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Lebanon TV stations halt propaganda

Video packages fanned flames of violence

BEIRUT — As if on cue, TV stations in Lebanon have resumed normal programming following an intense propaganda war that consumed the airwaves during street clashes between the Hezbollah-led opposition and the Western-backed government in early May.

Local television, with its strong links to various political groups, had evolved into a parallel battlefield during the conflict — the worst internal fighting seen in Lebanon since the 1975-90 civil war. As rocket-propelled grenades reverberated throughout the city, the stations exchanged volleys of video vilification packages.

The Hezbollah-backed channel Al Manar, for example, played a series of clips that painted pro-Western politicians as serving the interest of what it dubbed a traitorous “Zionist-American conspiracy.” Set to a deep, sinister-sounding voiceover and framed by dark filters, the clips featured archived footage of Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora shaking hands with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Other Al Manar clips allegedly revealed Hebrew-marked hand grenades — presumably supplied by Israel — found among weapons stored by pro-government groups.

But Future TV, a station closely associated with the Siniora government, was unable to respond to the charges after being shut down by opposition militants during their temporary siege of West Beirut. The militants had forced the evacuation of the station’s West Beirut-based studios after threatening staff, according to Future TV head Nadim Munla. Gunmen had also set fire to a building housing the station’s archives as well as a newspaper owned by the Future group.

Four days after the shutdown, Future returned to the airwaves on May 13 by broadcasting from an alternative facility in East Beirut. It immediately launched a propaganda campaign of its own, painting the opposition as a tool of the Syrian regime.

The media war also drew broadcasters outside Lebanon into the conflict. The Dubai-based news channel, Al Arabiya, was targeted by a propaganda campaign launched by local opposition channel NBN, which is closely associated with Amal, a party allied with Hezbollah. NBN had accused Al Arabiya of falsely reporting that militants from Amal were behind the shooting of mourners at a funeral procession. Moments after the event, NBN hosted guests that labeled Saudi-owned Al Arabiya as a warmonger and tool of the Western-backed alliance. (Al Arabiya had framed the conflict as the “Hezbollah Coup” with a large graphic of shadowy opposition gunmen introducing all of its Lebanon reports). NBN responded by producing a clip in which the Arabic script logo of “Al Arabiya” (the Arab one) was manipulated to read “Al Abria” (the Hebrew one).

But the campaigns were abruptly called off when rival politicians agreed to meet in Doha to end the violence. The move seemed to cement the notion that Lebanese television, with the exception of a few nonaligned channels, is largely seen as a tightly regulated tool of political strategy.

Just as a deal was struck to calm the warring factions, the once-poisonous airwaves have also been neutralized. Future TV has returned to playing reality shows, Al Manar is running its usual diet of Syrian soap operas, and NBN is airing a series of infomercials peddling skin creams and diet pills.

Viewers know that if the truce fails, the media can be marshaled once again at a moment’s notice.

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