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Al-Manar in the dog house

Al-Ahram, Weekly On-line, 23 - 29 December 2004, Issue No. 722

Al-Manar television station has become the latest independent Arab broadcasting corporation to be hounded by the West, reports Cilina Nasser from Beirut

The Hizbullah-affiliated Al-Manar satellite television channel is considering taking legal action against the US State Department for designating the Lebanese channel as a "terrorist organisation", according to a senior official at the Beirut- based channel.

"We are studying the possibility of filing a suit in the US against the US State Department," Ibrahim Mussawi, the head of political programmes at Al-Manar, said in an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly on Monday.

"We are still in the process of doing legal consultations and have no clear plans yet, Al-Manar was only included on the terrorist list three days ago," he added.

Al-Manar, which is the mouthpiece for the Lebanese Shia Hizbullah group, was placed on the State Department's Terrorist Exclusion List (TEL) on Friday 17 December, "because of its incitement of terrorist activity," said State Department spokesman Richard Boucher.

Hizbullah has been designated by Washington as a "foreign terrorist organisation" for many years now. According to the State Department website, an organisation can be placed on the TEL if the secretary of state finds that the organisation "commits or incites to commit, under circumstances indicating an intention to cause death or serious bodily injury, a terrorist activity; prepares or plans a terrorist activity; gathers information on potential targets for terrorist activity; or provides material support to further terrorist activity."

Placing Al-Manar on the State Department's TEL means foreigners providing support to or associated with the channel, which is widely followed in the Arab world, may be prevented from entering the US or deported if discovered there. "For example, an alien would be found inadmissible... if the alien is a member of Al-Manar, if a person solicits funds or other things of value for Al-Manar, if he provides material support to Al-Manar or solicits any individual for membership in Al- Manar," Boucher said.

Consequently, Washington has banned Al-Manar from broadcasting through satellite operator Intelsat which covers North America.

Mussawi criticised Washington for designating Al-Manar as a terrorist organisation and banning its broadcasts, saying, "the simplest explanation for such an action is that the US is slamming freedom of speech."

"Washington preaches freedom of expression, the free flow of information and democracy, but it is clear that it does not want to apply these principles in the Arab world. It only wants to hear its own voice."

He added, "any opinion that differs from that of the US is condemned as terrorist."

But Boucher did not agree. "It's not a question of freedom of speech, it's a question of inciting to violence. And we don't see why here or anywhere else a terrorist organisation should be allowed to spread its hatred and incitement through the television airwaves."

Al-Manar reacted by issuing a strong condemnation of the US decision, vowing defiance after the ban.

"This is no more than intellectual terrorism practised to muffle voices that do not agree with US and Israeli policies," the channel said in a press release sent to the Weekly in Arabic.

The statement said the ban on Al-Manar broadcasting discredited all the US administration's other "alleged attempts to advance democracy in the Arab world."

The US move against Al-Manar came only a week after France's highest administrative court, the Council of State, ordered the Paris- based Eutelsat satellite operator to shut down Al-Manar broadcasts.

The court ruled that the programmes broadcast "were in a militant context, with anti- Semitic connotations."

Lebanese retaliatory action was swift. About 50 private cable operators in Lebanon carried out a quick reprisal, stopping the distribution of the French channel TV5 in solidarity with Al-Manar.

Lebanese Information Minister Elie Ferzli said that Lebanon might well re-open old files on France's misdemeanours in the country, such as those associated with the sale of a batch of what were claimed to be French Puma helicopters to Lebanon in the late 1980s. It was later discovered that the helicopters were made in the Ukraine and had actually cost much less than the official prices charged.

Ferzli threatened to renew investigations into the issue to counter any political escalation by Paris, saying that the Puma issue was not dead in Lebanon and that it could still embarrass France.

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) issued two separate statements. "Some of the anti-Semitic statements broadcast on Al- Manar are inexcusable, but putting this station in the same category as terrorist groups worries us and does not strike us as the best solution," the Paris-based press organisation said on 20 December. In another statement a few days earlier, RSF had accused France's Higher AudioVisual Council (CSA) and the French authorities of rushing to judgement without allowing enough time for reflection.

The International Federation of Journalists also issued a statement on 15 December, saying that the move by the French court was "a rash decision with serious implications for free expression".

"Censorship just adds to intolerance and breeds further resentment and incomprehension," said Aidan White, IFJ General Secretary. "If a broadcaster was turned off every time someone made offensive and unacceptable remarks, there would be precious little television in the world."

Meanwhile the US move drew angry responses from American watchdogs and activists. "It is another intimidation by the US administration targeting groups that are independent from Washington's influence," Stanley Cohen, a US lawyer and activist, told the Weekly. Cohen referred to the broad popular support for Hizbullah inside and outside Lebanon which had enabled it to drive out the Israeli occupation forces in May 2000.

"The US has now succeeded in completely convincing Americans that Hizbullah is a terrorist organisation," Cohen said.

The French moves seem to have had a similar impact. Following concerns earlier this summer about an anti- Semitic soap opera broadcast during the holy month of Ramadan, the CSA had renewed Al-Manar's licence on 19 November on condition that it strictly adheres to French anti-racism laws. According to Mussawi, Al- Manar had totally complied with these conditions. The hard-line station had stopped using the Star of David on clips highlighting Israeli aggression, as requested by France. "We were told that the Star of David is a religious symbol and, therefore, we cannot use it to promote a political message against Israel," Mussawi told Al-Ahram Weekly.

He said Al-Manar and French officials did not discuss the terminology used by the television station, and the channel continued referring to Israel as "the Zionist entity".

However, sound bites of people referring to Israeli soldiers as "Jews" also had to be removed by Al-Manar editors at France's request, according to Mussawi. He admitted that his station had softened its stance and complied with French wishes, saying, "we did not want to give them any excuse that would prompt them to take any steps against us."

But then on 23 November, a Damascus- based analyst, Omar Saade, warned in a telephone interview with the channel's "Al- Yawmiya" programme against trade between Arab countries and Israel, saying that Israelis might disseminate AIDS in the Arab world.

The CSA moved swiftly against Al-Manar and ordered the ban on its broadcasts from Eutelsat. "To show our good intentions, we deleted that part of the interview when we aired the programme a second time," said Mussawi. He complained that the CSA had not given Al-Manar officials the chance to explain that they had no idea what the interviewee was going to say.

"That's why we believe the reason behind the ban is political, and that France is submitting to Israeli pressure," said Mussawi.

Reporters Without Borders voiced their concern over the CSA's "high-speed procedure", which they described as "worrying".

Nevertheless, the US and French decisions have irked international media watchdog organisations, and it is widely expected that they will ultimately play in Hizbullah's favour. The Federation of Arab Journalists meanwhile warned that other Arab channels could soon find themselves on the same "hit list".

However, both Western and Arab analysts say that the US and French moves against Al-Manar may stimulate the Lebanese channel to review its editorial policy. "Al-Manar should have directly apologised -- which is normal practice in the Western media -- after the AIDS slur, in order to distance itself from any potential blame or criticism," said Kamel Al- Tawil, a correspondent with Al-Hayat in London. "Arab media outlets broadcasting in the West should be well aware of the laws by which they have to abide," he added, slamming the Hizbullah screening of the AIDS rumour as "by no means justified".

Meanwhile, Al-Manar continues to reach viewers in Europe through Saudi and Egyptian satellite operators, Arabsat and Nilesat. "The only difference is that they are of lower broadcast quality," Mussawi concluded.

Additional reporting by Mustafa El-Menshawy


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