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Hezbollah's Media Weapon By: Ricki Hollander
CAMERA | Thursday, October 05, 2006


In July 2000, following Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon, Hezbollah southern commander Sheik Nabil Qaouk boasted to New York Times reporter John Kifner about Hezbollah’s successful use of the media in its fight against Israel. "The use of media as a weapon had an effect parallel to a battle," he told Kifner, describing in detail how Hezbollah videotaped its successes for distribution to the media. "By the use of these films, we were able to control from a long distance the morale of a lot of Israelis." (New York Times, July 14, 2000)

A year later, the terrorist organization held a graduation ceremony in Nabatieh for 180 reporters and photographers it had trained. Qaouk addressed the graduates, describing the media as "an example to the Arab world on how to fight the enemy psychologically," and declaring that "this graduation adds to our preparations for the final battle with the Israelis." (Quoted in Daily Star [Lebanon], July 27, 2001)

Six years later, how has Hezbollah used and manipulated the media?

Al Manar

Broadcasting from Lebanon, Hezbollah’s Al Manar television station has been the organization’s official propaganda instrument since 1991. By 2000, Al Manar had expanded its reach to the larger Muslim public and to a worldwide audience through satellite providers and around-the-clock programming. With a stated mission to wage "psychological warfare against the Zionist enemy," Al Manar employs news programs, documentaries, music videos, and talk shows as vehicles of incitement against Israel and the U.S. These have included clips of Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah calling for "Death to America" and "Death to Israel" and videos aimed at recruiting suicide bombers.

In a 2004 monograph ("Beacon of Hatred: Inside Hizballah’s Al-Manar Television), Avi Jorisch revealed Al Manar’s operational structure and methodology and analyzed its militant Islamic, anti-American and anti-Israel content. He recommended the American government take steps to limit the scope of Al Manar’s propaganda operations, and in December 2004, the State Department designated the station a terrorist organization. Broadcasts within the U.S. were consequently blocked. (Al Manar broadcasts have also been banned in France and Spain.) The U.S. Department of the Treasury followed suit in March 2006, officially naming Al Manar a "specially designated global terrorist entity," making it illegal to fund or carry out any financial transactions with the station.

Use of Other Arabic Media Outlets

But Hezbollah’s media operations are no longer limited to Al Manar. On August 27, speaking for the first time since the cessation of hostilities between Israel and Hezbollah, Nasrallah spoke publicly on television. The Hezbollah leader granted a lengthy interview to Maryam al-Bassam of Lebanon’s secular New TV station. His introductory remarks, reminiscent of an Oscar acceptance speech, offered profuse thanks to the media for its wartime efforts in aiding Hezbollah:

In the name of God, the merciful, the compassionate.

First of all and in the name of the resistance I would like to thank you as well as the television management and all workers, journalists, and media men in this establishment for the large efforts you made during the war. You, just like other institutions — to be fair to all — were our voice and the voice of the resistance men and steadfast people who want glory, dignity, and loftiness for this country. Of course, any words of thanks to you and all those who acted in solidarity with the resistance in this war fall short of what should be said but they must be said. Thank you.

Nasrallah was openly affirming Arab media complicity in conveying Hezbollah’s message, fully aware that in this age of global communication, Arab news reports are easily imported to the West via satellite television, the foreign Arab press, and the internet. Moreover, Hezbollah’s media campaign has extended beyond Arabic news stations to the international press as well.

Use of Foreign Journalists

In an exceptional exposé aired on July 24, CNN’s Anderson Cooper discussed not only Hezbollah control of journalists’ access to subjects in southern Lebanon, but also the staging of scenes for the international press to record. He chronicled a Hezbollah-guided tour for foreign reporters where interview and photographic opportunities were strictly managed by Hezbollah minders who followed the participants’ every movement. Describing Hezbollah’s orchestration of events, Cooper recounted:

...After letting us take pictures of a few damaged buildings, they take us to another location, where there are ambulances waiting. This is a heavily orchestrated Hezbollah media event. When we got here, all the ambulances were lined up. We were allowed a few minutes to talk to the ambulance drivers. Then one by one, they've been told to turn on their sirens and zoom off so that all the photographers here can get shots of ambulances rushing off to treat civilians. That's the story — that's the story that Hezbollah wants people to know about. These ambulances aren't responding to any new bombings. The sirens are strictly for effect... (Anderson Cooper 360º, July 24, 2006)

(View clip here.)

