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Congress Demands Arab Censorship

On December 8, 2009, the U.S. House of Representatives passed, by a vote of 395 to 3, a resolution specifically naming three Arab TV stations — Al Manar, Al Aqsa, and Al Rifadayn — as “terrorist owned and operated” channels that broadcast “incitement to violence against the United States.” The resolution stated that any satellite provider that broadcasts these stations, or others to be named later, would be considered a “Specially Designated Global Terrorist” under the law. The president would be required to report to Congress each year concerning “anti-American incitement to violence” on TV stations across the Middle East, covering 19 nations from Morocco to Iran.

The three “terrorist” stations are carried on the two largest satellite providers in the Middle East, NileSat of Egypt and ArabSat of Saudi Arabia. Between them, NileSat and ArabSat offer hundreds of stations, most of which show cheesy movies, game shows, and cartoons for kids, as well as the official state programming of the various Arab nations. This resolution, known as H.R. 2278, would require NileSat and ArabSat to block any channel the U.S. labels as terrorist, or see themselves labeled as supporters of terrorism. The resolution still needs to be approved by the Senate and signed by the president to become law — it is currently before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chaired by John Kerry. So there is still time for Washington to come to its senses, but it should be clear that by issuing such a heavy-handed demand for censorship, Congress has sent exactly the wrong message to the Arab world.

Al Manar is the voice of Hezbollah, which besides being an armed resistance movement against Israel, is a political party active in the Lebanese government. Al Aqsa is linked with Hamas, also a resistance movement and the de facto government of the Gaza Strip. Al Rafidayn is an Iraqi station described by the Open Source Center, an arm of the U.S. intelligence community, as a “pro-Sunni, anti-U.S. Iraqi channel believed to be affiliated with the Association of Muslim Scholars.” Of the three, only Al Rifadayn could remotely be accused of “incitement to violence against the United States,” since it supports resistance to the American occupation of Iraq. There is a blurring of lines here between “terrorism” and legitimate resitance — a difference which is in the eye of the beholder. None of these stations supports random acts of violence against civilians, such as suicide bombings or kidnappings, which is the usual definition of terrorism. All provide legitimate news services to the population. And the target of resistance for both Al Manar and Al Aqsa isn’t the U.S. at all, but the state of Israel.

I’ve watched Al Manar here in Morocco, and while they have their share of pro-resistance propaganda — scenes of heroic battles from the 2006 Lebanon War, accompanied by patriotic songs — they are also a news source with high standards of professionalism. In fact, they were the only ones providing on-the-ground coverage during the Israel–Lebanon conflict — even Al Jazeera used their footage — and it was through their station that I became aware of the devastation Israel was raining down on a beleaguered nation. Perhaps that’s what bothers the U.S. Congress. It’s certainly what bothers Israel. Henry Lamb, an American lawyer living in Lebanon, who seems to be the only one writing in depth about H.R. 2278, cites a “Washington DC observer” on the motivations behind the proposed law.

    “Regarding Al Manar it’s personal for Israel. The reason is that Al Manar did to the Israeli government propaganda machine during and following the July 2006 war what Hezbollah fighters did to Israeli troops. Al Manar kicked butt. That station must be made to disappear. The plan is to stop the 15-20 million daily viewers of Al Manar from receiving its transmission and well as to intimidate all the other Middle East TV channels that are suspected of moving toward the growing ‘Culture of Resistance’….”

In another article, Lamb praises Al Manar’s “reputation for accuracy, thoroughness and objectivity and getting the latest news on the air fast.” Speaking of the tragic crash of an Ethiopian airliner in Beirut on January 25, he adds:

    “As Lebanese woke to the news this morning an estimated 80% of the population is thought to have turned into Al Manar at least once sometime between the hours of 7 am and 11 am, as they and the region regularly do during war or crisis. … Al Manar was the first Lebanese station to give the most details…. Ironically, staff at the American Embassy, and surely the large contingent of CIA agents here, almost certainly sat glued to Al Manar to evaluate what really has happened. [If H.R. 2278 becomes law] US officials may be deprived of this reliable source of information.”

During a recent visit by Senator John McCain, Lebanese president Michel Sleiman asked “that Washington backtrack on its decision to ban certain television channels, including Al Manar,” according to an official statement. Meanwhile Nabih Berri, the speaker of the Lebanese parliament, sent a letter to U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi denouncing the proposed law.

    “[The bill] harms the principles of freedom of expression and civil rights, and leads to further complication in relations. … This bill represents bypassing to the sovereign national laws of the targeted countries, among them Lebanon which is a free ‘Hyde Park’ for the Lebanese and Arab satellite ‘public opinion’ media channels. … Therefore, the bill issued by your Congress undermines our sovereignty as well as the sovereignty of many countries….”

Lebanon is proud of its diversity of opinion, which is the thread holding society together after a generation of civil strife. The above statements show that Congress, in its hastily considered attempt at censorship, has united the entire Lebanese political class in protest — not just Hezbollah, a political movement the U.S. still labels “terrorist,” but the elected government as well, which Washington supports.

But there is another dimension to the problem, namely the excuse that H.R. 2278 gives to Arab nations with reasons of their own for censoring opposing views. Chief among them are Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which coincidentally or not, are home to NileSat and ArabSat, respectively. Egypt has been ruled by Hosni Mubarak, known as “the Pharaoh,” for 28 years under martial law. Saudi Arabia is the home of Wahhabism and the obscenely rich Saudi royal family. Both have a history of silencing domestic critics, and both are sponsors of an Arab League proposal to monitor TV stations in all its 22 member nations.

