Lebanese News Network Al-Manar Draws
Fire as Arm of Hezbollah
Jay Solomon and Mariam Fam/Wall Street Journal, July 28, 2006
After Bombing, Al-Manar TV
Keeps On Broadcasting;
Sign of Hezbollah Resolve
BEIRUT, Lebanon -- Soon after the fighting began here, Israeli jets were dispatched on a mission: Take Al-Manar Television, the satellite news channel run by the militant group Hezbollah, off the air. The jets destroyed the station's five-story headquarters in a southern suburb of the city, then returned to strafe the rubble in case the network was broadcasting from underground, say Al-Manar executives.
But thanks to elaborate advance planning, Al-Manar's signal returned after just two minutes of downtime, filling Middle East airwaves with the channel's unique mix of front-line war reporting and overt anti-Israel and anti-U.S. propaganda. Faced with more Israeli raids on its telecommunications infrastructure, Al-Manar's staff vows to press on. "We always expected that the Israeli enemy could attack us," says Ibrahim Farhat, Al-Manar's public-affairs manager, in an interview at an upscale Beirut hotel. "But we consider our work to be a message that we have to deliver, even if it costs us our life."
Started in 1990, Al-Manar is a crucial arm of the Hezbollah organization, a militia and political party that encompasses people ranging from teachers and social-service providers to hard-core fighters and suicide bombers. Al-Manar means "signpost" or "beacon" in Arabic. Partly owned by Hezbollah and directed by the militant group's leaders, the station uses its roughly $15 million annual budget to do more than public relations for the group. It plays a key role in Hezbollah's efforts to cultivate, especially among Lebanon's Shiite Muslims, a "culture of resistance" to Israel's presence and to Western influence in the region.
Both the U.S. and Israel have branded Al-Manar a terrorist organization. The station's resourcefulness in staying on the air helps to explain why debilitating Hezbollah may prove difficult, say Lebanese analysts. The Bush administration views Hezbollah as the "A-team" of international terrorist organizations, and has blamed it for a number of bombings, including a deadly attack on a U.S. Marine Corps barracks in Beirut in 1983.
Al-Manar is one of several satellite stations whose broadcasts to Arabic speakers have stirred debate and concern in some Western nations. Qatar-based Al-Jazeera has a wider reach than Al-Manar, as does Dubai-based Al-Arabiya, although there are no reliable viewership figures for any of them. Al-Jazeera has also been accused of providing a podium to terrorists by airing video of kidnapping victims in Iraq and speeches by al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. Al-Jazeera's coverage of the recent conflict, which has included interviews with ordinary Israelis, is seen as more balanced than Al-Manar's. To counteract the influence of these stations, the U.S. government has financed an Arabic-language satellite news network called Alhurra, but many in the region have greeted it with skepticism.
Al-Manar's editorial directors make no secret of their news agenda: to rally support for Hezbollah and to highlight Israeli military actions it considers atrocities. Since the current war began, the channel has replaced all its non-news programming with political talk shows, news bulletins, and interviews with injured and displaced Lebanese civilians who pledge allegiance to Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah.
One frequently run clip depicts U.S.-made missiles superimposed on photos of injured children with blood and tears running down their faces. An image of President Bush appears, labeled "The master of state terrorism."
Israel and the U.S. are trying to shut down Al-Manar's operations, in part by interfering with its satellite signal and its advertising base. U.S. companies such as Coca-Cola Co. and Procter & Gamble Co. stopped advertising on Al-Manar in recent years. Two years ago, a French court prohibited Paris-based satellite operator Eutelsat SA from carrying the channel. In March, the U.S. Treasury Department designated Al-Manar and its parent company, the Lebanese Media Group, as terrorist entities, making it illegal for U.S. firms to do business with them.
Procter & Gamble has not advertised on Al-Manar since June 2002, says spokeswoman Tami Jones, who said the company ended its relationship when its contract with the network expired. "There was a lot of confusion surrounding Al-Manar at that time, so we chose not to renew that contract," she says. A spokesman for Coca-Cola said the company stopped advertising on Al-Manar in 2002.
