Image Credit: Mohamad Abdallah / L'Orient Today

In the Heat of Truth: Journalists’ Readiness on Lebanon’s Frontlines

“Usually, I’m the one driving the car. I worry about the route because there could be a drone strike or anything. I can’t be a hundred percent sure that the road is safe. There’s always danger,” he says.

“I think, for myself, if things are going badly or not. If I’m going to make it or not. So what I’m trying to do when I’m driving is to imagine myself going for a drive during the weekend. I like to go for drives outside Beirut on weekends. This is one way for me to stay calm and not panic. I try to push away negative thoughts and focus solely on the mission.”

As Matthieu Karam, a reporter for L’Orient-Le Jour, embarks on assignments in Southern Lebanon and Bekaa amidst ongoing conflict, his apprehensions are well-founded. 

The reverberations of the clashes between Hezbollah and Israel are palpable within Lebanon’s media sphere. Amidst documenting the fallout from the Gaza conflict, three journalists have tragically lost their lives in Southern Lebanon.

Matthieu Karam, reporter for L’Orient-Le Jour, in Ain Ebel, South Lebanon. Saturday, December 23, 2023. Private photo.

“Even when they’re not the direct targets, journalists face serious risks,” says Nora Boustany, an instructor in Sociology, Anthropology, and Media Studies at the American University of Beirut (AUB). 

“That’s a tragic reality that underscores the dangers journalists face in their pursuit of truth.”

Jonathan Dagher, the Head of Reporter Without Borders’ (RWB) Middle East desk, underscored in an article by RWB the vital and pressing need to support journalists covering the war across the region. He stressed the ongoing necessity to advocate for the protection of reporters and to stand in solidarity with them, ensuring they can safely fulfill their journalistic duties.

Authoritarian Regimes Eliminate Opponents

On October 13, Israel attacked journalists in Alma Al Shaab, killing Reuters photographer Issam Abdallah and injuring six others. Investigations by Reuters, AFP, UNIFIL, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty concluded it was a deliberate attack. 

A month later, journalists in Yaroun were injured by Israeli artillery. In Tayr Harfa, Israeli strikes killed Al Mayadeen correspondent Farah Omar and videographer Rabih Al Maamari. The airstrikes are believed to be intentional by the channel, according to RWB.

“The deliberate, purposeful targeting of journalists is really a very scary and discouraging development. A line has been crossed,” Boustany, instructor in Media Studies at AUB, says.

The weapons used in the war are sophisticated, and now, with dumb bombs dropped from drones lacking precision, the situation is exacerbated. Boustany mentions another reason for the lack of safety of journalists reporting from conflict zones, emphasizing that warring factions always seek to control the narrative whenever possible. 

Regarding the ongoing war in Gaza, Boustany believes that the Israelis’ desire to control the narrative is why journalists have become targets.

“Authoritarian regimes like mobsters, they liquidate people who oppose them,” Boustany says.

However, she states, the Israeli military has greatly exaggerated the situation in Gaza. They have kept their own population poorly informed about the suffering in Gaza. Despite their attempts to control the narrative, they have failed because media outlets like Al Jazeera, through reliance on local fixers – some with limited English proficiency – accurately conveyed the events around them. 

Thanks to technology, these fixers were able to undermine the Israeli narrative significantly. But as a result, Al Jazeera is now being expelled from Gaza.

Despite relying increasingly on local informants and reporters for updates on the ongoing situation in the South and Bekaa in Lebanon, journalists and news bureaus in the country face significant risks when reporting on these areas due to the inherent dangers involved.

After the Baalbek strikes on March 11, Matthieu Karam and his team from L’Orient-Le Jour narrowly avoided a drone strike, finding themselves just five minutes away from the danger zone. To Karam, this experience served as a stark reminder of the inherent dangers associated with reporting in conflict zones.

To Be in the Eye of the Storm

Karam from L’Orient-Le Jour reveals that he ventures into the conflict zones of the South and Bekaa out of professional duty. There are untold stories waiting to be unveiled, and if he doesn’t go, those narratives may remain unheard. 

