The Washington Post on Syria in Lebanon

Syrian troops reportedly completed their withdrawal from Lebanon on April 26, ending their 29-year occupation, although many of Damascus’ several thousand plainclothes intelligence agents and secret policy were believed to remain behind.

Washington Post foreign news coverage avoided the “o” word – occupation – in regard to Syrian forces in Lebanon almost completely from the February 14 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri through April 26’s departure of the last Syrian soldiers. Only once (“Lebanese Opposition Tries to Sustain Drive; Broad Agenda Includes Pressing President,” March 2) did a news article mention “the long-standing Syrian occupation.

Not that Post foreign service correspondent Scott Wilson and the foreign desk in Washington avoided the word “occupation” in regard to Lebanon altogether. For example:

* Hezbollah’s “armed resistance to the Israeli occupation of a part of southern Lebanon that ended in 2000 ….” (“Lebanese Premier Resigns As Street Protests Heat Up,” March 1);

* “[Walid] Jumblatt, who had supported the Syrian military presence here during the Israeli occupation of a swatch of southern Lebanon, has become the most strident voice in favor of Syrian’s withdrawal.” (“Lebanese Opposition Tries to Sustain Drive,” March 2);

* “Syria’s three-decade presence in Lebanon” but “the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon for nearly two decades” (“Syria to Outline Lebanon Pullback,” March 5):

* Reporting maneuvering by Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, Wilson refers to the Hezbollah leader and “what he characterized as foreign influences seeking to expel Syria” from Lebanon but twice to “the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon” (“Hezbollah To Protest U.S. Stance on Lebanon,” March 7).

The Post‘s national news coverage during the February 14 – April 27 period did include a direct reference to Syria’s occupation of Lebanon, and it appeared without connection to Israel’s south Lebanon “security zone.” Reporting results of a public opinion survey in the United States, reporters Dan Balz and Richard Morin mentioned, among other issues, “international pressure for an end to Syria’s occupation of Lebanon” (“2 Years After Invasion, Poll Data Mixed,” March 16).

And in covering President Bush’s European trip during this period, the paper did directly quote his statement that “Syria must … end its occupation of Lebanon” (“Bush Seeks to Mend Transatlantic Rift,” February 22).

But the closer the coverage came to the physical reality of Syria’s occupation of Lebanon (at its height, 40,000 troops in a country of less than 4 million, plus thousands of spies and secret police whose presence went unmentioned until the Hariri killing and anti-Syrian street demonstrations, and up to one million Syrian workers in the country) the more evasive and misdirecting the coverage became. For example, the lead in one Wilson dispatch refers to a local farmer whose property has shrunk “and at least 15 acres now represent another occupied patch of the Middle East.” The article adds that “many Sunni and Shiite Muslims and Christians in the Bekaa Valley said they had lost income and property – as well as friends who sought better job opportunities overseas – as a result of what they describe as Syria’s occupation.” (“Syrian Troop Deal Exposes Festering Lebanese Resentments,” March 8).

According to the Post, Lebanese complain of “what they describe as Syria’s occupation” – implying perhaps that the paper considers it something else. In fact, the story four other times refers, in The Post’s narrative, to “Syria’s presence” or “the presence of Syrian troops” and once to “Syria’s involvement here”, but never to Syria’s occupation.

Overall, from Hariri’s murder – for which Syria was suspected of direct or indirect responsibility – to its withdrawal under U.S., French, Saudi Arabian, Egyptian and U.N. pressure bolstered by large rallies of the Lebanese opposition, The Post regularly referred to Syria’s “interest,” “presence,” “influence” and “domination” in and of Lebanon. Syria’s “domineering presence” was noted. It was said to have “held sway” over Lebanon. But occupation? Virtually never.

Post commentary pages did not balk at the phrase “Syrian occupation.” One of the paper’s syndicated columnists, Charles Krauthammer, referred directly to “Syria’s occupation of Lebanon” (March 4). Jim Hoagland called it “the ill-begotten Syrian occupation of their [Lebanese] land” (“Nurturing the Beirut Spring,” March 10).

Columnist David Ignatius wrote of “the first great martyr … the Druze leader Kamal Jumblatt, who was assassinated near a Syrian checkpoint on March 16, 1977. He had publicly criticized the Syrian occupation ….” (“The Syrians Slip Away, ” March 18). Ignatius later termed Syrian forces “an army that had occupied Lebanon since 1976 ” (“Back to Syria – And Beyond,” April 27).

A Sunday “Outlook” section contributor, an American teaching in Beirut, Frances Z. Brown, referred to her students and “the Syrian occupation of their country” and “their only experience with government is of Lebanon under Syrian occupation” (“My Students, Reveling in the Cedar Revolution,” March 20).

Although New York Times news coverage from February 14 through April 29 avoided any reference to Syria’s occupation of Lebanon (it appeared once each in three separate commentaries), reporting in the Washington Times referred to Syria’s occupation of Lebanon at least seven times, in USA Today at least twice.

In response to queries from CAMERA, David Hoffman, Washington Post assistant managing editor for foreign news, explained the foreign desk’s usage of “Syrian occupied Lebanon” or “the Syrian occupation of Lebanon” this way:

We have used different words to describe the situation depending on the circumstances, such as whether political, or military, or intelligence was at issue ….

Our words are choosen by correspondents on the ground who are witnessing events and attempt to provide context. This is the highest and best form of journalism. I cannot answer for the other news organizations [regarding descriptions of Syria’s presence in Lebanon as an occupation].

Keep this in mind the next time the Post mentions Israel’s occupation – not its presence, interest, influence or domination – in and of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, or its former occupation of the south Lebanon “security zone.” Keep in mind also that Israel has been attacked, repeatedly, from the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and southern Lebanon, while Syria was not attacked from Lebanon. Then write Post ombudsman Michael Getler, [email protected], and ask him what gives?

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