[This is the latest in a series of quick interviews with journalists and others; if you have a suggestion for an interview subject, please e-mail SAJAforum editor Arun Venugopal, arunvenu[at]gmail.com.]
Just hours ago as of this posting, SAJAer Shashank Bengali (pictured here, in Ethiopia; see bio and recent stories) was in Beirut, filing on the ceasefire and the return of tens of thousands of displaced Lebanese to their homes. A foreign correspondent for the McClatchy group (which recently bought out Knight Ridder), Bengali is in his fifth week of covering the war. He joined Knight Ridder’s Nairobi bureau last year, upon completing a Master’s in Public Policy at Harvard, where he specialized in International Human Rights policy with a focus on Africa and development. Two summers ago he interned for KR in Beijing. He corresponded with SAJAforum from Beirut, and before the war, from Nairobi over the last few months. Scroll to the end of this post if you'd like to correspond with Shashank.
Arriving in Beirut…
It all happened suddenly - I had just returned from three weeks in Darfur when Hezbollah kidnapped the Israeli soldiers and the war began. McClatchy immediately deployed a team to the region. We have a fulltime reporter in Jerusalem; they sent our Berlin-based reporter to join him. Our Cairo reporter, who covers the Arab world, headed straight for Beirut. I was first told to go to Amman, then midway through my four-country, 24-hour journey from Nairobi I was rerouted to Cyprus to cover the evacuation of Americans from Lebanon.
After a couple of days there I went to Syria to cover the refugee flow from Lebanon, watch for political fallout and a possible expansion of the conflict, and wait for the signal from our editors in Washington to head overland to Beirut.
I've now been in Lebanon for 2 1/2 weeks. I spent four days last week in southern Lebanon, but due to travel restrictions I've spent most of the time in Beirut. Israel has bombed nearly all the major roads in the country and in recent days put out word that cars traveling in the south along what's left of the coastal highway (the main way to get to the south from Beirut) would be considered military targets. So getting to the south has become very, very difficult in the past week.
Working in the war zone…
Working in Beirut is relatively easy. Despite the massive damage to the southern suburbs and the exodus of thousands of people to safety either overseas or in the mountains to the north, which I think has given people in the U.S. the impression that Beirut is crumbling, most of the city is functioning normally. Where we are near the city center, we've got clean, comfortable hotel rooms and usually reliable Internet connections. Many restaurants and shops are closed, but there are still enough places to eat and to buy what you need. (I've been here so long that I've had to buy new razor blades and notebooks.)
The south is a different story. In Tyre, the base for journalists covering the region, electricity last week was spotty and most of the city was deserted. Driving anywhere outside the city is risky, so most cars have the giant letters "TV" taped all over them in the hopes of convincing Israeli jets not to fire on them. A photographer and I spent a few hours one day driving along the border road, where villages have emptied and the sound of shelling from both sides is constant and loud.
Things have deteriorated rapidly since then, with more Israeli air strikes on Tyre itself, and we hear from journalists who are still down there that they are pretty much stuck in the hotel or whatever accommodation they've found, and many complain they can't do much reporting.
The Challenge of Filing…
In the south, without electricity or Internet connections, you rely on generators and satellite modems to stay plugged in and to file stories. I've become used to this from working in remote parts of Africa, but one way that Lebanon is easier is that cell phones work even in far-flung villages where electricity has been cut and the roads reduced to rubble. But one way this story is tougher than covering wars in Africa is that both sides are using heavy artillery at close range, and I feel a greater threat to my personal safety from an air strike or stray rocket than from encountering the average African militia. Most reporters working in the south wear body armor, and the same goes for venturing into Beirut's southern suburbs.
On criticism of American coverage of the war…
I haven't heard that much directly. A story I wrote two weeks ago on Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah's rising popularity in the Arab world prompted a couple of angry emails from readers, one of whom called me a "terrorist apologist" and took serious issue with what he thought were flattering descriptions of Nasrallah, including "charismatic" and "baby-faced." I don't know whether the general sense is that media coverage is favoring one side over the other in this war, but I try to read every day what our competitors are putting out, and I have found the coverage in general to be fair to both sides.
PR on the frontlines: Hezbollah vs. the Israel Defense Forces
One thing we in Lebanon feel, I think, is that the IDF is a media machine - it grants reporters access, it puts out regular and reliable numbers and information, you can get up to the Israeli side of the border with less danger than from this side, and therefore I think many of the daily news stories emphasize the Israeli version of events. In Lebanon, naturally, Hezbollah leaders often don't grant interviews and their military strategy isn't a matter of public record. It's our responsibility to write about the Lebanese people - the big losers in this conflict - and I've seen some stories that have described people's lives here beautifully and often poignantly.
The last thing I want to say about the media coverage is that everyone I know here is working incredibly hard, over long hours and in less than ideal conditions, and I honestly know of no reporter in Beirut who's pushing an agenda other than telling the compelling story of what is happening to this country.
Seeking story hooks in Africa…
I'm trying to get out of the correspondent's trap of covering the hunger crisis, election or civil conflagration of the moment. Those news events get a lot of play in the African and NGO press but they don't necessarily help readers in the U.S. understand what's going on in Africa. I'm trying to challenge myself to find connections between news events in disparate countries
I wrote a story in December about how Kenyans were reacting to the introduction of Breathalyzers at Christmastime, putting a damper on holiday drinking. In my time here, it was easily the most talked about issue on the streets of Nairobi. I basically went to a bar at happy hour one evening and got a notebook full of quotes in an hour. It was a trifling story, but it got a very good response and probably ran in more newspapers than my stories on civil war in Congo, U.S. counterterrorism in Ethiopia or elections in Liberia. Those were all major stories for Africa, but drinking and driving is something people around the world know about. I think we have to make our stories accessible and to talk about Africa - when we can - in ways that people far away can relate to.
Covering counterterrorism in Africa…
I spent a few days with the U.S. troops stationed in Djibouti who are doing counterterrorism in the Horn of Africa. Following 9/11 the terrorist threat in this region, primarily from Somalia, was seen as huge. But Somalia is such a disaster that it seems even terrorists can't function there. So to Washington, the al Qaeda threat has fizzled. The US mission in Djibouti has evolved into a "hearts-and-minds" campaign in which soldiers are going into remote Muslim villages and doing humanitarian work and helping to shore up border security in various African countries. It's an unusual use of taxpayer money but the theory is it puts a brighter face on the American military in a place known to have al Qaeda sympathizers. I think it's an interesting idea and the troops I spoke to certainly prefer this kind of mission to the one in Iraq. It remains to be seen whether this is cost effective or whether the U.S. has the commitment to stay in this region long term, otherwise a lot of the goodwill we are generating will dissipate pretty quickly.
[Shashank Bengali can be reached at sbengali[at]mcclatchydc.com]