Reuters fails

ReutersPicThe contrast couldn’t be greater.

An August 5 article in the Los Angeles Times brought to our attention that Jews and Muslims are not the only ones caught up in Middle East conflict. Christians live there too.

Hezbollah is a pervasive influence in the society and will readily accept Christians’ support for propaganda purposes, but its radical ideology puts Christians in a position that would be unworkable, to say the least.

Times staffers Kim Murphy and Laura King do a superb job of describing the conflict for the Christians:

However, the strikes also alienated a group that largely has been hostile to Hezbollah. Christians make up an estimated 39% of Lebanon’s population, the highest percentage of any country in the Middle East. Over the years, they have often sympathized with Israel, even briefly collaborating in battling Palestinians during Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon in the midst of the country’s 15-year civil war.

Although some prominent Christian leaders have formed political alliances with Hezbollah in recent years, many ordinary Christians have been wary of the rise of radical Shiite Muslim power, and of Hezbollah’s alliances with Syria and Iran. In the early days of the current conflict, they tended to blame Hezbollah for starting it with a cross-border raid in which it captured two Israeli soldiers.

Much of that sentiment has waned as Israel’s attacks have widened, and Friday’s strikes in the Christian heartland prompted Christian political leaders to respond with anger.

“People don’t see eye to eye with Hezbollah on all things, but this is a question of an attack on Lebanon,” said Farid Khazen, a Christian member of parliament.

Earlier, The New York Times did an equally impressive job in profiling Christians who are exiting the country for their own safety:

TYRE, Lebanon, July 27 — The refugees from southern Lebanon spilled out of packed cars into the dark street here Thursday evening, gulping bottles of water and squinting in the glare of the headlights to find family members and friends. Many had not eaten in days. Most had not had clean drinking water for some time. There were wounded swathed in makeshift dressings, and a baby just 16 days old.

But for some of the Christians who had made it out in this convoy, it was not just privations they wanted to talk about, but their ordeal at the hands of Hezbollah — a contrast to the Shiites, who make up a vast majority of the population in southern Lebanon and broadly support the militia.

“Hezbollah came to Ain Ebel to shoot its rockets,” said Fayad Hanna Amar, a young Christian man, referring to his village. “They are shooting from between our houses.”

“Please,” he added, “write that in your newspaper.”

This is good solid reporting in a tough situation with thousands of years of history and many factions pushing their agendas.

Now take a look at this August 4 Reuters story by Khaled Yacoub Oweis on the Christians who comprise 10 percent of the population in Syria:

DAMASCUS (Reuters) — Seventy-seven-year-old Mona Muzaber lights a candle for Hizbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah at the Orthodox Church of the Cross in the centre of Damascus.

“I love him. I never felt Nasrallah was a religious zealot. He is a patriot who doesn’t seek personal gain,” she said. “I light a candle daily for him to remain under God’s protection.”

Israel’s offensive against Lebanon has brought Christians in neighbouring Syria closer to Nasrallah, a Shi’ite Muslim, reviving Arab nationalist feelings and blurring sectarian divisions.

Bishops and priests say Syria’s Christians, a devout community of around three million out of a population of 18 million, identify strongly with Nasrallah’s battle with Israel, which has occupied Syria’s Golan Heights since 1967.

“Pray for the resistance, pray for Hassan Nasrallah. He is defending justice,” Father Elias Zahlawi told the congregation at special mass held at the Lady of Damascus, a Catholic church.

Across Damascus Christians, like Muslims, sit glued to Nasrallah’s al-Manar television, receptive to his portrayal of the war as one in defence of all Arabs, as well as Muslims.

The article reads as a press release. It’s spewing out pure propaganda. And it’s not because I favor what the Israelis are doing, or dislike Syria. It’s because the article, in the words of a friend, is “absolutely devoid of any historical and religious context.” For starters, the article fails to acknowledge that Christians and Jews living under Islamic law are given a special protected status and are essentially second-class citizens.

The article also fails to mention that, while Syria has the appearance of a democracy, the Sunni-dominated country is essentially an authoritarian regime and it would be quite difficult for a Christian, or anyone for that matter, to speak freely on religion without risking the wrath of the majority. This type of conditioning has been going on for hundreds of years.

Contrast the statements of the Christians in Lebanon and the Christians in Syria. How could they be different? Perhaps it is because the Lebanese Christians have lived under the Hezbollah militias? To make things even more complicated for reporters, but not impossible, is recognizing that there are different Christian sects in the two countries, including everything from Maronite Catholics to Greek Orthodox to Armenian Orthodox to Roman Catholics, Coptics and Protestants.

Now, the level of embarrassment that this article brings to Reuters pales in comparison to the utter disaster caused by a freelance Lebanese photographer who altered two images to make the bombings of Lebanon seem worse than they really were.

Things like this don’t happen in a vacuum. Based on my experience covering goofs in large organizations, it is my guess that this is only the tip of the iceberg. What other distortions and poor journalism has Reuters put before its readers in covering the Middle East conflict? Or as Matt Drudge would say, what is real and what is altered?

There is a bigger story here about the coverage of this conflict and it will be interesting to see if The Washington Post‘s Howard Kurtz or National Public Radio’s On the Media will take it on during what is usually prime August vacation time.

