Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Doubting Dogma

This is a follow up to these two posts on the media coverage of Hezbollah attacks on Israel during the war. Essentially, the question was whether the Israeli reporting restrictions had the effect of giving greater credence to the claim that Hezbollah was deliberately trying to kill civilians than was actually supported by the facts.

Fran Unsworth has written about this over at the The Editors blog. Reading the comments there gives a good indication of the difficulties the BBC faces when covering such a controversial issue. The BBC is apparently the broadcast arm of the Hezbollah/Mossad propaganda unit (delete as appropriate). It can't be easy to have to constantly deal with these mutually exclusive pressures.

Anyway, some facts from Fran:
One of the forms that all journalists sign, to be accredited members of the press on arrival in Israel, is a promise that you will obey the rules of the military censor. In the context of the latest war in South Lebanon, those rules mean - we are not allowed to report any Hezbollah hits on military bases, not allowed to broadcast news of ministerial visits to the frontline until ministers are safely back out of Hezbollah’s range.
It's that inability to report on hits to military bases which is the issue.

It looks like Hezbollah were primarily using the 9K132 Grad-P variant launcher to fire their rockets. This isn't a particularly accurate (or powerful) weapon but they can be aimed in a general sense. The Israeli military rationale for the prohibition of live reporting of the location of rocket attacks confirms as much. As Fran reports, "if rockets land whilst we are live on air, we have to be vague as to where they fall (the theory being that Hezbollah may be watching BBC World or equivalent, and using our information to help them calibrate their rockets launchers)".

So, it appears that the Israeli military accepts that Hezbollah's rockets are not completely indiscriminate and can be calibrated and aimed at a given area in a viable way.

Fran goes on to say:
In practice, Israel finds these rules very hard to enforce. It is a small, talkative country and the media usually finds out about casualties quickly. The rolling news networks based outside the country are not bound by the censorship rules, so if they find out from other sources they will broadcast.

Here's another article on the Israeli military censor from AP (thanks to the anonymous commenter who pointed it out in a previous post). It says:
The rules include no real-time reports giving the exact locations of guerrilla missile hits; no reports of missile hits — or misses — on strategic targets...
In practice, it seems to me, the fact that journalists on the ground cannot report on rocket hits or misses on strategic targets is important enough to be worth pointing out. A rocket landing on or perhaps more significantly near a military installation is most often going to be reported simply as a rocket landing in Israel. The military target, if there was one, is unlikely to be publicised. Fran's article does not really address this.

So, did Hezbollah deliberately try to kill Israeli civilians in large numbers during the conflict as the Israeli government constantly claimed? It is difficult to be sure but there doesn't seem to be much in the way of evidence to support the claim. It seems more likely that Hezbollah were aiming at Israeli military targets to the best of their limited ability.

Just to restate the obvious, none of this is meant to suggest that I endorse Hezbollah's actions. I don't. Although on a vastly different scale, both Hezbollah and the Israeli military displayed a wanton disregard for the lives of civilians.

(Bizzarely, I was interupted while writing this post by the doorbell. It was a nice lady from MORI asking if she could ask a few questions so I said yes. The survey was about media impartiality particularly in relation to the BBC. Absolutely true. The human brain just isn't wired for that sort of coincidence.)

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