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Lebanese television has a politically split personality

December 08, 2006|Raed el Rafei | Special to The Times

BEIRUT — On Hezbollah's Al Manar television, Lebanese are shouting in the streets for the fall of the U.S.-backed government. On government-linked Future TV, they are cheering it.

On Al Manar, Prime Minister Fouad Siniora is a puppet manipulated by the United States. On Future TV, he is a national hero standing firm against the schemes of Syria and Iran.

Since the Shiite Muslim party Hezbollah and its allies began protests to drive the government from office, Lebanese television has displayed diametrically opposed views of current events that many academics believe are aggravating tensions and even inciting violence.

"The media is contributing to the increase in the violence we are seeing," said Walid Fakherddine, who teaches media ethics at the American University of Science and Technology in Beirut. "What everybody is afraid of is that any small action could lead to bloodshed, and I think the media negatively contributes here."

Every major political group owns a TV channel in Lebanon. There are six terrestrial channels broadcasting to the country's 6 million or so residents. They are highly polarized, with the exception of the public TV station, which has a small audience and receives little funding.

"Because of their direct financial dependence on politicians, local channels are instruments of propaganda and agitation," said Dr. Nabil Dajani, media expert and professor in the social and behavioral sciences department at the American University of Beirut. "People tend to listen and believe only the channels that reflect their political affiliations."

Hezbollah's Al Manar, Arabic for "the beacon," recently dropped its regular programming for a live talk show from the heart of the opposition's sit-in.

All day, cameras turn to protesters who insult Siniora and accuse his government of stealing public funds. Analysts and politicians opposed to the government say the parties in power are illegitimate and unconstitutional. The government is serving the interests of Israel and the U.S., they say.

In one news bulletin, a Cabinet meeting held in the absence of the Shiite ministers was compared to "soap bubbles which have no color, no taste and no weight."

"Rise to liberate your country, rise for the salvation, you are the noblest people," goes a song that plays between programs.

At the other extreme, Future TV, owned by the powerful Sunni Muslim Hariri family, portrays the protesters as a marginal group that's almost exclusively Shiite. It depicts the protests as an attempt by Syria to take control of Lebanese affairs.

Instead of the sit-in, the focus is on Siniora and his ministers "resisting" in their offices, receiving daily delegations of supporters.

One spot shows the photos of pro-Syria former government ministers and legislators, followed by the words "We swear on our dead that these will not come back." Another highlights excerpts from a speech by Syrian President Bashar Assad in which he predicted "the imminent fall of the governing forces."

These sequences are interspersed with clips of Siniora discussing the legitimacy of his government, ending in fanfare with one of his well-known slogans: "Lebanon will stay, Lebanon will stay, Lebanon will stay." In black and white, the Shiite ministers are shown walking out of the Cabinet in slow motion, the popular Lebanese song "The Mask Has Fallen" playing in the background.

On Future TV, Syria is portrayed as the steering force behind instability in Lebanon. Al Manar depicts it as a major ally to Lebanon in the face of "the U.S.-Israeli project" for the region.

The clash of the screens intensified Monday when Al Manar accused "the governing power's armed militia" of shooting a young Shiite the previous night during clashes between pro- and anti-government groups in a Sunni neighborhood of Beirut.

Al Manar said "armed militiamen" loyal to the government and the Future Movement, a Sunni party, fired deliberately at 21-year-old Ahmed Mahmoud in an attempt to push the country into violence. Family members were shown wailing and cursing the alleged killers by name.

It was the first time in years that local television had described a major political party as a militia, a term Lebanese associate with the civil war that ravaged the country from 1975 to 1990.

Al Manar's report spread quickly through Lebanon, exacerbating Sunni-Shiite tensions at a time when many fear the country may return to civil war.

Future TV dismissed Al Manar as "Hezbollah's war media" and accused it of inventing stories and "attempting to create strife among the Lebanese." It blamed anti-government protesters, calling them "riot groups invading the streets of Beirut, smashing cars and shops ... to provoke the helpless people of Beirut who were staying in their homes."

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