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  • Larry Rasczak

    “Things like this don’t happen in a vacuum. Based on my experience covering goofs in large organizations, it is my guess that this is only the tip of the iceberg. What other distortions and poor journalism has Reuters put before its readers in covering the conflict in the Middle East? Or as Matt Drudge would say, what is real and what is altered? ”

    For the answer to your very intelligent questions go to

    http://littlegreenfootballs.com/weblog/

    where the Reuters story is covered in much greater depth than the MSM would ever do.

  • http://www.nhreligion.com Stephen A.

    Larry is right to point to LGF. The blogs have torn apart the pathetic and biased coverage of the conflict.

    Not only the doctored (plural) pictures used by Reuters, but the use of misleading pictures, has been exposed. Such as the woman, dressed in the same outfit, mourning the destruction of her home, only the pictures were taken in front of two separate buildings two weeks apart, and passed off as two incidents. I won’t spell out the motives here.

    Perhaps the journalists are just getting lazy, or perhaps they are simply using Hezbollah’s press releases or being taken in by their guided tours and talking points (“The residents here say 15 women and children, mostly children, were buried in this building when it collapsed after the bombing,” said the gullible, unquestioning journalist on MSNBC yesterday.)

    As for Israel, they are blindly alienating the very people they wish to have as supporters – Christians and other Lebanese who WERE inclined to support the moderates in Lebanon.

    To paraphrase an old saying: “The enemy of my enemy is ALWAYS my friend.”

  • Samn

    I don’t think your comments about the status of Christians in Syria are all that fair. Politically speaking, Syria is not dominated by Muslims but by Alawites who are themselves quite scared politically of the country’s Sunni majority and for this reason have long cultivated the support of religious minorities. I have personally spent a fair amount of time among the Christian population of the region, especially among the Syriac Orthodox or ‘Jacobites’, and the contrast between the status of Christians in Syria with that of Christians in other middle eastern countries– including Israel– is difficult to understate. With the complicated exception of Lebanon, Syria is the country in the region where Christians are most free to worship, run educational and civic programs, and generally be a part of public life- including the ability to speak freely about religion where it does not amount to a direct criticism of the government. (If anyone in Syria is not allowed to speak freely about religion, it is the Sunnis, whose sermons and publications are very closely monitored by the regime for obvious political reasons). Certainly, Syria does not allow most of the political freedoms that are enjoyed in western, democratic nations, but neither do Egypt or Turkey, where the status of Christians is abysmal. Many, if not most, Syrian Christians support their current government precisely because its undemocratic nature protects religious minorities from a much more frightening tyranny of the majority.

    Also, you were right to point out that middle eastern Christians are in no way monolithic. I would especially emphasize this in the case of Lebanon, where when discussing political issues it is useless to use the term ‘Christian’ as a communal lable. In practice, ‘Lebanese Christian’ in news articles is usually used as a shorthand for ‘Maronite’- perhaps because explaining what exactly a Maronite is would take a couple pages. ‘Maronite’, in turn, is often used as a shorthand for the right-wing, pro-Israel elements of that community an image which, though it may have been accurate in 1976 needs to be updated today. The country’s second-largest Christian group, the Greek Orthodox, have a very different political history, and tend to generally be much closer culturally and politically to the Muslim (especially Sunni) community. Additionally, because of their closer connection to Palestinian Christians, the Orthodox tend to be much more anti-Israel than the Maronites. A good example of Orthodox opinion about the current war is this essay (originally from the secular, Orthodox-owned and very anti-Syrian newspaper an-Nahar) by Archbishop Georges Khodr- where he says ‘the resisistance’ he means specifically Hezbullah.
    http://www.ortmtlb.org.lb/Nahar/terrible_war.htm

    Many apologies for going overly long with my comments…

  • Danny Kopp

    It never ceases to amaze me to read how utterly naive and ignorant Westerners’ accounts can be of life, particularly that of Christians, in Middle Eastern countries. I always knew, as any intelligent person would, when visiting my relatives in communist Czechoslovakia that their proclamations of the superiority of their system of government and social conditions were to be taken with more than a grain of salt. But had they not regurgitated the anticipated and equally repugnant propaganda, their lives would be in serious danger. They knew that, we knew that, most of the entire world knew that.

    Syria is one of the most oppressive authoritarian states on the face of the earth and Christians live under the double back-braking threats of a mafioso regime and the toxic atmosphere of increasing Islamic fundamentalism. The Syrian thuggocracy had in times past propped up a thin veneer of secularism, but this has been exposed for the facade that it is as the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood competes with spoon-fed extremist Shiism that is the side-benefit of Iranian tutelage. The conditions for Christians in Egypt and Palestine are indeed dismal as attacks by extremists are more frequent but there is also access to slightly more political freedoms there. As for Israel, Christians do indeed face some discrimination by the government and oppression by extremist Islamic groups but it is a fact that they are the only growing Christian population in the entire Middle East. That you (Samn) choose to cite the racist, hateful and anti-Semitic George Khodr is telling enough, but it’s enough to state simply that not one Palestinian Christian whose citizenship is Israeli would exchange it for the passport of any single Arab or Muslim state.

    But Israel is only a distraction, both for Arab governments and the above commentator, to the truth of the matter. It’s bad enough that Middle Eastern Christianity is being snuffed out at an unprecedented rate, without having to contend with Islamic extremism’s western cheerleaders.

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