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The Manichean Middle East of Mark MacKinnon

January 2, 2007

The Manichean Middle East of Mark MacKinnon

Globe and Mail coverage of Lebanon suffers from ideological interventions

by Stefan Christoff, Dru Oja Jay

Opposition demonstrations gather in Martyrs' Square in Beirut on December 1. [source]. Photo: Blogging Beirut

When newspapers send correspondents afield to report on world events, the position is fraught with opportunity and responsibility. Opportunity to share meaningful insight into current events, and responsibility to accurately report on them.

In many cases, unfortunately, other motivations prevail. For the owners and editors of the few papers that shell out for foreign correspondents, the opportunity to shape public opinion seems too tempting to pass up, even if it comes at the expense of insight and accuracy.

The Globe and Mail's Middle East correspondent Mark MacKinnon has been publishing dispatches on the ongoing political crisis in Lebanon regularly from Beirut. It should be noted that MacKinnon's reports are often superior to the generic newswire reports carried by many newspapers. Regrettably, this speaks more to the skewed quality of wire reports and less to the Globe correspondent's capacity to promote accurate understanding of events in Lebanon.

It's no secret that the Globe and Mail prefers certain political actors in Lebanon to others. When in 2005, hundreds of thousands of Lebanese demonstrated in response to the assassination of former PM Rafik Hariri, eventually resulting in the withdrawal of Syrian troops, amidst intense US pressure on Damascus, the Globe ran a series of front page stories, touting the "pro-Western" "Cedar Revolution" that was sweeping the country. Globe editorialists praised the IMF-mandated "free market" reforms of "pro-Western" forces, which won a Parliamentary majority in the subsequent elections.

When larger street protests hit Beirut in recent weeks, however, Globe coverage was to be found in small doses, nowhere near the front page. It is in this context that Mark MacKinnon's frequent reports are published.

MacKinnon's reporting from Beirut is dominated by a neat division of Lebanese politics into "pro-Syrian" and "pro-Western" camps, a theme that is repeated multiple times in every one of 19 dispatches that were examined for this analysis. On the other hand, MacKinnon barely mentions the summer Israeli offensive that destroyed most of the country's civil-infrastructure, and killed thousands, mostly civilians. MacKinnon mentions the offensive in less than half of the reports we examined, and then usually only in passing.

A look at the evidence shows that MacKinnon's Syria-vs-West division is erroneous, while Israel's summer offensive is the defining factor in the current political situation on the streets of Beirut.

MacKinnon cites Gen. Michel Aoun, the Christian leader of the "Free Patriotic Movement" party, as one of the key supporters of the Hezbollah-led protests, which he constantly characterizes as "pro-Syrian." Overlooked by MacKinnon is the fact that Aoun was driven to exile in France by Syrian and allied Lebanese factions in 1990, and returned only with the withdrawal of Syrian troops in 2005. As a result, it is awkward to characterize Aoun as simply "pro-Syrian."

Hezbollah, on the other hand, maintains a strategic alliance with the government in Damascus, though this is far from the central focus of the current protests.

Why do these unlikely allies find themselves demanding a greater share of cabinet seats? Because, as MacKinnon mentions in passing in one article (but does not mention at all in 17 out of 19 reports on the subject), "recent opinion polls suggest Hezbollah and Gen. Aoun would combine to win more seats than the government in a snap election."

Why is this? It has everything to do with the Israeli bombing of Lebanon that killed 1,100 people, displaced a full quarter of the country's population, and systematically destroyed its key infrastructure, including roads, airports, power stations, hospitals, schools and refugee shelters.

Israel's destruction of entire neighbourhoods during the summer war, and Hezbollah's status as the only source of serious resistance during the summer war, are the defining issues in Lebanese politics. The Globe and Mail has framed the protests as between "pro-Syrian" and "pro-Western" forces. Photo: Mohammed Shublaq, Indymedia Beirut

During the assault, Hezbollah led fierce counter-attacks, ultimately limiting the Israeli army's ability to maintain a hold on the ground in southern Lebanon, and winning massive support from the Lebanese for their resistance.

The relatively well financed government and state institutions of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora--the leader of MacKinnon's pro-Western camp--by contrast, did almost nothing to provide aid to many affected by the war, and offered no military defence against the Israeli attacks despite multiple bombings of Lebanese military bases.

At the height of the Israeli bombings, Ghassan Makarem of the grassroots relief organization Samidoun, told CKUT Radio that the "internally displaced Lebanese support for the resistance hasn't wavered due to the level of aggression on the part of Israel."

"Until now, there has been no action from the government or by the government agencies," Maskarem added, "while many people in regions of Lebanon who are traditionally not supportive of Hezbollah are shifting their support towards the resistance."

In stark contrast to the silence of Lebanese state powers during the war, the Free Patriotic Movement, Gen. Aoun's political support base, mobilized hundreds of volunteers to provide frontline medical and humanitarian relief for internally displaced refugees from southern Lebanon, while thousands more opened their homes as impromptu shelters in the heart of East Beirut, a traditionally Christian area.

