Hezbollah satcaster divides Gaul

Controversy surrounds Al Manar

PARIS — French authorities are in a diplomatic pickle over Al Manar, the satellite TV station run by the Lebanese militant org Hezbollah.

The general-interest channel, one of a bouquet of Arab webs carried on Paris-based Eutelsat, has been a thorn in the side of the Conseil Superieur de l’Audiovisuel, Gaul’s broadcasting authority, for months.

Its extreme anti-Israeli stance has outraged Gallic Jewish orgs. But efforts by the CSA to get the web off the air have fallen foul of French law.

Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin recently said the channel was “incompatible with (French) values” and the government would pass laws to allow the broadcasting authority to act more swiftly.

But some officials are concerned that pulling the plug on Al Manar would upset some of France’s 5 million Muslims and threaten French TV and radio’s access to Middle-Eastern airwaves.

The European Union’s Media Commissioner Viviane Reding told France’s Culture Minister Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres in a letter that she, too, would look into Al Manar and other channels beaming into European homes via satellite.

Meanwhile the channel accused Israel of trying to engineer a French ban.

“If this is a stand off between the Israeli and Arab lobbies in France it is a lost cause,” channel director Mohammad Haidar said last week. “We are counting on the impartiality of French justice.”

Trouble reared its head in Gaul late last year when Jewish orgs urged the CSA to ban the web.

Offending shows included “The Diaspora,” aired during Ramadan in 2003, which showed a group of Jews killing a Christian toddler to use his blood to make matzo for Passover.

However France’s highest legal authority ruled the CSA could not ban the web and in November Al Manar applied for a broadcasting license and got one, along with a warning to tone down its content.

In a letter to the channel, CSA topper Dominique Baudis noted that some Al Manar programming had depicted “violence toward civilian populations in a favorable light” and warned against the channel inciting hatred among religious or national groups and “bringing trouble to the public order.”

Some scenes on the channel made “use of children to serve political propaganda, which violates article 2-4” of the license, Baudis said.

Afterwards Jewish orgs took to the streets of Paris claiming the web is anti-Semitism and collecting signatures for a petition to outlaw it.

When Al Manar kept up its anti-Israel line, the CSA said it would go back to court with fresh evidence in another bid to ban it.

The French authorities are between a rock and a hard place. On one hand, they can’t appear to be suppressing free speech, nor depriving France’s Arabs of a TV channel, albeit a little-watched one.

But Gaul’s 600,000 Jews also feel the state is not doing enough to protect them from rising anti-Semitism.

Fortunately for governments of other Western countries that also receive the web — including the U.S., where it is beamed down into homes via Intelsat — Al Manar has yet to cause a similar conflagration.

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