Beirut Fixers: The Invisible Safety Net of Parachute Journalists

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It kicked off when a journalist had asked Nayel to do some translation work, which coincided with his interest to enter into the field of journalism and learn more about how stories are constructed. (Photo: Marwan Tahtah)

By: Yazan al-Saadi

Published Monday, September 30, 2013

In Beirut, Western foreign correspondents tend to rely heavily on information from local fixers, who do the bulk of reporting for them. It is the fixer – a character who is virtually unseen – who knows the language, who to talk to, and where to go. Depending on the needs of the correspondent, the fixer’s role is malleable. And they can be the essential difference in maintaining the integrity and truth of a story.

A fixer in Lebanon can charge anywhere from $150 to $600 a day. Sometimes, fixers are coveted and placed on a retainer basis where they await for a major story to break, yet usually the fixers get work through word-of-mouth and recommendations shared between the tight-knit media community.

While the flexibility of a fixer’s role is predicated on their own ability and the needs of journalists, it relates also to what the fixer's own desires are from the job.

“You are in the heart of the events. You see what the situation is, how different groups are acting, and what are the origins to the issues. This is all valuable information,” Firas Abi Ghanem, 34, a part-time fixer, told Al-Akhbar.

Abi Ghanem began working as a fixer for various US and European outlets right after Israel's brutal war on Lebanon in 2006. When he returned to Lebanon from abroad, he was keen to learn more about events in the country and find ways to help out. Fixing allowed him that opportunity.

Mohammed Ali Nayel, 30, a fixer and freelance journalist in Beirut, also began fixing right after the 2006 war while he was part of a youth initiative.

It kicked off when a journalist had asked Nayel to do some translation work, which coincided with his interest to enter into the field of journalism and learn more about how stories are constructed.

“The job opened my eyes to how stories are done and the quality of journalists who do stories from this part of the world,” Nayel said.

“A fixer,” he continued, “is an invisible character in the story between the reader and the journalist. Normally, a fixer is the one who ends up doing most of the work – he or she is the person who speaks the language, and the person whose ethics are very important to the story.”

Another fixer – or, as he preferred, a “field producer” – Issam Abdullah, 27, started working in late 2008 while he was a full-time freelance journalist and cameraman. During the free time he had, colleagues suggested that he attempt to earn extra money by helping out visiting journalists. For Abdullah, fixing is seen as one of the means to strengthen and develop his career further.

“Fixing satisfies the ego,” he said. “You have people coming from abroad, they do not know anything or they prejudge. Then you explain things to them, and you have your fingerprints in the stories. That makes your feel proud.”

“Journalism and fixing compliments each other. Through it, I get more communication skills, more connections, more contacts. So it gave me a push and helped build a reputation,” he added.

Because of these different personal reasons regarding the job, each of the three provide slightly unique services to their clientele.

Abi Ghanem is driven by the desire to ensure that the journalist gets to the story, usually on humanitarian or medical issues, and ensures that they speak to the right people. Sometimes, he donates the money he receives to keep in the loop. He has no scruples with who he works with as long as the story is done right and is shared widely.

Nayel strongly believes in context. He will go as far as giving the journalist a crash course on the history, social, and political issues of the area if he feels that the journalist is unaware of the complexities. He will even attempt to factually check their work.

Abdullah sees it as purely business. He provides all the logistics necessary in order for the service to be highly precise. He will visit an area beforehand and ensure that a second car or equipment is available so the work goes on.

While the three are motivated by differing personal desires, all place importance on the integrity and truth of the story. They believe in balance, professionalism, and are extremely concerned about any falsities seeping into a story.

This is not so for all fixers.

The Risk of Manipulation

“Fixers have a massive responsibility. But at the end of the day, who is a fixer? Not all fixers are interested in the material they produce. Usually, they are interested in the money they get paid at the end of the day, and this is very convenient to the foreign journalist,” Nayel said.

Due to fixing’s flexibility as a job and the ease with which one can enter the service, not to mention the lack of a union or a form of standardization, the risk of manipulation by the fixer or the journalist is high. In turn, the end product – the story – is distorted.

“Many fixers show one side and not the other. But in order to be a good fixer, you have to show that you can take them to both sides,” Abdullah argued. “This does not happen all the time.”

“I haven't personally come across a bad fixer, but from 2006 you hear stories of [fixers] overcharging. I know it exists. You hear stories from journalists that such and such a fixer didn't do a good job on a certain day, but I haven't seen it first hand,” Abi Ghanem noted. “Like in any other work, some people abuse it and some respect it.”

Nayel, on the other hand, spoke of more harrowing experiences, cases in which fixers deliberately mistranslate an interview or at worst make up stories for a certain political cause or out of a desperate need to make quick profit.

“It's extremely common, and that's terrible because here you have a responsibility – you are telling stories to people in some part of the world who have no idea of what's going on here. Regardless of how you feel, your job is to deliver the story without your political leanings or spicing it up for your cause,” Nayel said.

When fixers fail in the job they are trusted to do, the burden falls on the journalist to be independent and skeptical. Does this happen? Unsettlingly, it does not.

Information presented by a fixer is often accepted and incorporated into a story without major scrutiny. The nature of the media industry, with its tight deadlines, the habit of self-affirming beliefs, and appeal of convenience allows such risks to exist.

A recent example as noted by Professor As’ad Abukhalil on his blog, Angry Arab News Service, is indicative of that issue. After Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah’s speech on August 16 in response to a car bombing in the southern Beirut, Western news outlets headlined their articles and mistranslated his words to make it appear that he was threatening Sunnis.

