Friday, July 28, 2006

'Hezbollah and the Press'

SPIEGEL ONLINE - July 28, 2006, 04:00 PM

Hezbollah and the Press

Letting the Images Speak for Themselves

By Ulrike Putz in Beirut, Lebanon

Hezbollah isn't particularly obliging in its dealings with foreign journalists. Instead of doing pro-active public relations work, the Lebanese militia is concentrating on a simple strategy: Let the images speak for themselves.

The scene is grotesque. More than two dozen journalists stand in the midst of devastated buildings, crowded around a Hezbollah press spokesperson. Cameramen shoot some final footage of bombed-out buildings and TV reporters wear shrapnel-protection vests -- to convey a sense of danger to viewers. A Scandinavian journalist wears stylish flip flops as she walks through the destroyed city -- where glass shards and debris sometimes lie piled up several feet high in the streets.

We've reached the end of a tour, organized by Hezbollah, through the almost entirely devastated neighborhood of Haret Hreik in southern Beirut. We're back by the collapsed highway bridge that cuts the neighborhood into two halves. Hussein Nabulsi, one of Hezbollah's press spokesmen, announces that we will meet here again tomorrow at the same time.

"I would kindly ask the CNN team to be on time tomorrow," he says. "You've been late the last three times already."

Even if a certain sense of routine has developed after two weeks of de facto war -- Hezbollah is hardly pro-active in its relations with the foreign press, represented in Beirut by dozens of foreign reporters. There's no real method to be discerned behind the militia's public relations work. While some camera teams that tried to film in Dahieyeh on their own were immediately pressured to leave the neighborhood --a Hezbollah stronghold in southern Beirut -- and escorted north by men on motor scooters, other journalists were able to move as freely as they like. The journalist's ID issued by the Lebanese Interior Ministry is scrupulously checked at some street crossings -- at others, however, reporters are waved through before documents can even be produced.

And even if reporters have been led repeatedly through Dahieyeh during the past days, the tours seem somewhat improvised. Just as in southern Lebanon, there are no pictures of Hezbollah militants or positions -- just endless images showing the horrors suffered by the civilian population. The pictures that scream at pedestrians from the front pages of the Arab newspapers in the mornings are so brutal and upsetting they don't require any extra spin. Let the images speak for themselves, let the refugees tell their stories -- that seems to be Hezbollah's strategy.

Of course it's strange that one of the two sides in this conflict is virtually invisible, while the other lets its public relations machine -- which has been developed and perfected for years -- feed journalists pre-packaged nuggets of information that can go directly into print. Indeed, preventing journalists from wandering freely through Dahieyeh is likely part of the strategy. After all, the neighborhood is a militant stronghold and the possibility of informants is very much on Hezbollah's mind.

The ground beneath the southern suburbs of Beirut is almost certainly riddled with tunnel systems and bunkers where Hezbollah seeks shelter. Rumors that spies are using lasers or homing devices to mark these potential targets for the Israeli air force abound. Hezbollah is said to have arrested 140 alleged spies so far.

Before Hussein Nabulsi dismisses the group of journalists for today, the TV reporters get a propaganda classic for their cameras after all. A truck painted in loud colors drives by with combative slogans and anti-Israeli songs thundering from its PA system. No one is there to hear these slogans and songs apart from the reporters. No one lives in these streets anymore.

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