Beirut, Asharq Al-Awsat- Asharq Al-Awsat talks to Lebanese BBC correspondent Kim Ghattas regarding the latest events unfolding in the Lebanese political spectrum, the Alan Johnston kidnapping, and the trials and tribulations involved in covering the Middle East.
The following is the full text of the interview:
Q: Your colleague Alan Johnston was released recently after being held hostage for many months in Gaza. How do such incidents and risks, to which reporters are susceptible, have an impact on you?
A: Ultimately, the decision is mine and I choose to work in this field. In fact, this line of work is sometimes full of dangers but I try to avoid [thinking about] it. We saw what happened to our colleague Alan Johnston, and thank God, he was returned to his family unharmed. In addition, we have seen what happens to reporters in Iraq and how they suffer. What is taking place is not a new phenomenon but it has become more abominable than in the past. During the Israeli occupation of south Lebanon, members of the Lahd’s Army, which collaborated with Israel, had tried to detain me. It was a difficult experience, however, danger is not limited to kidnapping and killing as there are also explosive devices [around] and the wars that do not differentiate between civilians and reporters. I remember that I had left Iraq a day before the war broke out. It was terrible as I was alone during the 12-hour drive to the Jordanian border after it had been closed to prevent the flow of Iraqis at that time. Meanwhile, the Turkish driver tried to leave me and return. To convince him was a decisive issue for me.
Q: Under these circumstances, what is it that you fear?
A: Naturally, I fear being kidnapped and I fear violence and death, but I do not allow these fears to play with my head. On the spot, dark thoughts come to my mind for a few seconds but I just carry on [with my work].
Q: What do you fear professionally?
A: I am always scared of making mistakes. Therefore, I verify, research thoroughly and insist on covering all aspects of a topic, although it does worry me. I sometimes wake up in the night and make a note to follow something up the next day. If I feel that I am not sure of the news, I take my time. At the BBC, we prefer to broadcast accurate news than a scoop that may contain inaccuracies.
Q: To what extent is your work as a correspondent for a foreign channel affected by the political split that has cast its shadows over the media in Lebanon?
A: In Lebanon, we are working freely, talking to and understanding the viewpoints of all parties of the conflict. It is a relief that there is no specified political trend for the BBC as we work neutrally towards all parties.
Q: However, due to the fact that you are Lebanese, have you not been labeled?
A: Perhaps people try to categorize me without my knowledge. However, nobody has ever refused to deal with me because I am a member of the BBC team. When I work, I do not seek to satisfy anyone. I work to relate an event. Coming under fire from all sides is the best evidence of my neutrality.
Q: Does that mean that you distinguish between reporting and your feelings as a Lebanese experiencing these events?
A: My positions are my own; consequently I do not include them in the coverage. I do my work to inform the recipient of what is taking place.
Q: Does the rapid pace of events in Lebanon tire you?
A: What is a great help to us is that at the BBC, we do not cover the events in a Lebanese way that many Arab stations aim to follow. I have time to rest between news items, but this is not the case when events take place rapidly one after another. In last summer’s war [in Lebanon], the BBC team, that was made up of eight reporters, worked around the clock most of the time.
Q: What do you mean by a “Lebanese way”?
A: It is noticeable that most satellite channels imitate the Lebanese style that depends on going into fine detail. This is a local method, but as an international medium, we cannot state this amount of detail.
Q: To what extent do the taboos in some countries impede on the work of a reporter especially in tense circumstances?
A: There is always one way or another to cover an event even in Syria or Iraq before the fall of Saddam Hussein. It is true that the circumstances are difficult but the method, which is adopted by the reporter to encourage people to help him/her, has a considerable impact, even if there are numerous obstacles and taboos. There are always people who are willing to give information to reporters as long as they ask.
Q: But what about attributing information?
A: In the Arab world as a whole, there is a problem in attributing information. We always must determine the source. If the sources conflict, we will address the recipient in an open manner. Of course, we do not adopt any random news as we ascribe information to more than one source, authorize the agencies and witnesses and inspect the matter ourselves. If the information is incompatible, we would portray this, however the news would be clear.
Q: To what extent do you integrate into the institution [BBC] at the expense of your personality?
A: There is a combination of both. At the institution, I express my views with the officials and then my work is outlined. At the end of the day, I am a correspondent on the ground and this gives me freedom within a framework of trust and confidence and my acceptance of supervision.
Q: Which country has surprised you with respect to the working environment?
A: The answer would be Saudi Arabia, as I expected difficulties that would hinder my work. It was a good experience and I felt that nothing stood in my way. I made enquiries about the post-bombing period, the status of residential complexes, Arab and foreign residents, and the measures taken by the government and the ministry of interior regarding security. In addition, I have discussed social and humane topics and covered Saudi football. I have also conducted research into the Saudi ‘Thowb’ that is worn by men. Even in Syria, I think that the situation was more difficult. The two countries have been highlighted in our English-speaking channels. This encourages more reporters to be sent to these countries in light of more freedom for the press.
Q: You present Arabic material in English; to what extent is the non-Arab audience interested in this material?
A: What takes place in the Middle East is of interest to the whole world. It is true that the Western audience is not interested in the details that the Arab audience is interested in; however, I follow up on how they receive the material that I present whether through the local channel in London or the international channel. In addition, I pay attention to the comments. I am not a stranger to the Western audience since my mother is British and I know how Europeans think. Furthermore, I understand the mechanism of action to deliver the idea. I am pleased when I think about the people who listen to me in London whilst having breakfast and I know that I have listeners in the US as well.
Q: You have reported for BBC radio and television; which do you prefer?
A: Each means has its peculiarity. There is more pressure in television in the volume of work. I like working in radio a great deal. However, I feel more relaxed with live television broadcast. In addition, I like the assortment of topics on the radio and preparation involved.