Press Box

Who’s Afraid of Hezbollah TV?

Not me.

“Israelis Are Terrorists”—Al-Manar propaganda video Secretary of State Colin Powell didn’t ban Hezbollah’s satellite TV station Al-Manar from the United States when he added it to the federal Terrorist Exclusion List on Dec. 17. But the edict took on that appearance when it coincided with the decision of station’s satellite provider in North America to unplug it.

The throttling of any kind of voice tends to stir up First Amendment extremists—people like me—who defend the rights of Web sites to post beheadings or who back publishers who challenge laws against printing works from officially blacklisted countries. But except for the stink raised by Reporters Without Borders, the usual suspects were uncommonly silent about the government’s move on Al-Manar.

If you’ve ever watched Al-Manar you might understand why no protest ads were published in The Nation and no petitions circulated: The Hezbollah-owned and -operated station glorifies and promotes terrorism of the most ferocious sort. Writing in The New Yorkertwo years ago, Jeffrey Goldberg called the station “The Suicide Channel.”

“We’re not looking to interview [Ariel] Sharon,” Al-Manar news director Hassan Fadlallah told Goldberg, explaining the station’s editorial philosophy. “We want to get close to him in order to kill him.”

The station routinely folds anti-Semitic, anti-Israel, anti-American messages into its kid shows, game shows, dramas, and news programs. Propaganda videos set to jihadist songs, which make up about 25 percent of Al-Manar’s programming day, venerate suicide bombers as martyrs; call for the obliteration of Israel and the death of the United States; exhort Palestinians to violently overthrow their racist “oppressors”; and portray Israelis as baby-slaughtering terrorists. An Al-Manar public service message tells families of suicide bombers where to go to collect the “subsidy” from a martyrs’ “foundation.” Another solicits donations to finance the violent liberation of Palestine. For an example of the station at its most strident and repellent, see this video clip, “Israelis Are Terrorists,” one of 58 Al-Manar excerpts included on a CD-ROM in Avi Jorisch’s recent book, Beacon of Hatred: Inside Hizballah’s Al-Manar Television. (For more clips, see this Web site. For a sample of Al-Manar’s news programs, see the pre-Dec. 17 archives of Mosaic on the Web site.)

Ugly stuff, yes, but should Al-Manar be banned outright? Even the United States has yet to cross that Rubicon. The Terrorism Exclusion List to which Al-Manar was just added sounds fearsome, but its powers are limited to immigration. The secretary of State can add to the exclusion list any group that commits, plans, incites, or provides material support to a terrorist activity. But the TEL only gives the government the power to deport or exclude from the United States any foreigner who works for or is associated with a TEL group. In the case of Al-Manar, there’s no evidence the action will have any immediate effect on its U.S. staff: The station appears to have only one U.S. employee, its Washington bureau chief, and according to an article by Avi Jorisch in the Winter 2004 Middle East Quarterly, the employee is a U.S. citizen and therefore exempt from the TEL.

The firm that bailed on Al-Manar, GlobeCast, declined to explain to the press why it disconnected the station, but the company’s status as a subsidiary of France Telecom probably had something to do with it: Earlier that week, the French government banned Al-Manar because of its anti-Semitic content.

Theoretically, the station can resume pouring its programs into U.S. dishes as soon as it finds a satellite provider. That loophole could close tomorrow, however, if 1) the department of State determined that Al-Manar was a threat to the security of U.S. citizens and named it a Foreign Terrorist Organization or 2) the department of Treasury added the station to its Specially Designated Global Terrorist list, allowing it to freeze assets and criminalize any financial interactions. The American Jewish Committee advocates both.

According to this story, Al-Manar is the first journalistic enterprise named to the Terrorist Exclusion List—the others include unabashed terrorist organizations as well as banks, charities, and businesses. The listing doesn’t violate anybody’s First Amendment rights because foreign entities such as Al-Manar and its operators have no First Amendment rights. But the listing raises non-trivial questions about access to information—even propaganda—that the First Amendment would seem to guarantee. In suppressing Al-Manar’s message, the government is saying that it shall determine what the public can be trusted to know. Not even during the Cold War, when the Soviet Union dedicated itself to the West’s destruction, did the government block a sworn enemy’s message from reaching us.

The government has historically used obscenity and copyright laws to stifle the importation of “undesirable” foreign media. Back in the 18th century, Congress passed the Sedition Act of 1798, which made it illegal to “write, print, utter, or publish” or cause to be “written, printed, uttered, or published” any “false, scandalous, and malicious writing” about the government. Outside of wartime, I can’t remember the U.S. government blocking foreign propaganda on national security grounds. The idea of banning a terrorist satellite channel when there is no clear and present danger to the citizenry seems so totally … French!

The campaign against Al-Manar also romanticizes Hezbollah and inflates the organization’s importance. How can the U.S. government seriously preach the values of an open society to embattled Iraqis while shielding its own citizens from an unpalatable foreign media outlet?

The next step in this propaganda game is for Al-Manar to start streaming its video programs directly to viewers through the Web. To my knowledge, the U.S. government, unlike China and other totalitarian societies, has never blocked a foreign URL. Will Al-Manar’s inevitable migration to the Web prompt that sort of censorship in the name of national security?

I’ve never cared for slippery slope arguments that predict a catastrophic loss of freedom later from a minute loss of freedom today. But the Bush administration’s mania for manufacturing new secrets and for stuffing back into the bottle information that was once free and open, which Steven Aftergood’s Project on Government Secrecy has amply documented in recent years, has me reconsidering. However vile and propagandistic Hezbollah’s TV station may be, my sense is that it’s only one of the administration’s targets. The other is you.