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Hezbollah's Al-Manar

Broadcasting from the Bunker


By Matthias Gebauer in Beirut, Spiegel Online, 08/10/2006



Neither bombs nor computer hackers working for the Israeli army have been able to silence Al-Manar. The TV channel broadcasts Hezbollah propaganda from a secret location, and every minute it remains on the air is a triumph in the war of images for Hezbollah -- and a setback for Israel.



Al-Manar always has time for good news from the front. The veiled woman who hosted an afternoon program on Hezbollah's TV station on Thursday was listening patiently to phone calls from supporters of the Shiite militia when the program was interrupted: An anchorman standing in an empty newsroom appeared to announce a great success story. "Our fighters have just destroyed their fourth Israeli tank today," he said calmly. "That's a record for this war."

Not much later, Al-Manar -- "the Beacon" -- aired a cheaply produced but effective video animation of the battle. The virtual camera eye sped to a village in southern Lebanon, like a computer game, where Israeli tanks were approaching. Hezbollah militants fired with bazookas; one tank exploded in slow motion. The scene played over and over throughout the evening, celebrating Hezbollah's success.

But one of Hezbollah's greatest successes is that Al-Manar is still on air after almost a month of war. Israeli forces tried to take out the Hezbollah-financed TV channel at the very start of their military campaign. They bombed Al-Manar's Beirut complex at least twice and finally reduced it to rubble. But that stopped the flow of propaganda for only about two minutes. Then Al-Manar was back on the air, thanks to a second and secret broadcasting station. The TV channel continues to present its view of the world -- the view of Hezbollah's leadership -- to this day.

Al-Manar works as a powerful weapon for Hezbollah in the struggle for hearts and minds, both in Lebanon and across the world. Hezbollah's military leadership dispatches live news from the front, usually when Israeli soldiers have been killed. The channel also carries live and videotaped statements from from Hezbollah's leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah. When the Israelis announced that he was on the run during the beginning of the current crisis, he reacted by holding a half-hour speech in a markedly relaxed tone. It was then -- at the latest -- that Al-Manar became a thorn in the flesh of Israel.

Hezbollah propaganda and Coca-Cola ads

Al-Manar's producers are used to being given a hard time. Ever since the TV channel was created in the 1990s, it's been considered Hezbollah's mouthpiece. Back then, agents still purchased advertising slots for Coca-Cola and other Western products. This source of revenue dried up only when the channel was placed on a list of terrorist organizations in 2004. After this decision, European satellites were no longer allowed to transmit Al-Manar's signal. But Al-Manar has never worried about money. Donations from the Arab world guarantee an annual budget of $15 million.

Ibrahim Farhad boasts a broad grin whenever he speaks about Israeli attacks or the sanctions imposed on the channel. After extended telephone conversations and several canceled appointments, Al-Manar's PR man has led us on a zig-zag route through the city in order to finally meet us at an ice cream parlor just off Beirut's Corniche. He looks relaxed as he waits for us at his table. "We knew the Israelis wanted to destroy us," the 42-year-old says. "So we prepared everything for Day X." When that day arrived, it was enough to push a few buttons, Farhad says.

Farhad likes to answer questions. The only thing he won't tell is where the new broadcasting station is located. He says he doesn't know and claims only a small number of people do -- for security reasons. "The most important thing is that we're on the air," he laughs. Yes, he admits, the logistics have gotten a little more complicated. The tapes prepared by reporters have to be delivered to the station by courier. Transferring the material by satellite would be too risky.

There are many rumors about the location of Al-Manar's new broadcast center. Israelis talk about a studio in Syria. People in Beirut say the station is here in the city, in a bomb shelter. As far as the technological side is concerned, a few people are enough to keep the TV channel running. Fifteen reporters feed material to Al-Manar. The station tends to borrow footage from other sources or just comment on photographs. The relatively basic video animations can be produced on a personal computer. The only riddle is how the station's signal reaches up to Arab satellites. Asked for an answer, Farhad just smiles and sips his tea.

All of Al-Manar's content has been war-related for the past four weeks. Once there was time for talk shows, game shows (such as a quiz on the Koran) and even ads. Now the station only airs propaganda videos and news from the front -- real or fabricated. Menacing video clips of Hezbollah militants preparing rocket attacks on Haifa's oil reserves flash across the screen, followed by images of mutilated children. In between these sequences, Hezbollah marches toward Israel with its yellow flag raised.


"We're the only one who tell the truth."

People like Farhad show how deeply Hezbollah's struggle is rooted in Lebanese society. Farhad looks like a typical militant dressed in civilian clothes -- a light beard, open shirt, walkie-talkie strapped to his belt. The construction engineer took up his job as Al-Manar's speaker three years ago. He says money isn't the most important thing for him -- he works mainly for "the mission" of Sheikh Nasrallah. And the mission is easy to summarize. He's fighting for the restoration of an Islamic state and against Israel.

Farhad acts bellicose when he talks about the dangers associated with his work. He says he has to keep moving to avoid being tracked by his mobile phone signal. "But even if I die, Al-Manar will remain on the air," he says. "Many others stand ready to do my job." Then, with a pained expression, he asks how the West can accept Israeli attacks on TV stations like al-Manar. "We always thought freedom of the press was an important value for you," he says. "Were we wrong?"

It's difficult to say how many people in Lebanon believe the propaganda aired on Al-Manar. TV sets in cafes are often tuned to the station, but not always. What seems far more important is that the station is still on the air. Just like Hezbollah's militants, who are resisting an enemy whose military might far exceeds their own, the TV channel with its media opposition has won respect among the Lebanese. Many Lebanese have been convinced for a long time that even Arab news channels like al-Jazeera have been infiltrated by the US.

Farhad believes the channel is watched by more than a million people every day, many of them in other Arab countries. He says the current crisis will help Hezbollah's mouthpiece reach an even larger audience. "Everyone else lies all day. We're the only ones who tell the truth," he says. And that's not going to change, he adds, regardless of how the war ends. Then the channel will have more money than ever before. And now that Al-Manar's Beirut complex has been bombed, a new broadcasting station can be built. The onetime engineer says plans for such a new complex are already underway.

 




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