Beirut, Asharq Al-Awsat- Al Manar television channel, known as Hezbollah’s mouthpiece, has a strong and constant presence in the homes of the party’s supporters.
The channel’s headquarters were the first target during the Israeli bombing of south Beirut at the start of the war last summer, as they were the final target before the ceasefire came into effect.
“The war broke out and ended with a blow for Al Manar,” said Mohammed Afif, the political news director of the channel.” However, the channel’s crew considers its continuous transmission despite the intense shelling to be “part of the victory.”
Al Manar television channel, which draws up the “ideological agenda” for Hezbollah’s supporters, was transformed into a secret cell during warfare.
During the war, the station’s crew operated from numerous secret broadcast centers that were undetected by Israeli surveillance technology. Batul Ayyub, a young anchorwoman for the channel and the only woman who was part of this “secret press” said, “On the way [to an incognito broadcast center] I initially felt very scared. I would feel worried for a moment but then I just got on with my work.”
And yet, the channel continues to operate and despite the repeated destruction of the channel’s headquarters, it still remained at the forefront during the war. “We have taken precautionary measures to prevent attacks on Al Manar’s image,” said Afif. The channel’s news director spoke about the prompt steps taken by the station’s management to seek alternatives following the destruction of its headquarters. He acknowledged that there had been previous preparations made months in advance due to the fact that, “the whole region was simmering and that the signs of war had clearly manifested.”
Regarding these measures, his only comment was, “This is part of the secrets of war.” He added that, “we quickly built a temporary studio that we moved into after the main headquarters were bombed. We then assembled a team that was ready to get to work.”
After the first attack on the channel’s headquarters shortly following the bombing of Beirut international airport last July 13, the station’s management decided to downsize its personnel to the point of letting go of its administrative employees, only retaining a select few of those working in the reporting and news field.
Although the building collapsed to the ground after a missile attack on July 17, there were no casualties among the channel’s personnel, said Afif. When asked how it was possible for a building to get thoroughly ravaged while the people inside remained unharmed, he said, “When al Sayyid [Hassan Nasrallah] declared it a divine victory, some were questioning if that was a reasonable claim. This alone [the lack of injuries] is a sign of divine intervention.”
Afif stated that Al Manar station was capable of resuming its transmission from secret locations throughout the duration of the military operations by using “superior misleading and camouflage methods and tactics that I cannot disclose.”
“It was a boost of confidence for the public,” he continued, “that Al Manar TV continued its broadcast despite the bombing in the southern neighborhoods in Beirut. Amidst the fierce fighting, the anchorman used to present the news with a smile. This raised the people’s morale,” he said.
During this past war, Al Manar TV played a mobilization role in which it assembled the ranks of Hezbollah supporters who were exposed to intense shelling and deportation. Additionally, the channel had mastered the tactics of psychological warfare through placing the emphasis on Israeli casualties and the Lebanese civilians who had been killed, repeatedly airing the footage and sparing no details. The conspicuous absence of images of Hezbollah’s casualties and the complete sabotage of the channel’s headquarters has prompted some in the Western media to question if the war was taking place between a visible party and an invisible other.
Still, Al Manar TV remains a main source of news for other media outlets. The crux of its role depends on the frequent speeches delivered by Hezbollah’s Secretary-General, Hassan Nasrallah, who is the party’s official spokesman and who is the one to enumerate its achievements, comment on its military operations, rally the public and refute the arguments of his critics. Frequently, television stations interrupt their broadcast to air Nasrallah’s speeches live on Al Manar TV.
“The coordination between myself and al Sayyid [Hassan Nasrallah] was related to the timing of the broadcast of the videotape. Most of the time it was broadcast immediately [upon recipient], even if it was at a late hour. At this point, no time was deemed to be late as we had constant viewers both day and night, amidst the relentless shelling,” said Afif.
“During the first phase, I used to inform journalists that we were going to air al Sayyid’s speech, but towards the end we used to just put an ‘breaking news’ logo onscreen,” he explained. Afif believes that the station’s peak viewing hours, “has granted us huge media power,” he said.
He added that there was no special technique entailed in airing the secretary-general’s speeches, however he pointed out that, “the danger was that the broadcast of these speeches coincided with the attacks on Al Manar’s main building, which was razed to the ground several times.”
