Al-Manar undergoing changes

Hezbollah's TV channel covers prisoner deal

BEIRUT — As Hezbollah claims victory over Israel in the latest prisoner exchange, the group’s television channel, Al Manar, is undergoing a renaissance of its own.

With a new studio and revamped graphics displays, the Lebanon-based broadcaster showcased wall-to-wall coverage of the July 16 deal, hailing it as a major achievement.

Drawing on its increasingly sophisticated resources across the country, Al Manar provided hours of real time reporting as Israel released five Lebanese prisoners as part of the agreement and then trucked over the remains of 197 guerrillas in exchange for the two Israeli bodies.

It was Al Manar’s first major live production since its five story headquarters was demolished by Israeli air strikes in the summer 2006 war. Although the station continued broadcasting immediately after the attacks from a remote location, it has since made broad use of green screen virtual sets with a temporary feel.

The new studio, seen extensively during the exchange coverage, features a sleek glass anchor’s desk and several large flat-screen displays. Throughout the handover, correspondents reported from multiple locations in South Lebanon and Beirut, often appearing on a live splitscreen grid. At the same time, a series of moving crane cameras swooped over red carpet welcome ceremonies emphasizing cheering crowds both in the capital and near the border.

As part of the well-orchestrated media spectacle, Hezbollah outfitted the five prisoners in military uniforms soon after they had crossed into Lebanese territory. The men were then flown to the capital by helicopter and greeted on the airport tarmac by a long line of dignitaries. As evening fell, the former prisoners were escorted to a third ceremony held at a football pitch in the Hezbollah stronghold of southern Beirut.  There, Hezbollah leader Sayed Hassan Nassrallah made a surprise public appearance to congratulate them. As pop-star like hysteria swept over the ocean of supporters, Al Manar’s mobile and roof-mounted cameras caught the action from every angle.

Critics within Israel have condemned the prisoner deal saying that it has only strengthened Hezbollah’s image. One freed inmate, Samir Kantar, was convicted of killing three Israelis including a 4-year-old child. Still dressed in fatigues, he spoke during an exclusive interview with Al Manar later that night, claiming the charges against him had been fabricated.

Al Manar has continued to promote the exchange throughout the week, dubbing it “Operation Radwan,” in series of promotional clips that air continuously during commercial breaks. “Radwan” is a reference to slain Hezbollah commander Imad Mughniyah’s nom de guerre. Hezbollah has vowed revenge after his assassination, which it blames on Israel, earlier this year.

Al Manar has also devoted substantial time to the series of funerals held for the 197 guerrillas whose remains were returned as part of the exchange. With many of the deceased Syrian or Palestinian nationals, more than 100 coffins were paraded through the streets of Damascus on flat-bed trailer trucks. Symbolic ceremonies were also held in Gaza.

Labeled a terrorist entity by the United States, Al Manar, which broadcasts over satellite, is barred from carriage in the U.S. and in several European countries. But the 24-hour station remains a popular news outlet across the Arab world. Its reporters are stationed throughout the Middle East, including hotspots such as Baghdad and Gaza. Unlike other Lebanese channels where local politics is an obsession, Al Manar’s newscasts often prioritize regional stories, such as Iran and the Palestinians. Its talkshows, documentaries and other programs are announced in multiple time zones with “Occupied Jerusalem Time” as a reference.

Despite the programming bans, Al Manar appears to be in good financial health with little trouble attracting advertisers. Its commercial breaks are crammed with short spots pitching budget shops that appeal to low-income communities often ignored by other Lebanese channels. Lengthy infomercials peddling diet creams and health supplements are also ubiquitous.

With an eye toward posterity, Al Manar has also begun to produce retrospective pieces on its history as Hezbollah’s mouthpiece. A recent in-house promotion offers a special DVD compilation of the station’s harrowing coverage during the 2006 war. Also on sale is the music of Hezbollah’s orchestra.