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Sunday, January 24, 1999 Published at 16:50 GMT


Middle East Correspondent Jim Muir



Middle East Correspondent Jim Muir answered your questions live on Newstalk on January 24.

Jim has covered many of the decade's biggest news stories - from the Gulf War to the disintegration of Yugoslavia.

If you want to read more about his life as a correspondent click here

Or read on to see how he answered your questions.

Chris Gunness: Jim which of your stories has really, really made a difference?

Jim Muir:
Jim Muir: "Our often cynical, often egotistical, often seedy profession had finally come good"
Well, of course, one has to look back over a lot of things that have happened in the 20 odd years that I've been in the region. But I think that the time when I really felt that my work and my colleagues had really done something was in northern Iraq in 1991 when I was there with the Kurds when they rose up against Saddam Hussein. They then fled into the mountains through blizzards and of course many of them perished. I was stuck there with the Peshmerga Kurdish guerrillas having really quite a hard time I have to say, it was almost impossible to get news out. And I remember on Easter Sunday two or three million Kurds were streaming past me, into the mountains, where many of them died. I managed to get a report out somehow by Peshmerga guerrilla radio link to Damascus where it was recorded. I went to sleep not knowing if it had actually got through or not, woke up in the morning, switched on my radio lying on somebody's floor where I'd fallen asleep and heard it leading the world news and also the press review coming back with a lot of really good stuff from journalists who'd gone out into Turkey. And that was the one moment, I think, that I remember where I really felt that our often cynical, often egotistical, often seedy profession had finally come good.

Amir Paivar, Tehran: Jim you've been to Tehran several times on different occasions, how far do you think the image people have in the West of the Iranians, sometimes as fundamentalists or even perhaps terrorists, does match with what you've found here in Tehran?

Jim Muir:
Jim Muir: "A huge selective process goes on in any reporting"
I think there is a huge selective process that goes on in any reporting. After all, for example, if there's a demonstration or riot in Tehran that's what gets on the news, that's what goes on in the TV pictures and that is the image that's projected to the outside world. What isn't projected is thousands of people on Friday going to the amusement parks, people going to the races in Tehran for example, people living normal lives. So we tend, I think, because of the way news works to get the image of an Iran which is full of ranting demonstrators screaming death to America and all that kind of stuff which is really a tiny, tiny percentage of what actually happens. I'm very aware of that. I have to say, in defence of the media and in defence of the BBC, that there is very strong interest in, what we call, lifestyle or human interest stories. There is a huge hunger at the BBC and in other media for stories which do actually portray the reality of ordinary everyday life and of ordinary everyday people in Iran which is very different, as you suggest, from the kind of rabid image that necessarily, because that's the way news works, does come across.

Chris Gunness: Jim does Islam have something to answer for itself?

Jim Muir:
Jim Muir: "All religions have a lot to answer for"
I don't want to get drawn into a debate on Islam, I'll get into a lot of trouble. I would say all religions have a lot to answer for, let's face it. I mean if you look down the history of centuries in this region and in the west you'll see the history of religions is a history of bloodshed and turmoil. I think they all have a lot to answer for. Islam was spread through the sword to start with, of course. It is, although in theological terms of course, it states that you cannot impose Islam as a religion, there is no coercion in Islam they say - it should be voluntary. You should be giving yourself up to God. So, as I say, I wouldn't compare it with other religions but I think that all religions - the history of all religions, if not the religions themselves, the way they've been practised - do, obviously, leave people open to a lot of historical charges.

Stewart Annand from Los Angeles in the USA: Do you feel that Iranian societies would be opened up further in the near future - in the next year or two?

