Hezbollah took its struggle to Beirut's streets this week, but the group's been taking its message to the air for many years. Its vehicle is Al Manar, the TV station deemed a mouthpiece for terror by the U.S State Department. Reporter Kelly McEvers offers a rare behind-the-scenes portrait of Al Manar.
MIKE PESCA: This is On the Media. I'm Mike Pesca.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. In Lebanon this week, a general strike called by the radical political party Hezbollah paralyzed Beirut, then mutated into violence. Clashes between Hezbollah's Shiite faithful and those loyal to the government as of Friday had left many injured and four dead.
The confrontation once again raised fears of renewed civil war in Lebanon and raised questions as to Hezbollah's nature. Is it a legitimate opposition party, a paramilitary militia, a parallel government delivering social services to the poor or a terrorist group subservient to the revolutionary Shiite theocracy in Iran? Or, perhaps, all of the above?
Wherever the truth lies, Hezbollah is certainly one other thing – a primary source of information through its Al-Manar TV station for millions of Lebanese. The question is, can the propaganda arm of Islamic revolutionaries be regarded in any way as a legitimate news organization?
Reporter Kelly McEvers got a rare look inside a broadcast operation regarded by the U.S. State Department as a cheerleader for terror.
KELLY McEVERS: Al-Manar went on the air in 1991. It reported on battles between Hezbollah and the Israeli army, which had occupied southern Lebanon for nearly ten years. By 2000, Israel unilaterally pulled out of Lebanon. Hezbollah took much of the credit, and Al-Manar grew in popularity. The station began broadcasting 24 hours a day via satellite to millions of viewers around the world.
Al-Manar built a new million-dollar headquarters here in the southern suburbs of Beirut.
FEMALE REPORTER: We're standing on the side of the hole in the ground that used to be Al-Manar. The hole's about four stories deep. It's now just a cesspool of rainwater, debris. There's a lot of CDs or DVDs down there in the water. It's almost an entire block of complete destruction.
KELLY McEVERS: Al-Manar was bombed by the Israeli army last summer during the most recent war between Israel and Hezbollah. Minutes after the bombing, the station was back on air from a secret location.
The attack raised questions from press freedom groups. Is it okay for an army to target a media outlet? Is Al-Manar itself really a terrorist entity?
JUDITH PALMER HARIK: In terms of general news coverage, they do a pretty fair job.
KELLY McEVERS: That's Judith Palmer Harik. She's an American professor here who speaks Arabic.
For much of the day, Harik says, Al-Manar looks like CNN or Fox News. Headlines. Graphics. Embedded reporters. Opinionated commentators. But unlike the Arab world's best-known TV station, Al-Jazeera, Al-Manar also airs blatant propaganda. An animation showing the leaders of Israel and the U.S. as dominos falling to the ground; clips glorifying Hezbollah soldiers who later died fighting Israel. The soldiers' faces transform into doves flying toward heaven.
And, in the past, Al-Manar has aired virulently anti-Semitic programs, including a so-called history series showing a rabbi adding the blood of a Christian child to his matzo dough.
It's this kind of content that, in 2004, got Al-Manar banned in much of Europe. Europe's laws allow the prohibition of speech based solely on its content. The U.S. government has different standards. U.S. officials say they banned Al-Manar not because of content but because it incites people to commit violence, and fundraises and recruits for Hezbollah. Still, moderate viewers here say they see little of that these days.
In this café in central Beirut, men and women sit on couches, smoking and drinking wine and beer. The women are uncovered. Opposition protests rage outside. The café crowd is waiting for the next round of news, a speech by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. Al-Manar is projected larger than life on the café wall.
We don't always agree with Al-Manar, the women at my table tell me, but we have to watch it. All of Lebanon's TV stations, more than 10 major outlets, are affiliated with one political or religious group or another. Al-Manar, they say, is one part of the larger story.
Ever since Al-Manar was bombed, no one knows exactly how they broadcast the news. It took me three weeks to get an interview there. We were told to drive to a street not far from the old Manar headquarters. Then we were met by a guard who led us to another guard – and another.
[SOUND CLIP: MCEVERS:] I actually have a small camera, too. I can give it -
KELLY McEVERS: This third guard took us up to the second floor of an apartment building.
[SOUND CLIP] [ARABIC]
(MCEVERS:) Thank you.
KELLY McEVERS: Employees say new stories are produced here but broadcast from somewhere else.
DIAA ABU TAAM: My name is Diaa Abu Taam. I am 27 years old. I worked here in Al-Manar since the year 2000.
KELLY McEVERS: Diaa Abu Taam is a well-known Al-Manar correspondent. He trained at the BBC in London. He reported from the front lines during the war last summer.
DIAA ABU TAAM: I am law graduated, but I hate to work as a lawyer, so I found journalism is more connected to public opinion and to people, ordinary people. And that's very interesting to me.
KELLY McEVERS: Abu Taam says blocking access to Al-Manar in the U.S. and Europe means the West is missing an important element of the Arab story.
DIAA ABU TAAM: Take our stories, take our life from us and hear us. Hear the other point of view. Make a comparison between what you see and what you hear, and then you will have your conclusion. Maybe it is right. Maybe it is not. But you are now responsible for your conclusion.
KELLY McEVERS: American professor Judith Palmer Harik has drawn her conclusions. She wrote a book on what she says is Hezbollah's transformation from a terrorist group to a political party. She says most people in the Arab world see Al-Manar and Hezbollah as a legitimate resistance movement against Israel, even after the Israelis left Lebanon in 2000 and the two sides spent years trading attacks over Lebanon's southern border.
But the West still points to Hezbollah suicide attacks against the U.S. Embassy and Marine barracks here in 1983 and 1984. Those attacks killed nearly 400 American and French employees.
JUDITH PALMER HARIK: Which is very difficult for Americans to forget.
KELLY McEVERS: Judith Palmer Harik.
JUDITH PALMER HARIK: I mean, after all, Americans saw their young Marines and so on coming home in boxes. And so the constant drumming on that point keeps that very, very fresh in people's minds.
KELLY McEVERS: Since then, though, Harik says, it has not been confirmed that Hezbollah has led suicide bombings against civilians. These days, she says, they target the Israeli military.
JUDITH PALMER HARIK: What they tried to do very much was distance themselves from that term, "terrorist." And that meant that they would gain no grounds anywhere by attacking innocent Israeli civilians. I do believe that they also would like to have some credit from the West for not acting like al Qaeda.
KELLY McEVERS: Despite this distinction between violence against civilians and violence against soldiers, there is still a culture of martyrdom on Al-Manar. And that leads critics in the U.S. to say Al-Manar is promoting terrorism.
NABIL DAJANI: A martyr is not a new phenomenon for Islam or the Arab world.
KELLY McEVERS: Nabil Dajani teaches communications at the American University of Beirut. He says the debate about Al-Manar boils down to a clash of perceptions between the West and the Arab world. What is terrorism? What is martyrdom? Each side has its own answer.
NABIL DAJANI: When a soldier throws himself on a bomb to save his other, his colleagues, in the United States you give them medals. The same thing here. We call them martyrs. A martyr is a person who sacrifices himself or herself for the sake of the safety of his or her group. This is not new. Now, you tell me Al-Manar encourages this? Yes. I mean, not only Al-Manar. This is something that is acceptable all over the Arab world.
KELLY McEVERS: For On the Media, I'm Kelly McEvers.