Sean Durns, Senior Research Analyst for the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis (CAMERA), spoke to an August 1st Middle East Forum Webinar (video) in an interview with Clifford Smith, Director of the Middle East Forum's Washington Project, about the mainstream Western media coverage of Hezbollah and Middle East events.
Durns said that Lebanon, whose capitol Beirut was once known as "the Paris of the Middle East," has turned into "a failed state" under the grip of Hezbollah [Party of God], the "theocratic Shia movement" that is both a "political party and a militia." Hezbollah has drastically changed the Lebanese state "for the worst" over the past half a century. During that time, Hezbollah has wielded what Durns calls "its press weapon." According to Durns, "image is power" in Lebanon, and Hezbollah uses the press as a tool of "psychological warfare" to project its strength against Israel and the United States, as well as to boost recruitment.
Lebanon's population is a diverse and complex mix of Shia and Sunni Muslims, a variety of Christian groups, and a sizable Druze minority. Durns said that Hezbollah takes advantage of Lebanon's politics by exploiting the sectarian divide between the groups. In turn, the press is "complicit" in obscuring Hezbollah's "use of human shields [and] their collusion with the official state of Lebanon." That the Shia were in Lebanon's political calculations for years has worked to Hezbollah's advantage, contributing to its rise since the late seventies. Even Christian and Druze sects lent their support to the movement at various times.
As exemplified by the kidnapping of Associated Press (AP) journalist Terry Anderson, the murder of non-journalist and former CIA station chief, William Buckley, and the assassination of local Shia reporter and Hezbollah critic Lokman Slim in 2021, Hezbollah has relied upon intimidation in dealing with the press. Foreign journalists are aware of the dangerous consequences of reporting on Hezbollah's behavior, even with Hezbollah's "kid gloves" treatment of American or British journalists posted locally.
The myth of Hezbollah's emergence as a "Lebanese national resistance movement" in the wake of Israel's 2000 withdrawal was disproved by the growth and consolidation of Hezbollah's power. Even though the press no longer perpetuates that fiction, Hezbollah has become even more willing to assassinate opponents within Lebanon who challenge its political and military control. Regional analyst Tony Badran has said, "Lebanon is Hezbollah, Hezbollah is Lebanon," which Durns noted was most evident after Hezbollah obstructed investigations into any Hezbollah connection with the Beirut port explosion of 2020, "one of the largest non-nuclear blasts in history."
Furthering Hezbollah's press coverage "distortion" is the problem of "complicit" reportage by press outlets that will not hesitate to identify other Islamist groups as terrorists, if their "principal target" is not Israel. However, when Israel is the target of such terrorist groups as Hamas and Hezbollah, journalists refer to them as "militant organizations." Durns said that news organizations compromised their journalistic standards out of fear for reporters' lives or from a desire to maintain access when reporting on "authoritarian regimes or terrorist organizations." In the past, the AP filtered damaging coverage of the Nazi regime to maintain access. Durns said compromises are "inherent" to journalists working in dangerous political terrain, and under the circumstances, the best journalists can do is to openly discuss the compromises imposed on them.
Durns said another organization providing cover for Hezbollah is the United Nations (U.N.) because of its anti-Israel positions. Durns said, "The U.N. supports resistance to and attempts to abolish the Jewish state." His frank assessment is based on his observation that UNIFIL [United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon], the U.N.'s "peacekeepers" in the region, has done little over the past three decades to enforce "Security Council Resolutions" that Hezbollah should be "disarmed and abolished." Instead, UNIFIL "provide[s] cover" for Hezbollah during attacks against Israel.
Hezbollah's "weapons and munitions depots," which pepper more than two hundred villages in southern Lebanon, are ignored by journalists who should be investigating these caches following the Beirut port event, because the intimidation factor of Hezbollah, "who holds the gun holds the power," remains. With the decline of foreign news bureaus, an emerging trend in journalism is a growing dependence of reporters on "local fixers, stringers, or the wire services." In many cases, "Arab media" are more dependable, tending "to get the details right more than Western journalists."
To weaken Hezbollah's power base, Durns said the U.S. should end its financial support of the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) because of collusion with Hezbollah, as underscored by the fact that Hezbollah supports Michael Aoun, Lebanon's Christian commander-in-chief, who makes pro-Hezbollah statements. The monies the LAF has received over the course of many U.S. administrations has yielded little leverage, notwithstanding that the LAF has joined forces on occasion with Hezbollah to fight Sunni jihadists. Durns said the LAF is "still propping up Shia jihadists" who themselves have ties to Sunni jihadists. Economically, Lebanon is in "dire straits," Durns said, even to the point that its government was willing to enter a deal to import natural gas from Israel via pipeline from Egypt's LNG plant.
There is growing criticism of Hezbollah from the Lebanese people, particularly after Lokman Slim's assassination. People fear becoming collateral damage in any conflict Hezbollah has with Israel, especially those living in southern Lebanon. Durns finds that "there's a clear trajectory of Lebanon's downfall over the last half-century to their willingness to support anti-Semitic terror groups" such as Hezbollah.
Decades of "atrocious leadership" has placed the Lebanese people at grave risk in the event Israel strikes Iran's nuclear weapons program. If this were to occur, Hezbollah, along with other Iranian proxies, would unleash its stockpile of missiles against the Jewish state. The "human shield" villages in the south, along with "huge areas of Beirut," would be caught in the middle of a "cataclysmic war." Durns said, "this is a subject that journalists really aren't writing about, and they need to be, because this is a loss of life that I think is impending, and it's going to be drastic."
Marilyn Stern is communications coordinator at the Middle East Forum.