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French Ban on Arab TV Station Raises Questions

Times Staff Writer

The Al Manar television station, known as the voice of Hezbollah, ran into trouble here almost as soon as the French government authorized its cable broadcasts.

The U.S. and Israel regard Hezbollah as a terrorist group and Al Manar as the propaganda arm of the Lebanon-based militant organization. For years, Al Manar has come under fire for programs seen as inciting anti-Semitism and terrorism: a Syrian soap opera that accused rabbis of engaging in human sacrifices, music videos celebrating “martyred” suicide bombers, tirades by militant leaders calling America “the great Satan” juxtaposed with images such as a skull-faced Statue of Liberty dripping blood.

Soon after the French Eutelsat cable provider got official permission to begin broadcasting Al Manar in November, France’s state audiovisual council filed a complaint about its programming. Last month, a French court ordered Eutelsat to stop broadcasting the channel, ruling that “militant and anti-Semitic” content violated hate speech laws and could disturb public order.

So Al Manar is off the air -- more or less. Foreign satellite companies still broadcast it here and elsewhere in Europe. The debate continues about the comparative dangers of media-fueled hatred and state censorship.

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The Al Manar dispute reflects the growing audience and influence of Arabic media in Muslim immigrant enclaves of France. Critics assert that many Arab-oriented TV and radio stations cross the line into bias, reflecting how much anti-Jewish, anti-American ideas have become mainstream in the Arab world and among Muslims in Europe.

“Al Manar didn’t just attack Jews, it attacked Americans, secular ideas, democratic values,” said Olivia Cattan, a spokeswoman for the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions of France. “It was one of the worst media. But there are others. Radio Mediterranee has rather terrible content, especially during call-in forums.”

Radio Mediterranee’s owner denied that his Arab-oriented station espoused anti-Semitism. He blasted the government for shutting down Al Manar and alleged the move resulted from pressure by Israel, which he referred to as a “criminal entity” and “the Zionist entity.”

“It’s a decision that was dictated by the Zionist lobby in power in France, because it was Zionist pressure that finally got the scalp of Al Manar,” owner Tawfik Mathlouthi said. He also blamed “Mr. Bush’s evangelical Christians” and “Zionist lobbies” for the U.S. State Department’s recent decision to place the station on its Terrorist Exclusion List, a move that gives federal authorities power to ban the station’s employees and sponsors from entering the United States.

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Arabic-language media play a powerful part in the isolation and radicalization of Muslim communities, French intelligence officials say. Television satellite dishes are ubiquitous in the high-rise housing projects in industrial suburbs where many French Muslims live and Islamic extremism is on the rise.

“During the past five years, the growth of satellite antennas on the balconies of the neighborhoods has been extraordinary,” said a French intelligence official who monitors immigrant communities in the Paris area. “The families spend a lot of time watching the Arabic channels. Al Jazeera is watched almost constantly. Al Manar does not have as big an impact, but it is strong with an extremist audience.”

Arabic-language media bombard their audiences with one-sided accounts of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and overtly anti-Semitic fare, critics say. This incites intolerance among second- and third-generation French citizens of North African descent, because even those who are not particularly religious and speak limited Arabic identify with the Palestinian cause, intelligence officials say.

Along with Middle Eastern TV stations with a militant bent, Beirut-based Al Manar serves as a tool for recruitment by extremists, the intelligence official said.

“It reinforces the ideas of a marginal clientele who have an ideological line that glorifies Osama bin Laden and the rest,” the official said. “For those who have become fundamentalists, these stations become the only source of information. They don’t watch French channels because of the advertising, the American shows, the images of women.”

Al Manar seems ideal for forging holy warriors because of its self-declared mission of “psychological warfare against the Zionist enemy,” according to an article by Avi Jorisch, author of a book about the station titled “Beacon of Hatred.”

Al Manar, which means “The Beacon,” devotes a quarter of its air time to slick, MTV-style music videos that “by the station’s own admission ... are meant to foster suicide [attack] operations,” Jorisch wrote.

Al Manar executives called the French court order “an attack on the liberty of expression” and a dangerous precedent. Lebanese leaders threatened to retaliate, and private Lebanese cable operators suspended broadcasts of France’s state-run TV5 channel.

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In France, operators and listeners of Arab-oriented radio stations complained that European authorities and Jewish groups confuse criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism. A male caller told a French-language radio show: “They ban our television stations. They don’t let our daughters wear the veil to school. Next they won’t let us call our sons Mohammed anymore.”

The staff and audience of Radio Mediterranee think that France applied a double standard, owner Mathlouthi said..

“It’s not just the freedom of expression that’s affected that bothers them, but also that the government considers viewers to be minors, intellectually speaking,” he said. “So it’s also a racist decision because it considers that the Arabs of France are not capable of choosing which programs are good for their children and which are not.”

Noting that his station has also been cited by authorities for allegedly biased content, Mathlouthi complained that French officials don’t get similarly tough with Jewish-oriented broadcast media that express “extremist” views. He said his facilities had been hit by vandals several times. Mathlouthi is also well-known as the creator of Mecca Cola, a beverage for Muslims who want to make a political statement by shunning American products such as Coke.

Meanwhile, Reporters Without Borders, a media advocate group here, questioned the wisdom and effectiveness of closing down a media outlet no matter what its transgression.

“Admittedly, Al Manar has broadcast unacceptable anti-Semitic remarks,” the group said in a statement. “Perhaps it would have been better to take a less radical line against the channel? Less than a month after getting [official] approval, Al Manar found itself banned from a satellite. This high-speed procedure is worrying.”

The convoluted official response seems a result of France’s ambivalent policy in the Mideast and its sensitivity to public opinion among its Muslim community, the largest in Europe. The government of President Jacques Chirac has been close to Palestinian and other Arab leaders while trying to preserve its relationship with Israel.

The dispute has forced the French to grapple with “the real problem posed by Al Manar,” said the newspaper Liberation: "[The channel’s] anti-Semitism reflects a sentiment that is only too popular in the Middle East.”

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