But on the other end of the spectra, journalists can pose problems toward the fixers.

“Sometimes, some journalists come with a defined story in their mind. This is the exact opposite of journalism. They have preset stories that they want in order to confirm what they are saying is true,” Abi Ghanem noted.

“In many cases, the journalist has an abstraction they want to work around. The important thing to remember is that Lebanon is made out of bubbles. That's something journalists just don't want to see,” Nayel said, affirming Abi Ghanem’s experience.

Abdullah has worked with journalists who have made exceptional demands and have had absurd expectations about what access they can get during their stay in Lebanon.

“I've faced many problems with arrogant journalists who come to Lebanon and say after you've done an interview with x or y, that they want to have an interview immediately with Hassan Nasrallah or someone like that. Come on...I mean, I'm a journalist, if I could have an interview with Nasrallah I would have done it,” he chuckled.

In order to limit such difficulties with journalists, each of the three attempt to know the client beforehand – either by casual conversation or through rudimentary research on the journalists' previous work. Ultimately, if a story is problematic and causes a scandal, the fixer is the one left behind and could pay a high cost.

“I don’t want to be filming in a Palestinian refugee camp and I’m using all my contacts over there, and later on the report is against the people. I have to deal with the confrontation – either they won’t give me interviews anymore or I may be in danger,” Abdullah noted.

Despite such measures, there are conflicts that naturally arise in this relationship.

The Limits of Speaking Out

Nayel has been known to have spoken out about such incidents. He has written two articles that criticize how the information is compiled by journalists, one for the Huffington Post in February 2012 on how rumors are presented as facts by foreign journalists, and recently an article for Electronic Intifada on the lack of compassion toward a Palestinian refugee from Syria by visiting researchers.

The act of speaking out in an industry where reputation is priceless was not an easy decision. The result in both cases was that he was blacklisted by groups of journalists in Beirut who would warn each other that he was trouble.

“Most fixers don't speak out. The less you speak, the more likely you'll get a job. It worried me when I did it. I thought of it as a noble act, but it freaked out a lot of journalists,” he said.

Despite this loss to his business, he was overwhelmed by the positive responses from other fixers, activists, and just the public. Notably, the article he wrote about the experience and the story of this Palestinian mother who wanted help for her sick son moved a few readers to help her get funds for the surgery.

“Her son is completely fine now. It ended up being really good. I'm so happy that journalism can actually do something and help people,” he laughed.

Another barrier exists that restricts the ability of fixers to speak out against a problematic story. There is an unequal dynamic at times between the foreign journalist and the local fixer, where the former is granted a more privileged sense of credibility – their word has more weight.

“Journalists have huge egos. They like to think that the bulk of the work is done by themselves. They tend to overlook the crucial connection between their creativity and accessing those people, and that is the fixer,” a journalist in Beirut, who works for a foreign-based news agency, told Al-Akhbar.

She described the relationship between journalists and fixers in Beirut as “orientalist” by nature. According to her, certain journalists refer to their fixers as possessions. Such an outlook facilitates the undervaluation toward fixers and the important work they do, not only by journalists and their peers, but also in the general infrastructure of the media system.

“In many occasions, when I gave my opinions on information being passed to us, some journalists would disregard what I have said. Others do pay attention though. But in many cases, when I protested on stories that I worked on and was published – I was ignored or bullshitted. And because I was a fixer, I have very little credit,” Nayel said, echoing the journalist’s assessment.

“Sometimes, they do put my name on the credits. Other times they don't. Those people I avoid working with them, because in a way or another, they do not give you an appropriate appreciation of the work. But with me, many journalists do acknowledge what I've done and send me positive emails thanking me,” Abdullah said.

At the same time, not all fixers are concerned over recognition.

“Personally, I'm not in it for the recognition. It's not about me, it's not about the journalist, it's about the story we are covering. So if the story is being covered in a way that is moral, applies a set of acceptable conduct, then I'm fine with it,” Abi Ghanem said.

Truth to Power

Fixers, the inconspicuous cog in the media machine, may be the best defense against the persistent failures made by the foreign media in their reporting of the region. Conversely, they may very well be one of the core reasons behind these failures.

Stories regarding Tripoli, Beirut, Bekaa, Saida, and other areas are constantly produced, recycled, and consumed. Some are presented in generalized terms, others have hints of Orientalist tropes, or are highly obsessed over the power and influence of a certain militia or a political party over another, amongst other issues.

The renowned American journalist Nir Rosen, who has reported from Iraq and Afghanistan, once noted that behind every news article are individuals and issues that significantly shape the outcome of the product. From editors to the technical crews, to even the subject themselves being spotlighted.

In a spring 2011 speech at George Mason University, he said, “You think you can trust the articles you read – why wouldn't you? You think you can sift through the ideological bias and just get the facts. But you don't know the ingredients that go into the product you buy.”

Syria is an excellent case of the crisis facing journalists in their desperate drive to find out what is happening on the ground. Foreign, regional, and local media have so far failed, and most of the public-at-large are confused about the conflict.

As a conclusion to his speech, Rosen said, “Our job should not be about speaking truth to power. Those in power know the truth, they just don't care. It's about speaking truth to the people, to those not in power, in order to empower them.”

The checks in place will fail – deliberately or otherwise. The larger burden fundamentally falls on the consumers, who should be versed on the workings of industry – and less blindly trusting of it all.

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