Talking about Independent Journalism in Northern Lebanon

Posted on January 14, 2008. Filed under: independent journalism | Tags: , , , |

Checkpoint into Nahr el Bared

Driving up to Nahr el Bared last Friday with my friend Tariq and another journalist I’d just met, we had a very different kind of conversation from the ones I remembered having after the summer 2006 war in Lebanon. Instead of exchanging information about the places we were about to land—Beddawi and Nahr el Bared, the two Palestinian camps in northern Lebanon; Nahr el Bared had been just about bombed out of existence this summer by the Lebanese Army in its attempt to eradicate Fatah al Islam, and the people fleeing the bombing sought refuge in the adjacent Beddawi camp—we spent most of the time talking about the changes we were observing in the practice of journalism.

Don, the third journalist, was here with a travel grant to cover the temporary housing situation for the Nahr el Bared refugees. He and a partner had pitched the story to several print and electronic outlets before coming to follow up on some work that Don had done in Lebanon the past summer, when the conflict was ongoing.

Tariq, with whom I had done some audio work about cluster bomb victims last fall (Track 1, Track 2), after the Israel-Hezbollah war, had invited me to come. It was my first time in the field in quite a while, and I was entirely just along for the ride. So I hung back and watched and listened and snapped some photos. If an idea for a story or a new project emerged, all the better.

I don’t quite remember how, but before we ever mentioned the camps, we started talking about multimedia journalism. I wish I had recorded the conversation.

I talked about a recent online journalism workshop I’d co-taught at the American University of Beirut. Tariq had just completed an online course with the Knight Center at the University of Texas in Austin and was looking for a video camera to borrow to record the upcoming Ashoura festival in Nabatiyeh. And Don, a recent Columbia J-school grad (where he told me they are now integrating online into each of their tracks), was here to do video, audio, and print. He was thinking of at least three stories while we were out (a commentary, a video documentary, and radio piece), and maybe more.

We first stopped at Beddawi, where we visited one of the schools that has been a shelter for the eight months since the bombing started. Don went inside the school to video while Tariq and I, swarmed by men and boys shod in sneakers without laces, flipflops in winter, and cracked-leather workboots, listened to testimony about how not only food aid has contracted but so has media interest since the shelling stopped.

“I am a strange man here,” an elderly Palestinian man told me in English, referring to his status as an outsider in Beddawi. Another man told how some of his family were in the school, some were in a church, and he was sleeping wherever he could.

A third brought over a three-month old child and told us his mother was sick. “He sleeps on the floor. What has he done to deserve this?” the man asked. Young girls and boys came in steady stream to the big black plastic water tank that dispenses cold, clean water to the about 350 families who still reside in the school, unable to go back to Nahr el Bared because their homes have been destroyed, either by the shelling or by other means, as Michael Birmingham documented last fall. “We bathe in this cold water,” someone said. Everywhere clothes dry on clotheslines, window sills, and metal railings.

You just want to go home? I asked the “strange man” before I could think about the implications of the question. “Home?” he replied. And he recounted leaving Palestine for Nahr el Bared and Nahr el Bared for Beddawi. And in Beddawi, where like the other old man, he beds down where he can, he told me, “There is no home. There is no sleep. There is no food. Do you understand?” I told him I did.

By then Don had finished getting his B-roll from the school and we excused ourselves and started walking away. I’m never satisfied leaving this way. We don’t do it in other types of meetings. We leave with elaborate plans encompassing action items and next steps. I mentioned to Tariq that even just setting up a camera and letting these people tell their stories, just listening, might be of some help. We could upload the video to The Hub and At least there would be more of a record. But almost as soon as I let the idea escape my thoughts, Tariq pointed out two men who had later joined the swarm. See those well-dressed guys, he said? I spotted one of them from behind wearing a brown suede jacket and shined loafers. I hate those guys, he said. They are from the political parties; they’re checking up on what was being said.

Ohhhhh. That’s why the man who was talking to us kept looking to his right. I had noticed that the man had stopped and looked around a couple of times before continuing. Made sense, since one of the things that was being talked about was how the aid wasn’t trickling down quite the way they thought it should. In addition to being angry about how the UNRWA employees were eating and sleeping (full board and room at the Quality Inn on the other side of town), these men were also talking about how some in the camp were also taking a cut.

Instantly, I started thinking of workarounds for my “project.” How could I make sure that these testimonies weren’t stopped by those in whose interest it was that they weren’t heard? I’m still thinking about it, but, as always, there are a lot of things between now and making it happen—not the least of which are self-doubt in the effectiveness of such an approach and financial resources needed to make it happen.

We moved on. The plan was to get aidworker IDs that would have allowed us entry into Nahr el Bared, but we were discouraged from trying. Too many foreigners had tried this lately and the army was starting to feel like chumps. Even Norman Finkelstein, who was wrapping up a speaking tour in Lebanon, had been denied entry two days before.

We learned this from Milad, a 20-something Palestinian nurse, who lives in Nahr el Bared, stayed in the camp until a full month into the conflict (when he was finally forcibly removed by the army and arrested), and lost his home. Don had asked to interview Milad, since we couldn’t get into the camp that day. After taking some photos of the camp from an adjacent hillside and from the roof of a very friendly man’s house, we picked Milad up from the entry checkpoint on the main road, the same checkpoint where Fatah al Islam had ambushed the army at the start of the conflict.