According to a broadly reported opinion poll conducted throughout the country in late July 2006 by Lebanon's main polling institute, the Beirut Center for Research and Information, 87 per cent of Lebanese supported Hezbollah during the war.

While widely recognized in Lebanon, this reality doesn't fit with the Globe and Mail's image of the region. MacKinnon in particular goes out of his way to warn readers that despite the specific political demands [which his reports do not mention], clashes between demonstrators in the streets are "an ominous sign that efforts by the Shia Hezbollah movement to bring down the Sunni-led government... could rapidly devolve into all out sectarian conflict."

The warning would have been tempered had MacKinnon mentioned that in addition to Gen. Aoun's Christian party, some significant Sunni and Druze political parties are also supporting the demonstrations. Could the message of demonstrators in Lebanon be driven by something other than religion given that parties from all religious sects in Lebanon are on the streets with Hezbollah?

It's not even clear from MacKinnon's reports what motivates Hezbollah's demands, or what motivates the thousands of demonstrators to remain in the streets of Beirut. Further inquiry revealed that the reason for this is that he did not ask.

In a recent interview with CKUT Radio in Montreal, MacKinnon was asked whether he had interviewed any of the leaders of the demonstrations.

"Since it began... No," MacKinnon responded, "because they are quite busy people and in the specific case of [Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan] Nasrallah he hasn't given any interviews since the summer war with Israel."

However, Hezbollah political leaders have been regularly speaking with the Western press at the Beirut demonstrations. Just this week Mahmoud Komati, deputy head of Hezbollah's political bureau gave a widely published interview to the Associated Press.

"Now we are demanding it [greater government share], because our experience during the war and the performance of the government has made us unsure. On several occasions they pressured us to lay down our weapons while we were fighting a war," Komati told the Associated Press on December 15th, presenting a political argument against the current government, not a sectarian one.

Despite the readily available Hezbollah spokespeople and hundreds of thousands of demonstrators clogging central Beirut, MacKinnon did not quote a single Hezbollah representative about the reasons for the demonstrations. He mentions the reasons for calling the demonstrations twice, and only in passing. MacKinnon, however, did manage to secure an interview with Sheik Sobhi Tufeili in Lebanon's eastern Bekaa Valley.

Sheik Tufeili, a former secretary general of Hezbollah no longer associated with the party, has been comparatively absent from Lebanese politics in recent years. Living in a compound and flanked by bodyguards, Tufeili is wanted by the Lebanese authorities. Through fragmented quotations, paraded as confessions extracted by MacKinnon, Tufeili denounces the current Hezbollah leadership.

Highlighting Sheik Tufeili without featuring any of the hundreds of thousands of Lebanese on the streets of Beirut is puzzling.

It's not clear that the poor quality of his coverage is entirely MacKinnon's doing, though it is difficult to imagine that he is not aware that his coverage does not match the facts on the ground.

Indeed, MacKinnon's writing is more in touch with reality in his online diary than it is in reports that appear in print.

Shortly after the UN-brokered ceasefire in August, MacKinnon visited southern Lebanon. "No picture or 1,000 words of mine can ever capture what these places look like. In towns that once weren't much different from some places in Greece or Italy, there's simply nothing left standing," wrote MacKinnon. "Just piles of rubble where people's homes and lives used to be."

Today, a responsible journalist--or a minimally competent one--would have to ask why residents of the very same villages bombed by Israel and described by MacKinnon above are now demonstrating for political change in Beirut.

It's hard to imagine that MacKinnon is ignorant of this direct connection between the current demonstrations and the recent Israeli attack. A more likely explanation is that he is conscious of the interests of his own career, knows what his editors want to hear, and is willing to severely compromise his own journalism in service of both.

If MacKinnon were to be replaced, his successor may have a slightly different journalistic style. The ideological and political exigencies of the Globe and Mail's editorial board, however, would remain. We predict the result would hardly be an improvement, regardless of the skill of the correspondent.

In a recent op/ed in Montreal's La Presse, Fabrice Balanche took reporters to task for simplistic reporting along the same lines as MacKinnon's.

"Manicheanism is de rigeur," Balanche writes. "Certainly it is difficult to understand Lebanon and to explain it in a few minutes to [an audience], but all the same, lets stop the caricatures."

Balanche cites facts that show the story of pro-Syrian battling pro-West forces to be bogus. But while Balanche's modest appeal to pay attention to reality is compelling, corporate media like the Globe have long-standing and equally compelling reasons of their own to ignore it.

* * *

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article stated that "Despite the readily available Hezbollah spokespeople and hundreds of thousands of demonstrators clogging central Beirut, MacKinnon did not quote a single Hezbollah representative while he was there." As written, this passage was inaccurate. The Dominion regrets the error.

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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