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Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Reporting the war from Lebanon

These are pieces of a transcript of the CNN program Reliable Sources, which was broadcast Sunday night. Unbiased reporters? I have my doubts....

By the way, this is the same program from which I quoted this morning.
KURTZ: All right. Also joining us from Tyre, Lebanon, Richard Engel, Middle East bureau chief for NBC News.

Richard, thank you for joining us. We are glad to have our satellite connection with you.

I want to play a brief clip of something you reported on NBC, you've also been reporting for MSNBC on this conflict for weeks now. This is when you covered a small community in Lebanon that has been a kind of a magnet to refugees. Let's take a look at that.


RICHARD ENGEL, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT: "We are dying of hunger," she said, "No water, food, milk, diapers, nothing. This small Christian village has been overrun by thousands of refugees, most of them Muslim.


KURTZ: You went on to say that some of these refugees had asked you for a ride as you were leaving. Is it inevitable, when you do this kind of up-close and personal reporting, that your reporting creates sympathy for one side of the conflict? And I've asked the same question to people who are reporting from Israel.

ENGEL: I think, naturally, people do feel an affinity or sympathy for the people that we're reporting on, certainly. These are civilians who are trapped in this village, they were refugees. There were a lot of women and children, not fighters. We didn't see and fighters when we were walking around that day. So I think part of the mission is to give these people a voice, and to empathize with them. You wouldn't want to go too far and let that color your reporting entirely, but I think it's natural that you would feel some sort of sympathy for these people; these war refugees, tens of thousands of them, who were literally starving and drinking filthy water.


ENGEL: There's no doubt that is an issue, that just in the last few moments there's been more shelling in the hillsides behind me. And it's coming to the point that you don't necessarily notice anymore. That's something for us, that's certainly the case for the viewers. But if you try and go out into the villages that are still cut off and that are on the front line closer to the Israel/Lebanon board, you will continue to find stories, people who have remained behind.

There are very few people left in the villages now. The only people, when we went recently, and found were just young military-age men, most likely Hezbollah or Amal Party fighters. So it is difficult to continue to find compelling stories, but every day the conflict is changing. And usually when you're just waiting for something to happen that's when things develop.

Just a few nights ago, there was an Israeli mission here in Tyre and there was a commando operation. And it was literally going on right above our heads. We could hear the helicopters landing, the 50- caliber machine guns firing in the city. So it is still very much a developing story.


KURTZ: Richard Engel in Lebanon, let's talk a little bit about your efforts to cover Hezbollah. Have you had instances in which Hezbollah guerillas have tried to interfere with your reporting?

ENGEL: Yes and no; and the reason I'm giving you that answer is that until now Hezbollah has been very difficult to cover. We've come into town several times and only found Hezbollah fighters. They don't want to be on film. They will talk to us off camera, but when the cameras come out they suddenly go quiet.

They've not tried to stop us filming other events while we're in the field, but they have, on several occasions, threatened reporters here in Tyre, south Lebanon. From the location where we're standing right now, we've been able to see, today and on other days, outgoing Katyusha rockets. And on more than one occasion people from Hezbollah have come and said, "Do not film the locations of these rockets when they're being launched."

At one time, when we were talking and having a conversation with this Hezbollah representative, he said, "Look, we're serious, we will kill you if you film these outgoing rockets." So it is a threat, but when we've been out in the field, we've not had situations where they told us to stop filming.

KURTZ: You, like other correspondents, a couple of weeks ago got a guided tour of one of the bomb-damaged areas of Lebanon by Hezbollah people. My question is when something like that happens, do you feel used at all? And how much responsibility do you have to tell the viewers that we're operating under very tight restrictions here, folks. We can't just go into any building and investigate for ourselves their claims that these are purely civilian areas?

ENGEL: I think it is clear that we have a lot of freedom, certainly much more than we do in Baghdad. We can go to the front line villages. In that report you aired a clip from, earlier today, we organized a convoy, reporters did, and slipped behind the Israeli front line. And we were hearing the artillery being fired from Israel into Lebanon, going over our heads.

So we have a great deal of mobility, but it is difficult to report on Hezbollah. There are certain restrictions that they put on us, particularly about filming the outgoing Katyusha rockets. And there's obviously the dangers; it would not be wise to try and join up with the Hezbollah unit, or watch them launch rockets, or to just rush into any of these frontline villages. So we have to be careful.

We hear reports all of the time about families trapped in a house that collapsed on them in a village, where the fighting is underway, in this area where Israel and Lebanon are fighting over a buffer zone. But just to go into the middle of the night and try and verify that would be very difficult.

So I don't think that the restraints or our inability because of the danger, or anything at this stage, that would require us to put serious qualifications on our reporting, but we have been able to move around quite a bit, but there obviously are dangers and risks like any frontline environment.

KURTZ: Right. Especially since Hezbollah is known to hide some its rocket launchers in civilian areas. Richard Engel stay with us. We're going to get a break here, when we come back, more on the fighting in the Middle East, and we'll talk about the Iraq war.


BRENT SADLER, CNN BEIRUT BUREAU CHIEF: I think, Howard, it's fair to say that many Lebanese have been exercising a form of political correctness here. In the interests of national unity they're trying to speak with one voice. That's why you're hearing the government rejecting, basically, the resolution, the draft resolution to end the conflict in a phase one resolution.

But really now, people are beginning to talk out about the way the Hezbollah rocket fire and the eruptions of this conflict is destroying this country. I think we're going see far more people, if you like, coming out of the woodwork condemning those that don't agree with the Shia hard-liners, like those who don't support Hezbollah. The Christians, certainly some of the Sunnis, supporting the voice of Lebanese, who represent the parliamentary majority, that would not want to see what's happening in south Lebanon, and throughout the country, continue for a minute longer.

Right now, Howard, there's an ongoing attack on the capital.

KURTZ: And tell us a little bit more about that. Are you near where these bombs are going off?

SADLER: I can certainly see plumes of gray smoke rising over the southern suburbs. There's been about eight or nine detonations in the last 10 or 15 minutes. We're not sure what weapons are being used, but certainly this is the first time you've seen Israelis, striking the southern suburbs of Beirut in hours of daylight, Howard.

KURTZ: Let me just ask you briefly, Brent Sadler, you reported a couple of times, this week for CNN, about Hezbollah sources, has it put you in a difficult position as a journalist to be getting information on background or off the record from Hezbollah officials, who won't come on camera, who won't allow their names to be used?

SADLER: Well, we do get some of them on camera. The interesting point is that we're seeing a lot more presence of Hezbollah's MPs, two of them are in the parliament here giving statements. We've had one of them coming on air speaking English.

I've been watching Hezbollah since their birth some 25 years ago, almost 25 years ago, they really are learning very quickly the power of the international media that's here. Once upon a time this city was a no-go capital for journalists like us to come to, during the kidnap years. But Hezbollah is certainly learning -- and has learned very well -- how to play the media card in getting its message out.


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