Don wanted to shoot video of Milad with the camp in the background, but the sun was in our eyes and washed out the outline of the broken buildings. So we tried to get a little closer. We knew we weren’t supposed to take pictures of the army, so we were avoiding soldier outposts. We drove a short ways down a road that led to the camp, which is/was actually a small city of about 30,000 to 40,000 inhabitants. We found a piece of muddy cleared land on the seaside. The group of seagulls led me to believe it was probably a dump. We traipsed into it anyway, because from there the silhouette of the camp, which led straight down to the sea, provided the backdrop Don was looking for.

Before Don had the tripod set up, we were visited by a young Lebanese thug (a member of a group of coffee drinkers keeping warm nearby in a pavilion of sorts) wanting to know what we were doing. Another man came and demanded Milad’s ID. He took it and we had no choice then but to follow him. We got our car and followed Milad and the man across the road to the Military Intelligence post, on whose land, interestingly, was a container office very similar to the temporary housing unit we had seen earlier in the day that would factor into Don’s story. The same Dalal contractor sign was on it, too.

We were escorted inside. Some questioning took place. At first it was a bit stern, then after we had revealed that we were Irish, Brazilian, American—as well as Palestinian from Nahr el Bared, as Milad pronounced, not having been asked his nationality—we were released. I happened to have my Edirol R-09 in my pocket at the time, so I recorded the conversation, just in case anything went bad. It didn’t, thank goodness, and as in the Wild West, the sheriff followed us out of town.

Peaceful view of Nahr el Bared

We searched for another place to shoot and ended up on top of a hillside overlooking the town. “It’s so peaceful up here,” I said to Tariq, who laughed, “Peaceful, yeah.”

The guys finished their interview. We dropped Milad off back at the checkpoint and headed for Tripoli to eat fish sandwiches before making our way home, which included sharing tips about RSS, investigative journalism resources, social bookmarking, and two of my favorite online journalism blogs maintained by Paul Bradshaw and Mindy McAdams.

We also did something that people assume journalists—even independent ones—don’t do. We offered to share contacts. Just a year and a half ago, when I first came to Lebanon to write about the aftermath of the war, with a few exceptions, I encountered the competition for stories and sources that journalists are supposedly famous for. And I felt it, too, guarding some of my stories and sources more closely than my instincts told me I needed to.

But as we followed the endless commercial strip that leads into Beirut, I offered my architecture and urban planning editors to Don, and he offered his Columbia and Pacifica Radio contacts to me. I asked for some good resources on investigative journalism. Tariq obliged. This so wasn’t the ridicule-the-rookie bar scene in the Year of Living Dangerously.

Watching Don and listening to him record audio of Milad (for his radio story) even after he had already recorded video, I got the sense that he was covering an open-ended story, rather than filling holes in a formula for a one-track medium. As soon as we got back to the hotel, he ran upstairs to file an commentary for a website. I thought of Paul Bradshaw’s news diamond and 21st-century newsroom, which have implications for independent journalists too. He was reporting from every possible angle, creating a kind of database of information and media type, from which he could draw for whatever story, angle, or medium the next editor wanted.

I tried to pull this off on a reconstruction story last spring. For reasons beyond my control, it didn’t quite work. I remember feeling at the time that I was getting away with something, that maybe it wasn’t right to use the information gathered for one story in one outlet to lay the foundation to write another one for another outlet. That I should always be identifying to my subjects (“characters,” Don called them) who I’m writing for and what about. Maybe that’s partly my ignorance, never having been to journalism school or having had a mentor. Or maybe that’s how journalism has been framed for me by the media itself. I don’t know.

What I do see, though, is an opportunity for independent journalists to redefine what it means to cover a story: To use their video, audio, notebooks, and cell phones to report a story in the round. To anticipate its appearance on YouTube, on the radio, in the papers, in an RSS feed before the reporting has even started in much the same way that pioneering newspapers are planning their stories.

The benefits of diversifying by medium rather than by subject are many. It streamlines the enterprise journalist’s pitch process. One trip or series of trips into the field can produce many stories. More stories spread over a diverse array of media builds a journalist’s credibility and ideally leads to more assignments and, if we’re lucky, more paychecks to fund yet more stories. The multimedia method also allows for more in-depth coverage of a story, both because the different mediums lend themselves to the pecific aspects of storytelling and because when you don’t have to squeeze several topically different stories out of an international trip or limit yourself to just one, you can focus on getting more detail about the main impetus for your investigation and take your time doing so. All of which breeds better journalists. And so on.


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3 Responses to “Talking about Independent Journalism in Northern Lebanon”

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I love the final paragraph, and I love the fact that the web and pingbacks in particular allows me to find out about this post. Thanks for a stimulating read.

Thanks for the comment; rediscovering the details of that day reminded me once again why journalists are so important. I think I’d change one thing (other than to fix some long sentences and put an s on specific): that the benefits of diversifying by medium shouldn’t be in opposition to diversifying by subject. They can coexist and complement each other, too.

…comment and the compliment, I meant. 🙂

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