Cooper’s senior producer, Charlie Moore, shared more details of what he described as Hezbollah’s "dog-and-pony show"on the Anderson Cooper blog. (Read the entire entry here.)

On the previous day’s segment of the CNN media program Reliable Sources, host Howard Kurtz (media critic for the Washington Post) asked CNN’s senior international correspondent Nic Robertson about the difficulty of independently verifying claims made by Hezbollah. Robertson responded:

...there's no doubt about it: Hezbollah has a very, very sophisticated and slick media operations...They deny journalists access into [Hezbollah-controlled] areas. They can turn on and off access to hospitals in those areas. They have a lot of power and influence. You don't get in there without their permission...And when I went we were given about 10 or 15 minutes, quite literally running through a number of neighborhoods that they directed and they took us ...They had control of the situation. They designated the places that we went to, and we certainly didn't have time to go into the houses or lift up the rubble to see what was underneath...Hezbollah is now running a number of [press tours] every day, taking journalists into this area. They realize that this is a good way for them to get their message out, taking journalists on a regular basis.

Yet just five days earlier (July 18), when Robertson broadcast from a southern Beirut neighborhood hit by Israeli missiles, he did not provide viewers with this information. On the contrary, he emphasized only the "exclusivity" of his " fast-paced tour" of the area with Hezbollah press officer Hassan Nabulsi, and provided him with a ready-made platform from which to address both Israelis and an international audience. The Hezbollah representative took full advantage of the CNN stage, verbally attacking Israel’s military, insisting that the IDF’s targets were civilians, and shouting repeatedly that Hezbollah would "never surrender." Far from providing viewers with the context he revealed to Kurtz, Robertson underscored Nabulsi’s claim that civilians being primarily targeted by Israeli missiles:

Israel says it targets Hezbollah's leadership and military structure. Hezbollah wanted to show us civilians are being hit...As we run past the rubble, we see much that points to civilian life, no evidence apparent of military equipment.

Perhaps the full realization that he was being manipulated hit Robertson only days later. Perhaps he felt more secure describing Hezbollah’s media campaign in a domestic forum. Whatever the case, those who did not view CNN’s subsequent Reliable Sources program (aired only on U.S. TV) or Anderson Cooper’s followup exposé were left with the misleading message Hezbollah wanted them to hear.

Unfortunately, it is Robertson’s July 18 report–and not Anderson Cooper’s exposé–that seems to have been the more typical response to Hezbollah’s media initiatives. Take, for example, the results of a July 20 Hezbollah tour led by Hassan Nabulsi, the same press officer who had given Robertson his "exclusive" tour two days earlier. Dozens of Western journalists and photographers were taken to Haret Hreik, a southern Beirut suburb hit by an Israeli air strike.

Like Robertson, the majority of journalists acknowledged they were reporting from a Hezbollah-led tour of damaged areas, but few questioned whether or not the evidence they were shown was contrived. Instead, the journalists served, to some extent, as Hezbollah dispatchers, dutifully recounting the signs of civilian life pointed out, and quoting Nabulsi’s fierce charges against Israel.

At least one journalist on that tour—Scripps Howard News Service reporter Mark Mackinnon—went even further in propagating Hezbollah’s message. He wrote an emotive human interest article entitled "Busy Beirut Enclave Reduced to Oblivion" (Toronto Globe and Mail, July 21, 2006) without once mentioning the Hezbollah minders who filtered what was being seen and heard. Instead, Mackinnon expounded on what was pointed out by the Hezbollah guides if his were independent observations, even exaggerating, "...along with hitting [a Hezbollah] building, and several others in the neighborhood that were also targeted, the Israeli air force obliterated an entire community." Apparently caught up in his own rhetoric, Mackinnon portentously declared, "The destruction in Harat Hreik is a microcosm for what has happened to much of southern Lebanon over the past nine days."

Contrived Evidence?

The obvious, unasked question is how much of the evidence shown to journalists was contrived?

