it to be a "rite of passage" for newly arrived correspondents.

And we all know that these detentions often don't amount to much more than being fed tiny cups of tea while the wheels of Hezbollah's administration slowly grind.

Similarly, Beirut-based journalists are well aware that visiting journalists often like to make a big deal about being detained by Hezbollah.

But there is something new about these recent detentions.

– the interrogations were much longer than usual;
– the nature of the questioning appears to have been very invasive, including demanding the passwords to journalists' email accounts, and questions about their personal lives.

Reasons enough to put some questions to Wafa Hoteit of Hezbollah's press office, or Haji Wafa, as most of us know her.

MENASSAT: You are accused of arresting foreign journalists, according to Reporters Without Borders. What do you have to say about that?

"We are both journalists, and we both know that you always have to get both sides of a story. How can Reporters Without Borders publish such comments without contacting us to hear our version of the story?

"Let me at least tell you what happened with the French reporter, David Hury. He never came to us, and we never saw him. I was out of the country and I got a call that a journalist was in a very sensitive area. With the daily Israeli threats, what was I to do? We stopped him and we spoke to him, to know his identity at least and why was he there taking pictures. We definitely didn't arrest him. We just drank coffee with him and tried to know him better."

MENASSAT: If the foreign journalist already has an accreditation from the Lebanese Information Ministry, why does he have to get a permit from you?

"If they want to work with the Ministry's accreditation, then let them work in other territories, not in the ones threatened with [Israeli] bombings. The real problem we face is that they try to work 'undercover,' despite our assurance that we will facilitate their work. We have an agreement with the Information Ministry, and this accreditation is very important for it proves that the journalists are not Israelis. 

"For example, I got a visit recently from a French journalist asking to conduct an investigative report. I asked her to wait for me in the car for five minutes to ask for what she needs and send what she required. I was surprised when I got a call from one of our men that he saw her taking pictures far from our offices. I was really surprised. She even told the Lebanese journalist who was with her that she couldn't wait for five minutes.

"We are really living a difficult period: we can find [Israeli] agents everyday. How should we act in these situations? We let everyone come and go, just because we believe in democracy? We believe in democracy, but we also believe in the dangers around us. We only ask to investigate the identity of the journalist before he roams in our region. Is it too much to ask?"

MENASSAT: What about forcing the Brazilian journalists to take the first plane out as a condition for their release?

"This is defamation. The information mentioned by Reporters Without Borders is just not true. We didn't force anyone to travel. The truth is that the two [Brazilian] reporters visited our offices to ask for a permit to shoot the restaurant Buns & Guns, as many have before them. Dr. Hussein Rahhal asked me to approve their demand because it was the first time they visited Dahiyeh. [Personally,] I was a bit tired of that restaurant, so I wanted to stop the permits to take pictures of it for a while.

"Usually, we need 48 hours to investigate the origins of the journalists. But these two said they were traveling the next day, and the assistant promised to give them their permits in the morning at the latest. They didn't wait for the papers and went without our knowledge. So the owner of the restaurant called me to inform me of their visit. We went to meet with them, and we spoke. But we didn't arrest anyone and we didn't confiscate any cameras.

"In addition to that, dozens of foreigners come and take pictures of Dahiyeh everyday. Why didn't we have problems with them, if we are supposed to be harassing, arresting and confiscating? We are going through a rough period with the threat of an open war with the enemy. We have the right to be careful. We never stood in the way of journalists, for we want to show what we have. But for the time being, we have to be careful."


Tariq Saleh, the Brazilian journalist who accompanied the Globo TV journalists, admits that the Brazilian journalists made "unnecessary big noise" about their detention.

"They exaggerated when they used words like 'kidnapping' and 'terrorists,'" Saleh told MENASSAT. "I told them so. But apparently it was the editor back in Brazil who decided that from now on Hezbollah would be considered a terrorist group."

Saleh said that he fully understands Hezbollah's need for security. "I don't blame them. But it is the way it was done that was unfair. This is not how Hezbollah should be dealing with the press."

Indeed, dealing with the press in this way only reinforces Hezbollah's bad image in the West.

Hezbollah should realize that many foreign journalists already have to deal with editors back home who only want to see the image of Hezbollah and its supporters as terrorists confirmed.

Making it increasingly hard for foreign journalists to get the point of view of the people living in Hezbollah-controlled areas doesn't help.

As one foreign journalist said on condition of anonymity, "It is becoming such a hassle to get the point of view of the people in those areas that often you just don't bother anymore."

(Globo TV's report about the incident can be found here; Tariq Saleh wrote about it on his own blog here.)