Journal: Hezbollah and media access

Fellows Fall 2004

By Julie Goodman

June 02, 2009

A sign identifies the highly organized and bureaucratic Hezbollah media office.

A sign identifies the highly organized and bureaucratic Hezbollah media office.

One international researcher I met in Lebanon described Hezbollah officials as "control freaks."

It wasn't until I tried to schedule an interview with the party that I began to see where that reaction came from.

When I arrived in Lebanon, I hired a translator to help me with my interviews.    

I explained that I was interested in speaking to Hezbollah, Lebanon's Shiite militant group, and inquired about how to set up an interview with party leaders.

My translator, Maha, a Lebanese and former Washington Post fellow, picked me up a few days later and we headed into Hezbollah territory.

I had an 11 a.m. appointment.

We wound through the narrow streets of one of Beirut's southern suburbs, where tightly packed storefronts showcase everything from children's toys to Hugo Boss cologne.

Getting around can be difficult, as streets are rarely labeled and signs are not routinely posted. Even Maha, a savy Lebanese reporter, had to ask for directions about eight times before we reached our destination, a nondescript doorway in the heart of the suburb.

Up a darkened stairwell, we found a brightly-lit office where a sign read, "Media Relations — Hizbollah."

We were escorted into a waiting room with a large picture of the Ayatollah Khomeini on the wall.

In came Danny, a press office staffer who greeted us by placing his hand over his heart. (Conservative Muslim men do not touch women's hands.)

As required, I came to the meeting with a list of questions I planned to ask, an advantage we rarely afford our American sources.

But unlike initial interviews here in the United States, this meeting was for Hezbollah to ask me questions, not the other way around.

Danny photocopied my passport and my press ID, read over my list of questions, then handed me a two-page application to fill out asking for my home and work addresses.

He wanted to know what the focus of my story was, who I wanted to speak with, who my audience was, and what my fellowship program was all about.

The meeting was short and ended with no indication of whether I would have an interview, leaving me no way to plan my stay here.

On the way out, Maha explained that when she pressed Danny to commit to an interview, he responded with an Arabic saying, "Inch Allah."

It meant "god willing," and it was a response, we learned, he was fond of using.

Danny eventually contacted my translator to say he needed more paperwork, sending me to the Ministry of Information for additional press credentials, delaying my access another week.

Eventually, I was cleared for one of their upcoming events, a military parade in the eastern part of the country.

Maha drove me out to the event, negotiating her way through the town's jammed traffic to the mosque where we were to retrieve our Hezbollah press passes.

The problem was, we couldn't find the mosque.

With Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah speaking, security was tight and no reporter was allowed near the press box without a Hezbollah ID.

Once we parked the car, we were misdirected may times in our effort to locate our passes. Nasrallah already was well into his speech; his voice was being broadcast on loud speakers around the town.

After many false leads, we eventually located the mosque.

There, party staffers took our belongings away from our view for searching. But true to Hezbollah's reputation of being upfront and above board, we were given "baggage claim tickets" to hold on to while our belongings were in their possession.

And also to be expected, we were required to fill out yet another form before we were given our passes. We were then shuttled to the event where we were required to pass through a metal detector before taking our places among the reporters. Nasrallah was not far from us.

I breathed a sigh of relief, feeling like my access to Hezbollah was a little chance and completely out of my control.

My interviews, it seemed, were definitely going to be in god's hands.

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