Quoting Israeli media sources is almost a tradition at Al Manar; the channel’s eight newscasts throughout the day often include Israeli broadcasts. In the daily coverage of last summer’s war, the channel habitually used to broadcast live coverage taken from Israeli channels on the statements issued by Hezbollah leadership that were in conformity with the party’s maneuvers and the movements of the fighters.
According to Afif: “Other media outlets were more capable of broader field coverage, as we were subjected to attacks, in addition to facing a huge logistical problem. However, we were the source of the accurate news and the international news agencies quoted us,” furthermore pointing out that they had “minute-by-minute coordination with the resistance leaders.”
He added that, “Al Manar’s credibility was never shaken during the war. Everything we have covered regarding the destruction of tanks, missile launches and the course of the battle was 100 percent true. It was actually less than what had taken place on the ground.”
“I cannot present evidence for that [claim] but the Israelis have admitted it and confirmed our information,” continued Afif. Furthermore, he does not deny the mobilization role undertaken by Al Manar, “through the images, clips, ‘rallying’ songs, Quranic recitation, prayers and the broadcast of Nasrallah’s speeches, in addition to the mobilization undertaken by preachers in mosques, all which lacked prejudice towards the events, news and their credibility.”
Al Manar channel’s director boasted that in the duration of the war, the channel was the only one to have a correspondent posted at the border area, which witnessed the advance of the Israeli army and confrontations with Hezbollah fighters. Afif described Ali Shuaib, the channel’s correspondent, as “courageous” and negated that he had received any military training or that he had been in contact with [Hezbollah] fighters. “He is simply a correspondent and does not perform any other tasks,” he affirmed.
Regarding station correspondents he said, “They do not receive special training for military operations, but they have descended from a generation that was part of the resistance operation in the south [of Lebanon]. Some of them have reported in Iraq and Afghanistan and are experienced in war coverage.” He added that these reporters “belong to the region and are saturated with the culture and environment in which they work. This gives them precedence over others.”
Discussing the dualism experienced by Al Manar’s crew at the time of the war: “We were required to operate as a television station responsible for relating news to the rest of the world, while taking precautionary measures to ensure that the buildings were concealed, in addition to the protection of our correspondents and the transmission of our footage. The war proved our success.”
He continued, “We were aware of the magnitude of the risks threatening us and what it meant that our station buildings were under attack but we also knew what the silencing of Al Manar would mean.”
But the transformation of Al Manar from a media channel accessible to the public into a secret network that operated from hidden studios was additionally accompanied by a transformation on the level of the crew, despite the limited numbers that resumed their work under these circumstances. These reporters resembled activists in jihadi organizations, as some leading figures among the field have recounted.
Marwan Abdul Sattar, director of operations of the channel’s transmission said, “It was a unique human experiment. We were in an incredibly brutal environment. Most of us are married with children, but we still felt that we had contributed to a part of the victory, since the absence of Al Manar would have meant a decline in the public morale (especially those in the areas under heavy attacks).”
He added that during the war, the station set up three locations for live transmission, which he upholds was the most difficult task. “Our correspondents did not appear in these live broadcasts in accordance with the importance of the news, but rather in accordance with the security situation.” Abdul Sattar stressed that the correspondents were not in contact with fighters when reporting on their movements.
Bilal Dib, the head of Al Manar’s satellite broadcast who was also part of the war crew said, “I feel affiliated to this institution and I am wholeheartedly devoted to it during critical times. There is no need to call in employees because they come in on their accord.” He elaborated that, “it has a family atmosphere since there are no leaders and subordinates. Sometimes I head down to the station when I am on holiday.”
Dib, who is a young media graduate said that “risk was not an element of concern for us,” after admitting that they were exposed to numerous dangerous situations when being transported from one secret location to another.
Abdul Sattar refuted that they had received any training, however said that, “if, for example, the unlikely event of an Israeli air attack were to target one of our broadcast locations, we would know how to defend ourselves.”
Regarding the channel’s elaborate operation mechanism, Dib said, “Even we did not know our location; none of us possesses full information on this matter.”
“On my wedding anniversary, I left the location to have breakfast with my wife. Upon returning everyone asked me where I had been, and when I explained they said, ‘how could you consider your anniversary under such circumstances?’”