Stories filed from the Nabulsi-led Harat Hreik tour included descriptions of a teddy bear, wedding and graduation photos, strollers, and a recliner, among other things. Mackinnon’s account of "the detritus of family lives" also included "a comfortable-looking blue chair—still intact–that was catapulted out of someone's home and into the road." While it is not inconceivable that household items might catapult out of people’s homes without exhibiting any damage, shouldn’t reporters have entertained the possibility that Hezbollah operatives prepared the ground for the tour, strategically placing artifacts of everyday life in the rubble for the benefit of the foreign journalists? But otherwise probing and skeptical reporters were mute.

Hezbollah leaders must have been pleased with how effective their media campaign proved in getting Hezbollah’s message out. What they probably did not count on, however, was the growing influence of the blogosphere in creating skeptical news consumers who questioned that message.

"Fauxtography"

The discovery by vigilant bloggers of fraudulent pictures taken in southern Lebanon resulted in the coining of a new word–"fauxtography"–to denote the manipulation and staging of photographs.

Throughout the recent hostilities between Hezbollah and Israel, questions have been raised about photographs of incongruous objects amidst the rubble in southern Lebanon. For example, CAMERA noted the surprising number of wire service photographs taken of family snapshots and photo albums sitting undisturbed atop the destroyed remains of buildings. These were taken weeks apart in different locations by different photographers, with the only common denominator being that all purported to depict Israel's destruction of Lebanese civilian life. But how likely is it to find clean, undamaged snapshots sitting alone on building ruins. (See "A Reprise: Media Photo Manipulation")

Others have wondered about the seeming ubiquity of relatively untarnished toys–Mickey Mouse dolls, stuffed animals and teddy bears–lying pristinely amidst the debris, as evidenced by Reuters and AP photos sent from southern Lebanon. (See "Passion of the Toys")

Several bloggers skeptically noted a Reuters photograph by Sharif Karim depicting a mannequin in a wedding gown poignantly posed in front of a collapsed building, distributed with the caption "A mannequin adorned with a wedding dress stands near the site of an Israeli air raid in Qana July 31, 2006, where more than 54 women and children [sic] were killed a day earlier."

Others scoffed at a photograph depicting a burning Koran, with the caption "A copy of the Koran burns in Southern Beirut after the Hizbollah stronghold was targeted by Israeli airstrikes July 16, 2006.." What was the chance, bloggers asked, that a photojournalist would happen upon just one identifiable object –conveniently evidencing the desecration of Islam—still in flames among charred remains hours after the air strike was over? (In fact, the burning Koran image was taken by the now-notorious Reuters freelance photographer Adnan Hajj who had doctored several images sent from southern Lebanon. Hajj was fired by Reuters and his 920 photographs were removed from their database.)

Without readily ascertainable facts to confirm or deny journalists’ reports from the area, online news consumers began to rely on photographic records (easily found on the internet) to support the suspicion that many of the seminal news events during the Israeli/Hezbollah war were misrepresented. Below are two examples.

Qana

Initial reports of a July 30, 2006 Israeli airstrike on a building near Qana claimed to have taken the lives of between 56-60 civilians, mainly children. While some journalists were circumspect in their reporting (the New York Times characterized it as "the single most lethal episode in the course of the war" and estimated that "tallies of the dead varied, from as many as 60 to 27, many of them children"), others–particularly in the European media– pounced on the event as an Israeli "massacre"(El Pais [Spain]), "massacre of children" (TV Channel Four [UK]), "kids slaughter" (Daily Star [London]). European headlines similarly trumpeted Hezbollah’s message:

"34 killed as slaughter of the innocents escalates in Lebanon" (Daily Record [Scotland])

"Babies slaughtered as they lay sleeping" (Irish Independent)

"The children went to sleep believing they were safe. And then Israel targeted them as terrorists" (Daily Telegraph [London])

"An atrocity that only aids the cause of Hizbollah" (Independent [London])

Without fully determining the facts, many rushed to condemn Israel, announcing its fall from world favor (For example, France’s Liberation announced that "The kind of tolerance which Israel enjoyed on the part of the international community is exhausted," and London’s Daily Telegraph suggested that "Israelis [made] a bad position worse,") and most noted the significance of Qana as the location of an Israeli strike 10 years earlier. The Israeli shelling there in 1996 killed over 100 civilians and precipitated Israel’s 2000 withdrawal from Lebanon.

