After the media war



 
Rarely have the media played such an important part in a war. When Hezbollah and allies launched their armed offensive in Beirut two weeks ago, the first targets were the pro-government media. Last week in Doha, one of the first agenda points was to call for an end to the vicious propaganda on the airwaves. Media expert Habib Battah looks back at Lebanon's media war.
 
By HABIB BATTAH, Special to MENASSAT
 
Lebanon, Future TV.jpg
Lebanese girls walk past the burnt-out shell of Future TV's old studios in Raouche. © Reuters

When Lebanese politicians met in Doha last week to negotiate a truce to the country's latest crisis, they began by calling off a vicious propaganda war that had been raging on TV screens in Beirut. Just as the militias were withdrawn from the streets days earlier, the media had clearly fulfilled its role as part of a political strategy and could be silenced at a moments notice.

Today, with an agreement reached and a new president elected, Lebanese broadcasters have resumed normal programming. Hezbollah's channel Al-Manar has been playing Syrian soap operas, pro-government Future TV is airing American-style reality shows and NBN, associated with the Amal party which is allied to Hezbollah, now features infomercials peddling skin creams and diet pills. But only two weeks ago, the same channels unleashed a vicious barrage of character assassination campaigns in tandem with the fighting on the ground.

Censorship by omission

The most notorious of these vilification strategies was that of Al-Manar which portrayed the pro-American government of Fouad Siniora as an accomplice in a "Zionist-American conspiracy" to destroy the country. To bolster this charge, Al-Manar unveiled a sophisticated new series of clips that coincided with the takeover of West Beirut. This included damning footage of weapons marked with Hebrew inscriptions (presumably supplied by the Israeli government) which were allegedly found among the weapons caches belonging to pro-government forces.

Indeed, Al-Manar and its political ally NBN made continuous reference to the "government's militia," repeating the phrase several times per hour. But the two channels systematically ignored the successive operations being carried out by gunmen from the opposition side as they seized street after street of the capital.

For audiences watching Al Manar and NBN, opposition militias simply did not exist while pro-government forces appeared to be a menacing threat. It was a classic case of censorship by omission and clearly a contradiction of the reality on the battlefield.

In fact, opposition paramilitaries easily overwhelmed armed pro-government groups, which were later revealed to consist largely of poorly trained private security guards, as reported by the Los Angeles Times on May 12. That a Western news outlet produced the most penetrating piece of investigative journalism throughout the conflict was not surprising considering the largely partisan, and thus superficial, nature of Lebanese broadcasting.

From Future TV to Al-Arabiya

In the weeks and months leading up to the latest crisis, Future TV had demonized Hezbollah's politics, countering charges of Zionist treachery with charges of a sinister partnership with Syria and Iran. But those campaigns were swiftly halted by the opposition's coordinated attack on Future TV and its broadcast facilities only hours after the shooting began.

The strategy was a familiar one. Less than two years earlier, Israel had also realized the manipulative power of the press, and during the opening hours of the July 2006 war, its air force fired a barrage of missiles into Al-Manar's headquarters. But Israel only managed to disrupt Al Manar's coverage for a few minutes, whereas the Hezbollah-led opposition silenced Future TV for four days.

Nevertheless, the propaganda war would continue with or without Future TV.

In the absence of the pro-government channel, the opposition switched its focus to the Saudi-owned channel Al-Arabiya, a glitzy competitor of Al-Jazeera which is seen as sympathetic to the pro-Western factions across the Middle East, especially in Lebanon. True enough, Al-Arabiya immediately framed the fighting as "The Hezbollah Coup," and introduced its Lebanon reports with a specially designed graphic of a scary looking opposition gunman.
 
But it was a single incident that sparked outrage among opposition-friendly channels on May 10. Following the shooting of mourners at Sunni funeral that day, an Al-Arabiya reporter accused a gunman from the Amal movement as having been behind the attack. NBN, the mouthpiece of Amal, immediately denied the charges and began labeling Al-Arabiya as a tool of war in support of the Western-backed parties. Then, within a couple of hours, NBN had created a video montage of Al-Arabiya's coverage, adding a graphic manipulation in which the channel's logo was changed from Al-Arabiya (The Arab one) to "Al-Ahbria" (the Hebrew one).

Peace for now

When Future TV finally came back on the airwaves on Tuesday, May 13, it countered the allegations made by opposition channels with a propaganda campaign of its own. In a new studio, Future showcased large images of opposition gunmen behind its main anchor desk. During commercial breaks, it aired edited snippets of angry speeches made by pro-Hezbollah leaders praising Syria.

Since the signing of the truce in Doha, the attack spots on Future and other channels have evaporated, at least for now.

The legacy of the media war, though, runs deeper than the footage itself. As a result of the politicization of local television, broadcast journalists have often been subjected to mob violence from average citizens who view channels as scapegoats for the parties they are thought to represent.  The trend has gained momentum over the past three years of deepening divisions in Lebanese society.

Broadcast journalists are particularly vulnerable because their employers can easily be identified by the colors of their microphones. As a partial solution, many stations have begun removing microphone covers when reporting from areas where the political party associated with their channel may be unwelcome.

But the danger is that journalists will do their best to avoid areas where they will feel unsafe, exacerbating the existing problem of biased reporting that highlights some regions more than others.


(Habib Battah is an independent publicist and the former managing editor of the Journal for Middle East Broadcasters. He also blogs at beirutreport.blogspot.com.)