“We were calm [during these times],” he concluded. He added that they were continuously in touch with their families but admitted that it was “no easy feat.”
Batul Ayyub, the only female on the team and Al Manar’s anchorwoman and moderator, recounted that she used to conceal herself by wearing a traditional gulf cloak. Her husband was the one to transport her to the agreed upon destinations. “I used to hear the sound of missiles launching while I was presenting the news bulletins. I had to keep smiling onscreen; I used to smile on the outside while feeling petrified on the inside.”
She revealed that she used to bid her family goodbye everyday before departing, as it may have been the last time she would see them, adding that they had been an incredible source of morale support. “My mother used to ask me where I was and I would say that I was in a safe place. My daughter would tell me how proud of me she was and would ask me to pass on her regards to al Sayyid [Hassan Nasrallah] every day before I left,” she recounted.
“The female element was necessary to soften the circumstances; viewers could see an anchorwoman announcing the victory of the resistance with a smile in her face,” she said. She added that working under such circumstances broke the traditional barriers, “I felt as though I was with family and my colleagues treated me like a sister. I got used to seeing my colleagues and my boss in their sleep clothes; it was as though we were at home,” she said.
However, Al Manar was not simply occupied with reporting on the news and airing speeches, during the war the channel hosted approximately 120 guests. Ziyad Jaafar was the entitled with the coordination with guests and transporting them to the desired location. “We would meet the guest somewhere and transport him/her in an enclosed car so that they would not know our destination. We would usually use side streets and alleyways and follow misleading routes to ensure that our destinations remained secret,” he said.
Likewise, Hezbollah resort to the same tactics when transporting journalists to interview figures from the party’s leadership. Reporters are taken to an underground garage then transported using a small enclosed van to the meeting place. Upon arrival, they also enter through an underground garage, making it impossible to identify the place.
“One of the guests was frightened to death on his way to the studio. It was at night and we were surrounded by darkness. I held his hand to find it was icy. I asked him, ‘Are you alright, sir?’ to which he replied, ‘of course, of course,’” Jaafar revealed.
Launched in 1991 with limited broadcast hours, Al Manar TV gradually increased its air time, and in 2002 added satellite broadcast to its standard transmission. And yet the channel was not among the five television channels to be granted official licensing by the Lebanese government under the audio-visual media law issued in 1996. In July 1997, Al Manar was granted the license by virtue of being a ‘resistance channel’, along with three other channels that were saved from being closed down.
Al Manar TV presents itself online as a channel, “that adopts an open unifying discourse,” in addition to “adopting an objective policy that aims at building a better future for the Arab and Muslim generations by emphasizing the tolerance values inherent in Islam and the propagation of the necessity of dialogue.”
In 2004, the channel was banned both in the US and France in 2004, the former listing it as a terrorist organization [State Department’s Terrorist Exclusion List (TEL)], while the latter accused it of inciting anti-Semitism sentiments and hatred. Al Manar TV station regarded this decision to ban it as politically motivated and illegal. Furthermore, the station was banned in Spain and the reception of its transmission faced obstacles in Canada, Australia, South America, and the Netherlands.
In the post-war political crisis, the channel, which constitutes the mouthpiece for the resistance, transformed into becoming a platform for the opposition after having become the chief propagandist against Fouad Siniora’s government and the parties loyal to it.
Regarding the channel’s transformation into a platform for the opposition, Afif said, “[it’s transformation into a] platform has inflicted damage [on Al Manar] but it has not harmed its credibility. We are keen on reporting accurate news. For example, we criticize Saad Hariri [the head of the Future parliamentary bloc] and issue critical statements against him but we never distort any news related to him.”
The events taking place in Lebanon today are “very regretful,” according to Afif who also added that, “the media outlets did not create the political crisis, but rather reflected it to a large extent. We dealt with the matter from a national unity that is sacred [to us] and [we view] sectarianism as a red line. We did our best to avoid getting embroiled in the political conflict.”
“Al Manar’s position does not lie in the country’s political division, although it praises itself on being an oppositional channel. It is true that we always present accurate news, however the channel has provoked a segment of viewers who have, unfortunately, stopped watching it.”