The Arab League first discussed a satellite TV charter back in February 2008, but the recent action by Congress has given new momentum to their plans. On January 24, 2010, Arab information ministers met in Cairo to discuss the proposal. According to Reporters Without Borders, the plan would set up an “Office for Arab Satellite Television” to ensure that stations “respect the ethical standards and moral values of Arab society” and “no longer serve as fronts or outlets for ‘terrorist’ organisations.” In a statement, the Paris-based watchdog group warned of the potential for abuse.

    “The danger is that this super-police could be used to censor all TV stations that criticise the region’s governments. It could eventually be turned into a formidable weapon against freedom of information.”

Anthony Mills of the International Press Institute issued a similar warning.

    “The International Press Institute is wary of efforts to engage in that kind of monitoring particularly given the record of most, if not all, Arab Middle Eastern countries on press freedom. It’s an example of states in the Arab world using the notion of security to in fact monitor and stifle independent reporting.”

The influence of H.R. 2278 can be seen in two of the stations mentioned by Reporters Without Borders as targets of the new plan — Al Aqsa and Al Manar — along with the plan’s emphasis on “terrorism.” However, as Daoud Kuttab shows in a 2008 article, the original motivations have little to do with “terrorism” or “incitement to violence.” Arab governments simply want to shield themselves from an increasingly independent and critical media universe.

    “[Arab information ministers] have been gradually losing power to the satellite stations. For some time governments have been resigned to the fact that the rich and elite will have access to alternative information coming from satellite but the poor masses will continue to be spoon fed through the terrestrial stations. But as the prices of satellite dishes have become affordable to the poor masses, and as the satellite stations have cut deeply into the audience of national broadcasts, the alarm bells started to sound and the ministers of information increased their meetings hoping to find a regional solution to this problem. …
    “Couched between clauses that prohibit broadcasting obscenity, pornography and scenes encouraging smoking, the charter calls for ‘Abstaining from broadcasting anything that would contradict with or jeopardize Arab solidarity….’ It also calls for ‘abidance by objectivity, honesty and respect of the dignity and national sovereignty of states and their people, and not to insult their leaders or national and religious symbols.’
    “The strange notion that politicians are somehow immune from attack, that leaders are not to be insulted or that the satellite broadcasters are obliged not to jeopardize Arab solidarity is nothing short of censorship.”

It’s clear that by taking up the issue just one month after the passage of H.R. 2278, the Arab League is doing its best to defuse to the claims that NileSat and ArabSat are enabling “terrorism.” However, it’s equally clear that they were given an excuse to do what they want to do anyway — rein in stations whose independence is a thorn in their side. One indication is that along with Al Aqsa and Al Manar, Reporters Without Borders names Al Jazeera as a target of the proposed “super-police.” Al Jazeera is the most popular news channel in the Middle East, and the only one with an international reputation for journalistic excellence and independence. They have reporters around the world, even providing excellent coverage of the 2008 American presidential elections. Their investigative reporting is provocative, as are their discussions with public figures and intellectuals. They are an indispensible actor in the move toward greater freedom of expression in the Arab world.

Some in the U.S. seem to have the impression that Al Jazeera is a jihadi station that shows nothing but suicide bombings and tapes from Osama bin Laden. Nothing could be further from the truth, and it is frankly insulting. People in Morocco rely on Al Jazeera to get an independent perspective on what is happening in their own country, and I’m sure the same is true in other Arab nations. This forces the official state channels to compete in a world where they are no longer the sole source of information. This makes them uncomfortable, and forces them to get better if they want to retain credibility. Meanwhile, Al Jazeera has earned its reputation. They aren’t pushing an agenda. They simply provide balance to Western networks like CNN and the BBC by showing what the world looks like from a perspective outside the West. This can be refreshing, even for an American.

Congress did not name Al Jazeera in H.R. 2278, but the Arab League is using the resolution as an excuse to pressure the station. After all, they hold the power. If Al Jazeera were denied access to NileSat and ArabSat, it would vanish from TV screens across the Middle East. This recently happened to another station that annoyed Saudi Arabia, Al Alam of Iran. When Saudi Arabia got involved in a Yemeni civil war that its propaganda blames — falsely — on Iran, it pressured Egypt to kick Al Alam out of the NileSat lineup. Since ArabSat is controlled by Saudi Arabia, there was no problem there. The station went dark across the Arab world, upsetting my friend’s aunt who liked to watch it daily because “it tells the whole truth.” She also likes Al Manar, also for its independence. What business does Congress, none of whose members have ever watched an Arab news channel, have telling my friend’s aunt that she likes “terrorist” TV?

The Arab League is divided on the “super-police” proposal, with Egypt and Saudia Arabia as key sponsors, and Qatar and Lebanon strongly opposed. Al Jazeera is based in Qatar, where it began as a project of Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa, so Qatar is defending its own interests there. We’ve already seen that the Lebanese political leadership is ready to defend Al Manar on the grounds of national sovereignty. So it comes down to a test of wills between two nations, Qatar and Lebanon, who are pioneers of Arab media diversity, and two others, Saudia Arabia and Egypt, who represent state censorship and control. Guess which side the U.S. Congress is on? And isn’t it ironic that around the same time Hillary Clinton made a big speech defending the “freedom to connect” on the internet, Congress should be demanding that Arab states use their authority to pull independent media off the air?