Journalists tiptoe through the 'crocodile-infested swamp' of Beirut

''Beirut is a crocodile-infested swamp for a reporter. There is no denying the danger and the need to be very careful. But considering the situation, there is an amazing degree of press freedom. And considering there's been a war on since 1976, not that many journalists have been killed or wounded.''

That is how Jim Muir, a journalist who freelances for the British Broadcasting Company and other news organizations, sees the situation in Beirut.

Mr. Muir left the city hurriedly in the summer of 1980 after his life was threatened. For the past 18 months he has worked out of Cyprus, mostly monitoring Arabic radio broadcasts and using Cyprus' high-quality telecommunications facilities to report on the Arab world.

Mr. Muir is one of the journalists that Israeli Government Information Office director Zeev Chafets mentioned recently when he launched an attack on Western journalists' coverage of the Middle East from Beirut.

Threats against journalists, the mysterious deaths of several reporters over the past few years, and the outright assassinations of many Lebanese journalists and editors - these have intimidated the press in Beirut, Mr. Chafets charged. Consequently, he said, many reporters withhold newsworthy information and treat Israel's enemies -- meaning primarily Syria and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) -- with kid gloves.

The reporters here in Beirut, for the most part, are indeed a tense, news-hungry bunch. They admit that the anarchy of Lebanon, the treachery of the regime in nearby Damascus, and the constant threat of war make coverage from here a difficult task. But every one of them contends that he reports the news as objectively as his colleagues in Jerusalem do.

Following Mr. Chafet's recent charges, many reporters here have felt under self-imposed and home-office pressure to write stories about past intimidation. This has usually meant pointing a finger at Damascus. Syria's security chief, Col. Riffat Assad, the brother of Syrian President Hafez Assad, is believed behind many of the journalist killings (some estimate as many as 27) in the past three years.

But the act of saying so -- as well as the revealing coverage of Syria's recent internal problems -- has caused new problems for the press corps here. Two Spanish journalists and a top US journalist slipped out of the country last week. A prominent British journalist, who asks not to be identified, received a warning from a third party that his life may be in danger; so far, however, he is opting to stay.

''You can't go running off every time there's a warning,'' this journalist says. ''My position is: as long as there is no direct threat against me or my newspaper, I am staying. And if there is such a threat -- and we're presuming it's from Syria -- then I am going straight to Damascus to confront them with it.''

In these latest cases, as in the earlier ones, journalists say Syria is the most likely culprit. But many correspondents are worried that opponents of Syria - which are legion and which include Iraq, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Lebanese Maronite Phalange, Jordan, and Israel -- could be delivering the latest series of threats to further discredit the Syrians.

Another important concern among many members of the press here is that Israel may be trying to discredit them in order to minimize adverse coverage in the event that a much-conjectured Israeli invasion occurs.

''Since they (the Israelis) were so badly burnt by the reports on their attack on the south (of Lebanon) and Beirut last July,'' says Washington Post correspondent Edward Cody, ''I guess they would be glad to see the credibility of correspondents here undermined in advance of a future attack, to cast a shadow of doubt on any reporting of such an attack.''

Journalists here contend that while self-preservation often necessitates cautious reporting of events concerning Syria, they have never had problems with critical articles written about the PLO or most other causes based in Beirut. Neither Lebanon nor the PLO attempt to exercise prior censorship. Nor do they bar access to sensitive parts of the country -- except perhaps to Lebanese military bases or PLO strongholds in southern Lebanon.

In Israel, however, foreign correspondents are required to sign a form agreeing to submit their news stories to military censorship. Often reporters are prevented from entering hot spots: a week ago, reporters had film confiscated after attempting to cover a general strike by Druze inhabitants of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

Moreover, several journalists in Beirut argue that many foreign correspondents working in Israel are Jewish, that some adhere to Zionist ideals, and that some have children serving in the Israeli Army. One should note, however, that some of the journalists on the periphery of the foreign press corps in Beirut have had links with Palestinian causes.

''As far as trusting the news, the stuff you get out of Israel should be treated with a lot more skepticism than the stuff out of here,'' says a correspondent in Beirut.

United Press International's Beirut bureau chief, Vincent Schodolski, says the Chafets charge against the Beirut press corps is an Israeli attempt ''to make it look as if a basically hard-working and dedicated group here is cowering and living in fear. This is simply not the case. They have twisted the facts to present an image which is basically wrong.''

UPI's Jerusalem bureau chief, Mel Laytner, however, recently told the Monitor he does indeed believe that journalists in Beirut are are ''living in fear.''

For the foreign journalist covering the Middle East, there seems little alternative to the pattern of treading lightly when necessary and not burning too many sources, lest too many pieces end up missing from the news mosaic here.

This means that in Beirut, reporters are likely to continue to be cautious when they write about Syria and their stories may appear to contain a pro-PLO slant -- at least until such a time as the Lebanese anarchy ends and reporters feel a full measure of freedom to write. Whereas in Israel, newscoverage is likely to continue to appear pro-Israeli -- at least until the longstanding Arab-Israeli conflict can be brought to a peaceful conclusion.

Meanwhile, a route is that taken by several news organizations -- including the BBC and the Monitor: to maintain sources in, and make frequent visits to, Israel, Lebanon, Syria, and elsewhere in the Middle East in order to try to report fairly every side of the complex Arab-Israeli story.

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