From its humble pre-satellite origins in 1991, al-Manar (The Beacon) has been a television station driven first and foremost by the priorities of the Islamic Resistance, the armed wing of Hizbullah. Since the end of the civil war and the signing of the Ta'if Accord, Hizbullah has undergone a transformation, becoming the largest party in Lebanon's parliament in 1993 and growing in its influence and importance. This has entailed some considerable transformation of the party's image and discourse, and al-Manar has served as one of its principal vehicles for change.
During the 1990s, al-Manar was an important site for debate over the future of Hizbullah and its role in post-war Lebanon. It was during this time that the station pioneered many of its now popular call-in programs, as well as expanding its news coverage and sending foreign correspondents to most of the region and parts of Europe and North America.
Throughout the 1990s, "public service" themes in al-Manar programming played into Hizbullah's conscious strategy of working simultaneously for the destruction of Israel and the development of Lebanon. Programs on public health and sanitation, education, and religion ran alongside increasingly elaborate video montages of the fighting in Southern Lebanon or military exercises in the Biqa' set to special Hizbullah theme songs. By 1996, ahead of the 1997 parliamentary elections, the station had also begun broadcasting video clips in Hebrew as a means of propagandizing to Israeli soldiers in the occupied areas of the South. At the time, the two faces of al-Manar could be reconciled by the claim that the armed conflict against Israel and the struggle for domestic development were both in defense of a unified Lebanon.
Hizbullah has also relied on al-Manar to brand itself as a force in Lebanese and international politics. The party committed to increasing the sophistication of its broadcasts by adding a professional news desk and attractive, if modest, broadcasters. In 2000, the station first began satellite transmission, and within one year, eager to reach beyond the confines of the Middle East, the station added a daily English broadcast, produced by a graduate of the American University in Beirut. All of this was designed to promote Hizbullah's image as a modern, sophisticated party on a par with the other local political factions.
But Hizbullah is not just like the others, and some things did not -- and arguably cannot -- change for the Lebanese party that built its reputation on armed conflict in occupied Lebanon. In May 2000, the Israeli military unilaterally withdrew from the occupied areas of the South (minus the contested Sheba Farms) and Hizbullah declared unfettered victory and claimed a place regionally as the only group to effect such an outcome since 1948. At this point, one might have anticipated a shift in al-Manar's coverage, an intensification of its "Lebanonization" in response to shifting incentives. But al-Manar has continued since that time to focus on its existential conflict with Israel, albeit with some modifications. In keeping with trends in overall Hizbullah discourse, the al-Aqsa Intifada has become the organizing motif that has replaced southern Lebanon, swapping occupation for occupation.
The problem that this poses, of course, is that it is a direct challenge to the process of "Lebanonization" that the party began more than a decade ago. As a Shi'a party with ties to Iran and a uniquely close relationship with Syria, Hizbullah has always had to fight to maintain its relevance to Lebanese from other confessions. Prior to the 2000 withdrawal, it made some sense to focus on the conflict with Israel, and to use the station as a medium for mobilizing fighters for the Islamic Resistance. Similarly, in the run-up to the 2001 parliamentary elections, the perceived success of the Resistance in effecting the Israeli withdrawal was an important motif, yielding a substantial victory and a multi-confessional voting bloc in the parliament -- the Loyalty to the Resistance bloc -- under Hizbullah leadership.
But in the past several years, al-Manar's continuing focus on Israel has entailed the intensification of another function, and its critics have taken notice. The station -- like the party -- is increasingly grasping at straws, trying to convince the Lebanese to maintain a high level of vigilance in the face of an ever-present threat. The problem with this strategy is that it has required (a) an increasing focus on the plight of the Palestinians, which is always a political gamble in Lebanon, where the Palestinians often take the blame for the civil war and Israeli occupation, and (b) the invocation of familiar anti-Jewish motifs that have cost the party in the international arena. As usual, al-Manar is at the center of the debate.
The European-American Controversy
While the controversy over al-Manar came to a head in Paris this fall, protests against its programming have been mounting by American and European governments for at least two years. In 2003, the US approached the Lebanese government with a request that Beirut prevent the broadcast of al-Manar's controversial Ramadan series, al-Shatat (The Diaspora), a narrative of the foundation of the state of Israel that drew heavily on the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. But the Lebanese government demurred, defending the station's right to freedom of expression.
While the United States may initially have backed down in the face of arguments about freedom of expression, others did not. The French Higher Audio Visual Council issued a warning in 2004 of its intention to ban al-Manar in compliance with French hate-speech laws, again citing al-Shatat as a principal cause. In response, Hizbullah spokesmen challenged authorities and viewers to disaggregate anti-Semitism from anti-Zionism. While there are al-Manar programs that are anti-Zionist, to be sure, there is little question that some programming has crossed the line between protected (anti-Zionist) and unprotected (anti-Jewish) speech under French law, and al-Manar's legal position was untenable.
Following the French warning, the station initially accepted the limits imposed by the ruling, but its compliance was short-lived. Thus Eutelsat, the station's local distributor, announced its decision to drop al-Manar from its distribution package (a bundle of stations targeting Arabic-speaking Europeans), at which point al-Manar "voluntarily" withdrew.
