Al-Manar TV: No Love for U.S. but No Help from Taliban
By Magda Abu-Fadil
Special to Poynter.org
Beirut -- Just as the world is getting used to seeing feeds Al Jazeera, the Qatar-based satellite TV station, the war coverage of another relatively unknown TV operation is emerging far beyond its normal reach.
Footage bearing the logo of Al Manar TV, operated by Hezbollah (Party of God), has appeared on CNN's "Diplomatic License" show, Euronews and the BBC. Based in Beirut, Hezbollah is a guerrilla organization whose allegiances line up like this: anti-American, pro-Iranian, anti-Taliban, and, of course, anti-Israeli.
Nothing is simple in the new world order emerging since Sept. 11, however. Although the United States and Iran have no diplomatic relations, for example, the New York Times reported last week that Iran has agreed to "rescue any American military personnel in distress in its territory."
Although Hezbollah is made up of Shiite Muslims who regard the Sunni Muslims of the Taliban as reactionary, Hezbollah -- and Al Manar -- make no secret of their opposition to American bombing raids in Afghanistan.
The western networks last week used Al Manar footage from northern regions of Afghanistan controlled by the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance forces supported by the U.S.
Nayef Krayem, Al Manar's engineer-turned-CEO, says, "We went North because the Taliban didn¹t grant us a visa." He described Al Manar's mission as covering all news relating to Arabs, Muslims and Arab Christians. Al Manar officials say they are determined to cover the attacks on Afghanistan with or without access to the Taliban-controlled parts of the country.
"Its coverage of the war in Afghanistan is mixed between its hatred of the Taliban and that of the U.S.," said Nabil Dajani, a professor of communication at the American University of Beirut. "Its coverage is definitely against the U.S. attack on Afghanistan but then it tends to favor
the Northern Alliance."
The Washington Post has linked the station to one of the stranger rumors surrounding the Sept. 11 attacks: the claim that Israel was really responsible for the attacks and that Jews working in the World Trade Center had been alerted not to come to work that day. "As far as can be established," The Post reported, "the story of 4,000 Jewish survivors originated with a Sept. 17 report by the Beirut-based Al Manar television network, which is close to the pro-Iranian Hezbollah guerrilla organization that controls much of southern Lebanon. The report cited 'Arab diplomatic sources' quoted in an obscure Jordanian newspaper named Al Watan."
Al Manar's coverage in Afghanistan began days after Sept. 11 when the station dispatched its Tehran correspondent (who also works for Iranian TV) and a crew to locations controlled by the opposition in southwestern Afghanistan as well as to the Pakistani capital Islamabad.
News director Hassan Fadlallah told Lebanon¹s English-language The Daily Star that Al-Manar's aim was to rouse Muslims everywhere to "denounce the
aggression against Afghanistan."
Hezbollah's support of the Afghan people doesn¹t mean the war should be viewed as reaction to a new crusade, as described by various anti-American Muslim groups, Krayem stressed.
"We refuse to put it in the context of a crusade." he said. "We won¹t fall into that trap."
Al Manar's frontline Afghan presence is costing $2,500 to uplink each five-minute report, with the overall bill running into the hundreds of thousands, according to Krayem, who denied receiving any funding from Iran.
"We rely on advertising," he said, adding that expenses were covered by commercials, which he expected would increase on Al-Manar¹s new satellite channel.
Meanwhile, the station¹s coverage of the Palestinian Intifada has been adversely affected but the cause remains a Hezbollah priority, as was the resistance to the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon, Krayem said.
Since the second major round of Palestinian-Israeli violence erupted in September 2000, Al-Manar has provided a steady drumbeat of anti-Israeli and pro-Palestinian news and other programs.
The decade-old station, self-described as "The Channel of Arabs and Muslims," has been making waves since it was launched with a mission to promote Islamic ideals and Arab causes.
It led a media battle against a 22-year Israeli occupation of parts of southern Lebanon, which ended in May 2000, with graphic footage of bloody Hezbollah attacks on Israeli troops and their South Lebanon Army (SLA) proxies beamed from Lebanon to Israeli viewers.
Since 1996, it has aired broadcasts in Hebrew aimed at demoralizing Israeli soldiers by urging them to withdraw from the Lebanese border.
"During Israel's occupation of southern Lebanon, Al-Manar broadcast footage of attacks Hezbollah groups carried out against Israeli positions there and showed its ability in striking the best army in the Middle East," said Haytham Tabesh, a Lebanese-born editor with the United Arab Emirates daily Al-Ittihad. "That¹s what they called 'Resistance Media'".
The Hebrew speakers in the Al Manar broadcasts are veteran Hezbollah fighters who served time in Israeli or SLA jails where they learned the language.
"Our advice to Israelis is that their cities and settlements are unsafe and that they should go back to where they came from, especially the newly arrived immigrants," Krayem said.
More recently the station has included messages in Russian aimed at Russian Jews who have immigrated to Israel.
In June it ran pictures of a suicide bomb attack on a Tel Aviv nightclub frequented by Russian immigrants with subtitles in Russian and Hebrew warning that safety was elusive in Israel.
"Hezbollah is also apparently trying to harm Israel's economy by turning its attention towards potential tourists and warning them what could happen to them if they visit the country," David Rudge wrote in the Jerusalem Post at the time.
Al Manar has state-of-the-art facilities in Beirut's southern suburbs offering an array of professionally produced newscasts in Arabic and English, talk shows, children¹s shows, documentaries, sports events, religious programs and the requisite anti-Israel fare common in many Arab-based media.
Were it not for its on- and off-air staffers being mostly bearded men and veiled women -- and the heavy ideological message -- Al Manar might be mistaken for a TV station in a medium-sized American city.
Unlike other private stations in Lebanon, advertising of liquor and un-Islamic products is taboo on its airwaves.
It also maintains a website which, along with the umbrella Hezbollah site, came under attack last year by pro-Israel hackers who briefly disrupted its online presence.
"The cyber war has had its ups and downs but the front is currently stable," said Krayem.
He added that he planned to create a new studio for satellite news and programs intended for viewers in North and South America, Africa, Europe and the Arab countries.
Magda Abu-Fadil is director of the Institute for Professional Journalists at the Lebanese American University in Beirut. She is a 25-year veteran of international news organizations and spent her career covering Washington and the Middle East. She has written previously about Al Manar for the IPI Report of the International Press Institute.