Today, Israel and Al-Manar are engaged in a lethal cat-and-mouse game. After Israeli jets hit the station's broadcast facilities, Al-Manar programming urged defiance -- and the station practiced what it preached by continuing to broadcast. "The Israelis are seen not just wanting to kill the Lebanese resistance. But they want to kill its will," says Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, an expert on Hezbollah at the Lebanese American University in Beirut. "Al-Manar represents this will."
U.S. officials have accused Al-Manar employees of aiding Hezbollah by providing intelligence on potential targets. Al-Manar "is a good example of how we're trying to undermine this false dichotomy" between terrorist organizations and their affiliates, says Stuart Levey, the Treasury Department's undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence. "Any entity that's maintained by a terrorist group is culpable as a terrorist group as well."
Hezbollah supporters who call in to Al-Manar talk shows from inside and outside Lebanon see the station as a defender of Arab and Muslim dignity and honor. Branding it a terrorist group, they say, is an attempt to dismiss its criticisms of Israel.
In the playground of a Beirut school on Tuesday, a group of men and women displaced by the fighting stared at a blank television salvaged from one of their homes, waiting for the electricity to come back on. "Whenever we have power, we huddle around the TV," said 23-year-old Nesreen Qaafarani, who fled with her family from the hard-hit Dahiya district in southern Beirut. Her family said Al-Manar is one of the few sources of news on the conflict they trust. Ms. Qaafarani said she was reduced to tears when the pan-Arab satellite channel Al-Jazeera reported that a southern Lebanese village had fallen to the Israelis. She switched to Al-Manar. "They denied it and I felt like my soul has returned to my body," she said. (It is unclear which station was correct.)
Before Al-Manar was born, Lebanon's Shiite population had little public voice. At the time, Hezbollah was making a name for itself as the main force fighting Israel's occupation of the nation's south. The group also helped popularize the Islamist ideology espoused by the revolutionary government in Iran. Most of this went unnoticed outside Lebanon, say Al-Manar officials.
Ibrahim Mousawi, Al-Manar's director of foreign programming, recalls that when he traveled overseas during the early 1990s, little was known about Hezbollah's war with Israel. "We didn't have anything out there about the resistance," he says. "We were shifting from an era of quietude to one of activism." A group of media personalities, Islamic thinkers and local businessmen formed a partnership that would ultimately give birth to Al-Manar. From the beginning, overall guidance came from Hezbollah's governing clerics, say Al-Manar officials. Shareholders eventually included Lebanese groups outside the Shiite community, including Christians who viewed it as a good business opportunity. Lebanese law forbids any one sect or religious group from owning a political TV station, government officials say.
Initial programming was crude, say Mr. Mousawi and Al-Manar journalists. Staffers worked out of a small office, using a limited number of television cameras and reporters. They focused on local issues and bought foreign programming. The network seized on the conflicts in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories -- just as Hezbollah did -- to build viewership beyond Lebanon's south.
Al-Manar dropped any pretense of balance in covering Israel's military activities in the Palestinian territories and Lebanon from early on. It broadcast images of dead children and rotting corpses. Its news readers referred to the Palestinian and Lebanese dead as "martyrs" and to Israel's government as the "Zionist entity."
"Our position is clear. We cannot compromise when it comes to Israel," says Mr. Farhat. "This is an occupation."
In an apparent effort to demoralize Israel's population, Al-Manar has broadcast into the country in Hebrew, showing images of Israeli war dead. According to Mrs. Saad-Ghorayeb of the Lebanese American University, the network broadcast a graphic of Israeli soldiers kidnapped by Hezbollah followed by a featureless face with a question market superimposed over it. The implication: Who's next?
Although Al-Manar's programming evolved to include sports, talk shows and dramas, its critics focus on what they say is an anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic slant. A 30-part Syrian-made soap opera called "The Diaspora," broadcast during Ramadan in 2003, depicted a secretive Jewish government bent on controlling the world. U.S. officials criticized the program as taking the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion" -- an inflammatory tract long dismissed by historians as a 19th-century forgery -- as fact.
Middle East media analysts say Al-Manar also broadcast "The Spider's House," which explored such methods for fighting Israel as low-intensity conflict and demographic shifts, and "Terrorists," which covered terrorist acts allegedly committed by Israel.