While the adrenaline rushes do add to the experience, they aren’t the primary motivation behind his decision to report from these areas.

“After all, I’m like everyone else. I’m afraid. I am scared. I am worried that I might get injured or killed. But when there is an important story to be told, I go,” he says.

Karam has been a journalist since 2014, and his first experience working in an actual conflict zone was in December 2023. Since then, he has been covering stories from Southern Lebanon and Bekaa for L’Orient-Le Jour.

Typically, war zones offer invaluable experience, especially for freelancers just starting their careers, according to Boustany, lecturer at AUB. These areas guarantee plenty of published stories due to high demand. People, particularly those with families or young children, are hesitant to be stationed in what are considered hardship posts.

“In a way, there is nothing like being in the eye of the storm for a journalist. It’s raw, it’s real, it tests you professionally, emotionally, physically,” Boustany says.

While starting out and becoming known for covering a war can boost one’s career, it’s not the only motivation. Once the journalists start covering wars, they experience how helpless populations struggle, and how they could be forgotten.

“You feel a sense of mission. You feel a sense of commitment to alert the world about human rights violations, about suffering, about needs,” Boustany shares about her own experiences in the journalism field.

Although Nora Boustany writes and teaches at the American University of Beirut, she is renowned as an award-winning correspondent and news columnist. With a 30-year tenure at The Washington Post, she has reported on events including Lebanon’s war, Desert Storm, and upheavals in Gaza and Algeria.

‘Sometimes You Just Don’t Survive Emotionally’

In conflict zones, journalists often face perilous situations, navigating through indiscriminate aerial bombings alongside civilians and fighters. Over the past year, particularly in the last six months, there’s been a concerning rise in targeted attacks on journalists.

“But the risk is not only physical. Sometimes, you just don’t survive emotionally,” says Boustany.

Nora Boustany, instructor in Sociology, Anthropology, and Media Studies at the American University of Beirut, in her home in Hamra, Beirut. Wednesday, March 10. Photo by Katrine Dige Houmøller.

She remembers, back in her days, there wasn’t any formal training for journalists entering combat zones. The journalists simply had to handle the situation as it came. 

She recalls that when she was young, many of her colleagues coped with the intense experiences of the day by drinking heavily at night. The things they witnessed, the hardships they endured, and the close calls they faced when caught in the line of fire or passing through areas under sniper or shelling attack were all part of the job.

Similar to soldiers, journalists who cover war zones, intense conflict, or the aftermath of war, experience a disconnection upon returning home, according to Boustany. After enduring days or weeks where every moment is filled with life-and-death decisions and deadlines, they find themselves out of sync with the normal pace of the world.

“You feel like the world is moving too fast or too slow for what is going on in your head,” she says.

The journalists need time, space, and distance to readjust their bodies and senses to the normal stimuli around them, having absorbed a significant amount of the suffering they’ve witnessed and reported on.

In Boustany’s view, the most effective way to heal from trauma is through writing about it, whether it’s their own experiences or those of others. Writing offers a sense of accomplishment and articulation. 

When their stories are published and widely read, it serves as an acknowledgment not only of their work but also of the pain endured by others. She believes that this acknowledgment carries a subtle, unconscious therapeutic effect.

Preparation Is Key

Amid the heightened dangers resulting from the war in Gaza and its impact throughout the region, journalists in Lebanon need protective equipment, reliable Internet access and psychological support, according to Reporters Without Borders.

That’s why the organization partnered with the Samir Kassir Foundation in Lebanon to inaugurate the Press Freedom Centre in Beirut on March 21. The center aims to offer journalists and media personnel covering conflicts in Gaza and the wider region a dedicated space for meetings and work. 

Additionally, it provides essential protective equipment such as helmets, bulletproof vests, and first-aid kits, along with psychological support, legal assistance, and training in digital and physical security.