Jim Muir: I think it's a very gradual incremental process. There is, as you suggest, a huge desire for change and that's what lifted President Khatami to power in 1997. There are a huge number of people who want change but I think also there is a sort of tacit consensus that they don't want another revolution, they don't want that change to come with a lot of dislocation and disruption. They see that there is no organised alternative to the current regime so that's why, I think, they look to President Khatami as a man who is within the regime but who has reformist tendencies and who, as it were, from inside the tent can nudge things further forward in a way and act as a bridge towards a new future that would not require a lot of disruption. I think it's also a mistake to think that the Iran of the future won't be an Islamic Iraq, I think it will for a long time to come. This question of what kind of Islam - the smiling, genial, tolerant face of Khatami or the stern unbending face of Ayatollah Khomeini.

Sandy Walsh: An e-mail from Sisman Mohammed from Helsinki in Finland who wants to know what has been the most frightening moment in your life as a correspondent in a troubled region for so long?

Jim Muir:
Jim Muir: "My hair was standing on end and I left quite a lot of it behind"
Yes, well, they've been quite a lot I have to say but I think that the most unpleasant one was when I found myself in a mountain town in Lebanon with the Syrians attacking down the hill, the Palestinians - who were fighting them at that time - fleeing behind me, as it were, and I was stuck in the middle, standing behind a concrete post - a sort of prop of a building - with RPGs and things exploding around me and the Syrians about to move in. I had a horrible choice to make, did I try to get out or did I stay there as the Syrians moved forward. I dove into the window of my car and drove like - I must have broken the land speed record downhill on that particular occasion but my hair was standing on end and I left quite a lot of it behind.

Nader Hashemi from Ottowa in Canada: I've long wondered which country in the Middle East has the most open and freest press. It's well known that Israel does but not counting Israel I was wondering, in your view, which country today has the most lively press?

Jim Muir: I would say the most lively press, at the moment, is in Iran. Certainly, of my experience, there's an extraordinarily lively debate going on there. Okay one or two liberal publications and indeed one or two hard line ones have been closed down recently but nonetheless others have sprung up and there is an enormously lively debate going on there reflecting the kind of political discourse that is going on, often acrimonious but very, very lively. Lebanon has a traditionally lively press but they have to take quite a lot of account nowadays of what the Syrians and Saudis think and otherwise, as I say, I think Iran really is it at the moment reflecting the huge turbulence that's going on in Iranian society.

Chris Gunness: Jim Muir on the question of your treatment by the authorities in various countries, where have you had your hairiest moments?

Jim Muir: It's not so much hairy, it's more of a question of control. I mean, for example, Algeria will give you a two or three day visa and that's if you're lucky. So just getting access is a question of, if not self censorship I mean certainly not going out of your way to antagonise. Of course, I did also, at one stage, did have to leave Lebanon because I'd been put on a hit list by the Syrians back in 1980 when that was not a joke and something you had to take seriously. So I suppose that would be the moment that I really did feel threatened by a fairly well identified Arab quarter. I think those days have now passed, I hope so, I've certainly been back to Lebanon many times since then but I did have to relocate because there was a quite serious threat of having a dose of lead poisoning which I wanted to avoid.

Bill Stanley in Dallas, Texas, US: Why does the media ignore the other side of the story of Palestinian questions because they were disenfranchised by the Israeli Government, they lost farms and homes that had been in the family for 300 years. This is ignored and this is extremely important to understand what's going on?

Jim Muir: Well I personally haven't, I've been very conscious of it myself. I studied Arabic at university and studied the whole Middle East question from before I became a correspondent so I've certainly been aware of it. I think part of the problem you're getting at Bill is that the goal posts keep shifting. Palestine was divided in 1947 by a UN resolution which was rejected by the Arabs and others and that would have given the Arabs roughly half of Palestine. Now, of course, they're getting a lot less. And the whole thing keeps moving on. So the original refugees from 1948 basically got forgotten about, they're the ones that I knew best in Lebanon for example and of course they're now sitting there thinking: Well peace process, peace process - where has it got us, basically we're stuck here. The Lebanese don't want them there forever. But there's absolutely no talk, as you suggest really at the moment, of getting them back to those farms and lands which some of them can still see across the border in northern Israel.

