On the ground in Lebanon - Press Gazette

On the ground in Lebanon

Nic Robertson is a senior international correspondent, based in CNN's London bureau. During more than a decade with CNN, Robertson has been involved in some of the most significant news stories around the world, including the Balkans conflict, the Rwandan genocide and the liberation of Afghanistan. Robertson arrived in Lebanon on 13 July after he flew from Baghdad to Amman, Syria, and then drove to Beirut. Here he tells Press Gazette what he found when he arrived.

In the opening days of the conflict in Lebanon the situation has been exceptionally dangerous within certain limits. Israel is a modern and sophisticated military power capable of precision strikes, which means when we've been in the target zone of southern Beirut suburbs, an attack can potentially come at any time. But being caught under bombs is not the only problem in the southern Beirut suburbs. Hezbollah controls those areas and, as we have reported, they have people patrolling on foot and on motor scooters stopping journalists from filming.

On one occasion just after the bombing began we were filming the aftermath of an attack and were stopped by people claiming to represent Hezbollah. They wanted to take our passports and were only prevented when other air strikes went off close by. They ran off and we were able to leave the area.

The dangers aren't just in Beirut — travelling the roads in the south of Lebanon has also been risky. Israeli aircraft are on the lookout for Hezbollah fighters and leadership, meaning even driving around can be dangerous.

That danger is increased by the fact direct routes between towns and cities, particularly to the south along the coast, have been cut as bridges and roads have been bombed, meaning more time is spent driving.

In controlling the southern suburbs of Beirut, Hezbollah appeared to be shielding assets, possibly military and leadership. They organised visits for journalists, often quite short for fear of further air strikes. Over time with a number of our visits, either alone with Hezbollah or with visiting international officials, we've been able to build a reasonable picture of what's been damaged.

The real challenge when taken on one of these short rushed visits is to establish exactly what was the target.

What I rely on as a reporter in those situations is my experience of visiting many, many bomb sites, both military and civilian.

Whether the bombed buildings I've seen were used for storing weapons or military training is near impossible to determine in a few short minutes.

So what one has to rely on are tell-tale signs of a military presence — scraps of uniforms, bits of weapons, evidence of secondary explosions, fires burning longer than one might normally expect. Journalism in these situations is at its heart investigative, and that's how we've been pursuing the story here, following up, checking with sources about what we've been shown.

There is no doubt in this unfolding crisis both sides are experienced hands at getting their message out. Our job is to distil the truth.

The dangers aren't just the physical implications of getting caught up in a bombing or missile attack — the dangers for journalists also include being hoodwinked by people keen to advance their cause. We occupy the middle ground in the conflict — our role is to inform accurately and truthfully.