Center of the Fighting
When conflict erupted in the Palestinian territories in 2000 -- the so-called second Intifada -- Al-Manar was one of the few media outlets that regularly sent reporters into the center of the fighting, according to media analysts. Its newly established satellite network allowed Hezbollah leaders to spread their message across the Islamic world.
Pro-Israel think tanks in the U.S. and Europe and American counterterrorism officials took notice. One Washington-based think tank that focuses on counterterrorism, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, provided clips to U.S. lawmakers of Al-Manar raising money for Hezbollah and Palestinian militant groups by broadcasting bank-account numbers of charitable organizations. The foundation says other Al-Manar programs glorified suicide bombers and incited viewers to fight against Israeli and American troops fighting in the Middle East. "It's a terrorist organization masquerading as a television station," says Mark Dubowitz, the foundation's chief operating officer. "It crosses all lines of free speech."
Al-Manar officials say they've never incited viewers to commit violent acts, and that the station is not anti-Semitic. "Contrary to the image that the West tries to paint, we feel that Al-Manar does not call for hatred and discrimination and does not incite violence," says Mr. Farhat. "This is a moderate station."
Lebanon's National Media Council, a watchdog group that includes state-appointed members, has supported Al-Manar against efforts to limit its reach in France. "There is discrimination against Arab channels by portraying any criticism of the Israeli crimes as anti-Semitism," says Ghaleb Kandil, a member of the group. "We played a vital role in defending Al-Manar because it represents a pulpit for the resistance."
Al-Manar officials say U.S. efforts to restrict their advertising and broadcasting capabilities have forced them to be creative. After some European and U.S. satellite operators refused to work with Al-Manar, it reached viewers in Europe and the U.S. via Arab satellite channels, station officials say. About three months ago, it began broadcasting live over the Internet.
"During the first week of the live Internet feed, we received about 300 to 400 emails congratulating us and telling us how excited and happy everyone was to be seeing Al-Manar again," says Abdallah Kassir, the station's general manager and a former member of Lebanon's Parliament.
When it lost advertising from big U.S. companies, Al-Manar sought more ads from Middle Eastern companies that won't heed U.S. and European restrictions, and began selling its programs on CD and DVD. It also dubbed Iranian movies from Farsi to Arabic and sold them in Arabic-speaking markets.
Israel first attacked Al-Manar's headquarters on July 13, one day after Hezbollah sparked the latest hostilities by taking two Israeli soldiers hostage. Al-Manar had already devised emergency plans. Exits had been identified and the staff had been drilled on how to get out if the building came under attack.
When the big Israeli air attack came on July 16, Al-Manar had only a skeleton staff of 15 working at the headquarters in Haret Hreik, a Hezbollah stronghold in southern Beirut, station officials say. When the bombing began, staffers called their bosses and cars dispatched to the building whisked them to safety. Two employees were injured slightly and were treated on the way to alternative locations that had been readied so that the channel could continue broadcasting. At one of these secret locations, other staffers quickly got the channel up and running, Al-Manar officials say.
A team of 10 engineers called "Al-Manar's fedeyeen," or loyal fighters, try to keep Al-Manar on the air. The team includes specialists in broadcast transmission and in handling studio equipment. Engineers, some of them Western-educated, are on call around the clock. "They are always ready with alternatives for the transmission towers," says Mr. Kassir, Al-Manar's general manager. "They prepare alternative places in case our main studios are attacked. They work to repair any damage. They use all technical means to keep the broadcast going."
When Al-Manar reappeared on the air after its headquarters building was flattened, Israel tried to jam its signal, says Mr. Kassir. There were short-term problems, he says, and teams are working on ways to neutralize future jamming.
Al-Manar officials won't say where its broadcasts now originate. Some Lebanese intelligence officials say the company employs mobile transmitters operating from cars or trucks. "Al-Manar's staff is now spread out in different locations," says Mr. Kassir. "Not everyone knows where the others are."
--Karby Leggett in Jerusalem, Ellen Byron in New York and Chad Terhune in Atlanta contributed to this article.