Chris Gunness: Jim does the slow pace of progress over the Palestinian issue actually depress you?

Jim Muir: It does but on the other hand I'm also impressed, I have to say, by what has happened in the last five years. I mean, back in the old days in Lebanon when Arafat and people were stationed there, to go now to Gaza and see Mr Arafat being called president and he's got his own little band of honour which welcomes him every time he comes home and people call him president and then Mr Clinton comes to the Palestinian parliament and says things Palestinians would never believe an American president would say standing on Palestinian soil like, you know, their houses being knocked down by the Israelis and stuff like that. It is actually very impressive that things have moved on in a way that five, ten, fifteen years ago would have been unimaginable. It's slow but it has moved an awful lot.

Sany Walsh: An e-mail from H. Alani in Aukland New Zealand wants to know if you expect any political changes in Iraq in the next two years? Is there any chance for democratic government?

Jim Muir: Well it's really hard to predict. Basically because Saddam Hussein has got his hands on the levers of an awful lot of security apparatus and intelligence apparatus anything that eventually gets in is not something that we're going to know about, that's for absolutely sure, it's not something you can analyse in advance. Maybe, one day, an assassin will sneak through the net and get him but until that happens, I mean, it's quite clear Saddam is a man who will cling to power till his last breath, there's absolutely nothing that will get his hands off those levers. So it's not something I can predict, it could happen tomorrow, it could never happen.

Chris Gunness: Jim I've just taken out of my pocket an e-mail I'd forgotten about, it's actually from your daughter Shonagh. She says, "Dad what's the situation in Iran?" Of course you've discussed that but I think more to the point and more important to Shonagh - why have you forgotten her South Park calendar? That's a cartoon calendar.

Jim Muir: I hadn't forgot it. It's noted in my electronic brain and when I come to London after Iran I have strict orders from her to buy one for her because you can't get it in Cyprus where she is at the moment. I haven't forgotten it, I certainly haven't forgotten her. I don't depend on world service phone-ins to communicate with her, I talk to her directly on the phone and I do see her as much as I possibly can but not as much as I would like, I hasten to add.

Chris Gunness: Jim do you manage to find enough time for your family?

Jim Muir: No is the answer but I worked out last year I saw my kids for less than 20 per cent of my time which is not very good but in my defence and in defence of my profession I would say that it was, at least, quality time, as Americans would call it. I mean when I'm with my kids I'm a 100 per cent with them. I do want to spend more time with them and I'm working on that but in the meantime I'm one of the sort of strange band of travelling people which I suppose salesmen and others also fall into, businessmen and so on, who have irregular lives and I think kids do adjust to it and they do realise when you're there you're there for them but they have to get used to quite large patches when you're not around although, of course, there are telephones nowadays and the Internet thank goodness.

Sheila Serhan from london: Will Israel ever give up southern Lebanon and will Lebanon ever return to what it was before the war?

Jim Muir: No and no. The Israeli's won't get out of south Lebanon because they're really impaled there but they're not ready yet to pay the price which is doing a deal with the Syrians. They have to come to terms with the Syrians over Golan otherwise they'll find themselves without security on their northern border which is what they went into Lebanon and paid that very high and unexpected price for. As for Lebanon getting back to what it was before, it will never be what it was before, that's for sure, it will be different but I think a lot of the elements are still there, co-existence between the various sects and so on, it could become again a model for co-existence between sects and religions and so on as it once was but went tragically off the rails.

Elizabeth Yenders in North Germany: You reported on the Gulf War syndrome recently. Have Iraqis or Saudis shown the same symptoms?

Jim Muir: I have to admit, quite honestly, that that's something the West is much preoccupied with. I haven't gone into it myself and I really don't know much about the Gulf War syndrome and why it happened. It's obviously something which has happened, the people are looking at it now but it's not something that has actually caused a lot of stir among the peoples of the region here.


