Criticising the move to blacklist a media organisation, Reporters sans frontières, or Reporters Without Borders (RSF), has urged Washington and Paris not to confuse anti-Israeli broadcasts with the fight against terrorism.

Licensed by the Lebanese government, Al-Manar has been an integral part of Hizb Allah's political strategy.

Having driven Israeli troops out of southern Lebanon in 2000, Hizb Allah has sought to establish itself as a powerful political party in Lebanon and a model of resistance to Israeli occupation.

Popular with its target audience, the 24-hour satellite station has been used to glorify Hizb Allah's military exploits, insisting that military means can show results in other occupied countries - such as Palestine.

RSF critique

But while RSF recognises that Al-Manar makes no bones about its anti-Zionist stance, "putting this TV station in the same category as terrorist groups worries us and does not strike us as the best solution", the press freedom organisation said.

Washington's decision means that any journalist working directly or indirectly with the station will be banned from visiting the US. Those already in the US are now threatened with expulsion.

Al-Manar's bureau in Washington is to be closed and its staff forced to leave. The decision also means that, in the event of war, the station's journalists are "in danger of being considered belligerents and their bureaus viewed as military targets", according to RSF.

Thin end of the wedge

"We fear that this measure could be just the first of many others, and that all news media that have been accused of helping terrorist organisations in their coverage could end up on this list, in which case there will definitely be abuses," RSF added.

The move to put Al-Manar on the Terrorist Exclusion List was announced by the US Department of State on 17 December. Spokesman Richard Boucher said the blacklisting was due to the channel's "incitement of terrorist activity".

"If a broadcaster was turned off every time someone made offensive and unacceptable remarks, there would be precious little television in the world"

Aidan White,
General Secretary of the International Federation of Journalists

The media group was removed from the satellite which beamed it into the US on the same day, the satellite's owner Intelsat said.

Less than a week earlier, the French authorities also ordered satellite operator Eutelsat to stop relaying Al-Manar, saying its programming had "a militant perspective with anti-Semitic connotations".

French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin had already declared the channel was incompatible with French values, but the government eventually cited the need to preserve public order as a reason for the decision.

Freedom of speech?

Banning media channels raises some fundamental questions, however, about what should be considered offensive, according to international journalists' organisations. Who decides which words, ideas or opinions are acceptable for broadcast?

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) described the Al-Manar situation as political censorship of the worst kind.

Unless unpopular views are heard, all freedom of speech really means is the freedom to say things that conform to popular prejudices, says IFJ General Secretary Aidan White.

"Censorship just adds to intolerance and breeds further resentment and incomprehension. If a broadcaster was turned off every time someone made offensive and unacceptable remarks, there would be precious little television in the world.

"This action is disproportionate and inappropriate and will do nothing to bridge the gulf in understanding that at present exists between much of the Western world and some Arab media," White said.

Israel behind ban

Other critics have expressed even stronger criticism. Former Lyon University lecturer Robert Faurisson says France and the US have decided to ban the TV station because of the power of pro-Israeli Jewish lobbies in both countries.

"Quite simply, Israel does not want the West to see what it did in southern Lebanon, and what it continues to do in Palestine - and has once again succeeded in preventing an independent voice from being heard."

French Prime Minister Raffarin
defended the axing of Al-Manar

"In France, Jewish organisations get whatever they demand. And especially the Conseil Reprisentatif des Institutions Juives de France (CRIF), headed by former banker Roger Cukierman, who was very instrumental in the campaign against Al-Manar," he said.

The academic added that the lobbies in both France and the US are "beyond criticism" - journalists are terrified of being labelled holocaust deniers. Faurisson also rejected the claim that France was a pioneer in the right to freedom of expression.

"From a legal perspective, we supposedly have a one-line entitlement to the freedom of opinion, of press, of research.

"But then we have pages and pages that explain this freedom away - freedom is so important that it needs to be protected by dozens of prohibitions, exceptions and bans," he said.

Lebanese government

Speaking in Beirut on 18 December, Information Minister Ali al-Firzli also said the bans were due to submission to Israeli pressure.

"Rushing the termination [of broadcasts] without considering the need to give the channel a new chance for cooperation demonstrates the existence of a predetermined political decision," he said.

Al-Firzli says the bottom line is that "Zionism seeks to prohibit any condemnation of Israeli crimes ... what is needed, in the global village controlled by Zionists, is to prohibit the condemnation of Israel's crimes against humanity.

"They want the world to forget the massacres of Qana and Jenin and all the Israeli organised acts of killing and genocide," the minister added.

Lebanese analysis

The Lebanese foreign minister added that there should be a distinction between anti-Zionist and anti-Jewish reporting.

"The Zionist ideology and practices are condemned because they are the basis of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the source of the tragedy and injustice the Palestinian people are subjected to", al-Firzli said.

"Freedom is so important that it needs to be protected by dozens of prohibitions, exceptions and bans"

Robert Faurisson,
French academic

Meanwhile, Hizb Allah Executive Committee Chairman Hashim Safiy al-Din has claimed that both countries' bans are a sign of powerlessness.

"With all their media, political, cultural and economic dimensions, the US cannot tolerate a critical sound or image. After today, how can the French or the US lecture us about democracy and freedom?" he told crowds of supporters on 19 December.

Al-Manar defiance

Despite enormous political pressure on the channel, the organisation has promised to "continue to carry the message of defending our peoples' rights, holy places and just causes ... within internationally agreed professional laws and standards".

And the station has not merely continued to run videos depicting the Statue of Liberty as a knife-wielding ghoul and juxtaposing US President George Bush along with Adolf Hitler with the caption "two faces of evil", it is also championing a popular response.

About 50 private cable operators in Beirut have already stopped the distribution of French channel TV5 in solidarity.

"Our grouping held a meeting on Saturday and we decided to stop the distribution of TV5 in solidarity with Al-Manar," Ihab Samir, co-owner of LTV cable in the Ras al-Nabah central residential neighbourhood, said.
 
He said the association, made up of the "the distributors of cable services", took the decision "to halt TV5 in Beirut as a first step, as we are making contacts with other companies in other Lebanese regions".

And on Saturday, Lebanon warned that it was still considering reprisal measures against French and US media, though it continues to re-broadcast TV5 on Lebanese state media outlets.