The ACOS Alliance also collaborates with the SKeyes Center and regional organizations in Lebanon and the Middle East to provide intensive safety training for journalists in conflict zones. These three to four-day sessions address physical, digital, legal, and psychosocial threats, aiming to ensure that journalists are well-prepared to handle challenges in conflict zones or open war environments.

Preparedness plays a critical role in helping journalists mitigate threats and even avoid risks altogether, according to Elisabeth Cantenys, Executive Director at ACOS Alliance. She emphasizes that such readiness ensures journalists are better equipped for any situation. Preparation is key, with safety training standing as a crucial component of that readiness.

Karam from L’Orient-Le Jour highlights how their team weighs the risks for each story, following a structured approach. Assessing the route, duration, and compiling a detailed safety document are part of their protocol – if the danger is too high, they opt out. 

When journalists venture into conflict zones, their colleagues back at the office offer crucial support and guidance, prioritizing their safety above all else.

Matthieu Karam, reporter for L’Orient-Le Jour, in Ain Ebel, South Lebanon. Saturday, December 23, 2023. Private photo.

“In some cases, working on the war, you know, you should expect the unexpected,” Cantenys, Executive Director at ACOS Alliance, says.

Preparing for the unexpected means assessing risks and practicing scenarios. Having multiple plans in place ensures the journalists are ready for anything that comes their way. Cantenys explains how experience, safety training, insurance, personal protective equipment, protocols, and risk assessments all come together like a net, strengthening with each threat addressed. Relying solely on one aspect won’t provide adequate protection.

However, she underscores that awareness is paramount. Understanding how trauma can impact journalists physically and emotionally is crucial for maintaining psychological well-being. Recognizing symptoms enables them to care for themselves and assist their colleagues during difficult moments. Fortunately, their mission inherently shields them, and psychological damage can be addressed. Numerous journalists have rebounded from intense situations, often emerging even stronger than before, Cantenys tells.

Breathe Like a Ballet Dancer

The night before an assignment, Karam from L’Orient-Le Jour often finds himself grappling with anxiety. He contemplates whether things will go smoothly, striving to ward off negative thoughts to maintain focus and composure. 

The intensity of his anxiety varies, influenced by factors such as the assignment’s complexity and the potential risks involved, especially in areas recently affected by bombings. As a precautionary measure, he always informs at least one family member and one close friend in case of emergencies.

Boustany, lecturer at AUB, says that covering a war doesn’t come with a set playbook. She emphasizes that journalists entering conflict zones need a mix of youth, recklessness, and intelligence to assess risks while prioritizing self-care and the safety of others.

“There are so many precautions you can take. But when you go to cover something that is developing, there is no way you can anticipate where the fire could be coming from. So it helps to do a little research, and you have to do that quickly and on your feet.”

But overthinking can lead to paralyzing fear, sometimes requiring a leap of faith, she explains and continue:

“And you have to be willing to do it. If you’re not willing or ready, you don’t go.”

Nora Boustany, instructor in Sociology, Anthropology, and Media Studies at the American University of Beirut, in her home in Hamra, Beirut. Wednesday, March 10. Photo by Katrine Dige Houmøller.

Boustany recounts being among numerous journalists who were immobilized by fear during the chaos of the Lebanese Civil War. Some sought refuge in the basement of the Commodore Hotel or the Alexander Hotel, feeling compelled to do so, while others remained indifferent. Nora herself fell into the latter category – she simply didn’t care:

“I was a woman, I was a stringer, I was eager to prove myself. And I was a ballet dancer, so I kind of had some physical control. I can’t explain it. It’s a temperament. It’s instinct, it’s discipline,” she says.

“I was driven by wanting to tell the story, by wanting to please my editors, by feeling compelled to get it right. My fear could cripple me… And the key to all this is to keep breathing. To keep breathing evenly, like I would when taking a ballet class. I would breathe in.”

Boustany murmurs, inhaling deeply.

“And out.”

She whispers, exhaling slowly.

“It helps you stay calm and perform mechanical tasks. To write things down in your notebook.”