In December of 2004, the United States initiated its own ban against al-Manar by adding it to the Terrorism Exclusion List, a list of organizations that are considered to be directly tied to terrorist groups. Though al-Manar denies that it is an official organ of Hizbullah, the US State Department has long recognized the relationship between the two and has suggested that al-Manar is being used to raise funds and recruit fighters for Hizbullah's Islamic Resistance. Al-Manar officials, however, have complained about the timing of the ban, pointing out that they have been broadcasting by satellite since 2000, and Hizbullah has been categorized as a terrorist organization by the United States since 1997. The station questions why this move comes only now, on the heels of the events in France, insinuating conspiracy once again.
But the two bans rest on different legal foundations, with the French ban focusing on constitutional issues of expression, and the American ban based on laws prohibiting the material support of illegal organizations. At least in theory, then, the US is suggesting that their own struggle against al-Manar is not based on the substance of what it says, but rather on what it does.
For many in Europe and America, this distinction is a question of splitting hairs. For Hizbullah's efforts in the domestic arena, it may be paramount, inasmuch as it determines how the station and the party can respond. In the American case, to refute the allegations against it, al-Manar would have to make the case that the Islamic Resistance is not a terrorist organization. While the Resistance is still popular in Lebanon, it is losing its salience in the face of the current controversies over Syria, Lebanese sovereignty, and Hizbullah's disarmament in compliance with the Ta'if Accord. It is not too surprising, then, that this is a conversation that the party is not too eager to have, just ahead of the scheduled May elections. As a consequence, responses to the American ban have been quiet in comparison to the public discussion of the French ban, in which Hizbullah has successfully cast itself in the role of a martyr to free expression.
Hizbullah Bounces Back
One of the most compelling features of the al-Manar controversy thus far has been its coverage in the local Lebanese media. The station has been very successful in framing itself as a sacrificial lamb, employing a discursive strategy in line with the broader two-fold Hizbullah domestic strategy of nationalization (or "Lebanonization") and "naturalization." In Hizbullah coverage of the al-Manar issue (on al-Manar itself, and in the pages of party weekly al-Intiqad), they have reported diligently on every effort undertaken by non-Hizbullah leaders in Lebanon from across the confessional spectrum, leading all the way up to Prime Minister Omar Karami and President Emile Lahoud. At the recent Arab Summit in Algeirs, Lebanon's foreign minister Mahmood Hammoud issued a clear statement against the ban, vowing to push European decision-makers to "make the domain for expression free for everybody." Thus, the party has attempted to frame the struggle as a Lebanese one, an effort in which they have been aided by the inflamatory labels applied to the station by Western media sources, such as "Hate TV," "Terrorist Television," and "Beacon of Hate," which seem only to galvanize nationalist counterpoint.
But Hizbullah discourse pushes beyond nationalizing the response to the bans. The particular motifs of resistence to the ban employed by Hizbullah can also be seen as a part of a strategy of naturalization that has characterized the party's post-war discourse. The idea that the conflict with Israel is both existential and national means, by implication, that struggling against it cannot be viewed by any Lebanese citizen as an act of anti-Semitism, but simply an act of national self-articulation and defense. It is only "natural," accordingly, to fight against Israel, through words, actions, and -- in recent electoral campaigns, including the one scheduled for May 2005 -- votes.
On the one hand, this is simply rhetoric, in the way that al-Manar claims to represent, "the true reflection of what each and every Muslim and Arab thinks and believes in." But it is a rhetoric that matters, since it attempts to constrain the range of acceptable attitudes that one can "reasonably" hold vis-a-vis Israel and seeks to discursively implicate all Lebanese in Hizbullah's struggle with the French over al-Manar by suggesting that to not engage in such a struggle would be deviant.
Because this is not the first time that Lebanese citizens have faced negative international coverage resulting from Hizbullah actions, nor the first time that the party has employed this strategy of nationalization and naturalization, familiar buttons are being pressed. L'Orient Le Jour, for example, has praised al-Manar's decision to "voluntarily" cease broadcasting (days short of the deadline for implementing the ban in France) so that the other Arabic channels in the satellite group to which al-Manar belonged would not be penalized. In this way, Hizbullah is seen to be "sacrificing" for the other Lebanese stations.
And the Lebanese are responding in kind -- by late fall, more than 50 independent cable distributors across a range of Beirut neighborhoods initiated a boycott of French Channel 5, a highly popular Francophone station, in retaliation for the French ban. President Lahoud himself decried the attempts by the French government "aimed at veiling from the French public opinion the Lebanese and Arab position." The height of al-Manar's successful campaign, however, can be seen in the statement issued by former MP Ahmed Sweid in which he attempted to turn the mirror on the French, declaring that, "Al-Manar is assuming the role that the Free French media assumed during the invasion of Nazi forces into France."
While Hizbullah may be using al-Manar controversially to assert the continuing relevance of the Islamic Resistance and thus its continued militarization, it still has managed to successfully "Lebanonize" a controversy that stood to considerably hurt its domestic standing. The party has succeeded in portraying itself, once again, as a forward force in Lebanese politics, a kind of self-fashioned scapegoat at the hands of Europe, the United States, and Israel. This is a kind of spin not to be underestimated in a political field like Lebanon, where the symbolic so often takes precedence over the substantive.