Jim Muir - Biography

Although his roots are in Scotland, Jim Muir was born in Farnborough Hants in 1948 and was educated in England, where he took a first in Arabic at Cambridge in 1969.

After five years in book publishing in London in the early 70s, Jim drove to Beirut after Christmas 1974, thinking along the way that Lebanon, being the sophisticated Switzerland of the Middle East, would provide a secure and stable base from which to cover the upheavals of a notoriously turbulent region.

As it turned out, of course, Lebanon itself exploded in the spring of 1975 and its name rapidly became synonymous with bedlam, anarchy and fragmentation. From then until 1990, when peace of a sort began gradually to take hold, Jim Muir was caught up covering the fascinating and often horrendous twists and turns of a conflict whose many complex elements would erupt in ever-different and more startling ways as the local, regional and international powers slugged it out on Lebanese soil. It was an apparently endless saga of invasions, massacres, assassinations, hijackings, car bombs, kidnappings and much, much more.

Jim was probably the only western correspondent to cover the entire affair from start to finish, though he had to re-base to Cyprus in 1980 after being put on a Syrian hit-list at a time when that was not a theoretical threat. But he continued to make lengthy working visits to Lebanon throughout the 1980s, covering as a freelance for the BBC but also doing a great deal of writing for British and American newspapers.

"They used to say Lebanon was the country where you could ski in the morning and swim in the afternoon," he says. "But after one particular trip to the South, I remember thinking it should be billed as the country where you could get shot at by the Israelis in the morning, shelled by right-wing Christians at lunchtime, and kidnapped by Islamic fanatics in the afternoon."

After Lebanon went quiet the Gulf war erupted. Jim's main role was monitoring Baghdad radio and providing instant news and analysis on Iraq's actions and Saddam's thinking. But once Desert Storm had driven the Iraqis out of Kuwait, he went to northern Iraq to join the Kurds as they rose up against Saddam. The uprising turned to tragedy as millions of Kurds fled into the icy mountains and perished on the borders with Turkey and Iran. Jim stayed behind and spent six weeks with the Pesh Merga guerrillas as they defied Saddam and held his army at bay.

"I remember this as the clearest time when I felt that our profession really made a difference and justified itself," he says. "There was no transport and virtually no communications. I had to shout my despatches down a tenuous walkie-talkie link to offices in Damascus which recorded them and passed them on to London. If they got through, the quality was so bad that they had to be voiced-over as though in a foreign language."

As the peace process took hold in the Middle East, conflict broke out in Bosnia. After nagging the BBC for a year, Jim was finally added to the roster of correspondents making regular visits to Sarajevo.

"I saw many parallels between the break-up of Yugoslavia and the fragmentation of Lebanon, and I wanted to compare them at first hand," he says. "But once I got there, I realised that the comparison was not between Lebanon and Yugoslavia, but between Lebanon and Bosnia itself.

"Coming from the Middle East, where passions run high and restrained behaviour is often only skin-deep, it was curious to see that supposedly civilised Europe could excel when it came to barbarism. Yes, there were massacres and rapes in Lebanon. But most of it was in the heat of the moment. The cold cynicism of the Bosnian rape camps was in a class of its own.

"For me, it was tragic to watch the centuries-old fabric of communal coexistence being torn apart in the mixed Bosnian towns and villages," Jim adds. "Having seen it happen in Lebanon, I knew how hard it is to get it back again once it's gone. I suppose the sad lesson is that people rarely learn from their own mistakes, so they're even less likely to learn from other people's. Yet despite all the horrors, it was heartening that at least part of the spirit of Sarajevo somehow survived."

Since 1995, Jim Muir has been the BBC's Middle East correspondent, based in Cairo. From there he's covered some of the continuing atrocities in Algeria and taken a special interest in Iran, where he reported the surprise landslide election of the reformist President, Muhammad Khatami, and the subsequent power struggle.



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