In fact, the initial reporting of the July 30th Israeli air strike overstated the number of victims by more than double—27 people were killed, including 16 children. And the site of the strike was not in Qana itself but in the small hamlet of Khuraybah about a mile north of the town. But inaccurate, condemnatory reports of an Israeli-led massacre at a site fraught with historic symbolism was exactly what Hezbollah wanted the world to see and hear. It reflected what their supporters told journalists. It also indicated the readiness by many journalists to accept unquestioningly whatever they were told.

In the blogosphere, news consumers were far less accepting. Richard North of the British blog "EU Referendum" became intrigued with wire service photographs of the rescue mission. They looked staged to him, largely because an unusual number of images included one particular rescue worker he dubbed "Green Helmet" displaying dead children in a variety of locations and poses. These photos did not appear to reflect a typical rescue mission. North, with the help of other bloggers, studied all the wire photos of the rescue available online and concluded that

the bulk of the relief effort at Khuraybah on 30 July was turned into a perverted propaganda exercise. The site, in effect, became one vast, grotesque film-set on which a macabre drama was played out to a willing and complicit media, which actively co-operated in the production and exploited the results.

His observations seem to be supported by a film broadcast by German television station NDR (Norddeutscher Rundfunk) which showed a boy being removed from an ambulance and "Green Helmet" directing a cameraman to film as he clears the area and uncovers the body for a close-up shot. (North’s entire analysis, entitled "The Corruption of the Media" can be found here.)

The Red Cross Ambulance Incident

On July 24, 2006, the Lebanese Red Cross suggested that Israeli munitions had struck two ambulances in Qana the night before, while first-aid workers were transferring wounded patients from one ambulance to another, "although both vehicles were clearly marked by the red cross emblem and flashing lights that were visible at a great distance." Nine people including six Red Cross volunteers were said to have been wounded in the attack. The international media immediately picked up the story, implying that Israel had violated international law by targeting a clearly marked ambulance.

In the blogosphere, however, many were skeptical. The reporters, after all, had not actually witnessed the attack. They were basing their evidence on interviews with the Lebanese ambulance workers and an amateur video provided by one worker. A blogger known as "Zombie" analyzed the photographs of the damaged ambulance and victims, comparing them to news accounts of the event, and found the photographs did not support the claims. According to Zombie:

1) The hole in the roof of the ambulance, with its perfectly central location and rounded shape, did not resemble missile damage as much as it did a standard, pre-existing opening for a siren light.

2) Multiple areas of rust in dents on the roof were indicative of old—not recent—damage.

3) The damage inside the ambulance was not consistent with that caused by a missile strike and fire.

4) Photographs of the interviewed ambulance driver taken at the time of and several days following the event (showing no apparent injury) were inconsistent with those of him swathed in bandages in the hospital right after the event.

Based on these observations, Zombie, supported by many other bloggers, concluded the entire event was a hoax.

Intimidation of Journalists

Of course, journalists reporting from the scene may not always feel safe to voice their outright suspicions. Hezbollah operatives have been known to threaten reporters on the ground. Freelance journalist Christopher Allbritton acknowledged on his blog "Back to Iraq" that Hezbollah had "a copy of every journalist's passport, and they've already hassled a number of us and threatened one."  And writer/blogger Michael Totten described how he had been yelled at and even threatened by Hezbollah press officer Hassan Naboulsi. (LA Weekly, December 29, 2005)

Nonetheless, the following facts are incontrovertible:

1) Hezbollah is considered a terrorist organization by most Western countries

2) It is committed to the destruction of Israel and calls for "Death to America"

3) Its representatives have proudly proclaimed they use the media as a weapon to achieve that goal.

4) Hezbollah and its supporters have lied to journalists, staged media events, and used intimidation to ensure their message is broadcast to the world.

While there are some courageous journalists who have exposed and reported this, there are many more who have not adhered to the journalist’s code of ethics calling for honesty, fairness, and courage in gathering, reporting and interpreting information. All serious journalists should display appropriate skepticism when reporting from Hezbollah-contolled areas and major media outlets should thoroughly investigate and expose the entire matter of Hezbollah media manipulation. Otherwise they risk becoming just another tool in the arsenal of a terrorist organization that is undermining the very foundations of journalism.

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