Saturday, May 17, 2008

Murdoch's Man in Beirut

Is it possible to work for Murdoch as a Middle East correspondent and produce anything of real value? A purely rhetorical question, of course. However, putting the routine pro-Israel/US framing aside (Hezbollah gunmen "holding the country to ransom"), haven't we at least got a right to expect The Australian's Middle East correspondent to get the basics right? To be on top of the facts, whatever the spin placed on them? To do a modicum of cross-checking? To maybe read through his report before sending it off for publication? I'm talking of course about Martin Chulov, currently 'reporting' on the latest clashes between Lebanese government and opposition forces, and the answer to my questions is apparently 'no'.

Take this report, for example: "Sunday's violence, the worst internal strife in Lebanon for 18 years, came amid reports that several opposition-aligned guerillas had been mutilated as payback for their involvement in earlier attacks. Two men from the pro-Syrian Hezb al-Kulmi faction had one hand and one foot chopped off, allegedly by opposition-aligned factions." (Militias renew violence with attack on village, 13/5/08)

First, with regard to Lebanon's "worst internal strife for 18 years," Chulov seems to have forgotten last year's fighting between the Lebanese Army and Fateh al-Islam militants in Nahr al-Bared camp north of Tripoli, which raged for over 3 months and left around 400 dead (Families return to Lebanon camps, 10/10/07,

Second, that "Hezb al-Kulmi faction" is woefully transliterated from the Arabic. His use of incorrectly transliterated Arabic suggests that he's never even heard of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP), which begs the question what is he doing reporting on Lebanon? And if he has heard of the SSNP before, is there no-one who can vet his transliteration, which should have read 'Hezb al-Qaumi'.

Third, his talk of 'mutilation'. This seems to be a glancing reference to the worst act of violence to come out of the clashes: a massacre of 13 SSNP members, including an Australian of Lebanese origin (reported in Australia the day before), by gunmen belonging to Saad Hariri's Future Movement in the northern town of Halba. Yet, even though this key event has an Australian angle, Chulov skates over it.

Finally, what is one to make of his nonsensical assertion that "opposition-aligned guerillas" had been mutilated by "opposition-aligned factions"?

And take a look at this report: after reference to Hezbollah "sparking the worst round of civil conflict for 17 years" and again overlooking Nahr al-Bared, Chulov writes that "After earlier indicating it would comply with Hezbollah's demands to overturn two decisions - to sack the opposition-friendly airport security chief and dismantle an independent communications network - the Government said yesterday it would now stand by the moves." (We won't stay on sidelines, warns Lebanese army, 14/5/08)

Let's be clear here. Chulov is telling us that the Lebanese government, after first moving against Hezbollah and then backing down, has now decided to "stand by" its original move. This, of course, was not the case, as this Associated Press report of the same day made clear:

"The US-backed Cabinet on Wednesday reversed measures against the militant Hezbollah movement that set off Lebanon's worst violence since the 1975-90 civil war... Information Minister Ghazi Aridi said the government made a 'courageous' decision to revoke the measures 'in view of the higher national interest'." (Lebanese Cabinet reverses anti-Hezbollah decisions, Katarina Kratovac)

Incidentally, Chulov was back on track by 17/5/08 with "The Government had just given way on two issues that a week earlier it had considered bastions of sovereignty. The first was a move to sack the airport security chief... whose allegiances did not lie with the law-makers. The second was to dismantle a communications network used by Hezbollah to avoid the electronic eavesdroppers of Israel and the West."

And how about this thoroughly misleading final paragraph: "Since the end of the war with Israel in 2006, Hezbollah has demanded a greater say in Lebanese affairs. The elected Government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora has attempted to stand firm in the face of the Opposition's bid for power, which has seen 4 government MPs slain and its majority in parliament steadily whittled away."

This can only be understood as an insinuation that Hezbollah itself has been knocking off government MPs. Yet there is no evidence that this is the case and no-one in government ranks is asserting it. Clumsy writing or a deliberate attempt to smear Hezbollah?

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