WASHINGTON (Dec. 16)
A U.S. decision to place Hezbollah’s TV station on a terrorism watch list could stop broadcasts of the station in the United States — but it raises questions about free speech and the murky laws governing satellite and cable broadcasting. The State Department will place Al-Manar on its Terrorist Exclusion list by the end of the week, JTA has learned. It would be the first such designation of a journalistic outlet; others now on the list include terrorist groups and banks, charities and even bakeries with ties to terrorist groups.
The decision was influenced by France’s ban this week of the channel, which routinely raises money for its terrorist affiliate and broadcasts incitement and anti-Semitism.
“This is a first and important step,” said David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, which has taken the lead for over a year in urging a U.S. ban of Al-Manar.
Hezbollah already is on the State Department Foreign Terrorist Organization list, which is much more restrictive: That list threatens criminal liability for groups that provide material support for banned organizations, and refers U.S. financial holdings to the Treasury Department’s powerful Office of Foreign Assets Control.
The Terrorist Exclusion list, relating mostly to immigration status, carries weaker sanctions. It bans aliens working for Al-Manar from entering U.S. territory and subjects those already in the United States to deportation proceedings.
Under the exclusion list, it’s not clear whether the Al-Manar bureau in Washington would face sanctions if all its staffers are U.S. citizens
A book on Al-Manar published recently by The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, “Beacon of Hatred,” says the station is housed in The Associated Press’ Washington bureau building, and identified the station’s correspondent as Muhammad Dalbah.
Someone answering the phone at the Arabic TV section of the A.P. denied that, and there is no Washington telephone listing for Al-Manar.
A journalist working for another Arab television outlet and familiar with Al-Manar’s operations confirmed that Dalbah was the Al-Manar correspondent, but said he filed most reports over the phone and without pictures. Dalbah very occasionally would use The Associated Press feed for an interview, but it was not his office, the other journalist said.
The journalist said Dalbah freelanced for Al-Manar and several other outlets and is a U.S. citizen, which probably would protect him from sanctions. Dalbah did not return requests for interviews left on his cellular phone’s voicemail.
Harris said the AJCommittee would seek further sanctions, including Treasury Department oversight and the freezing of the station’s U.S. assets. Additionally, Harris said, the AJCommittee has heard from congressmen who are eager to pass laws restricting Al-Manar.
Intelsat, the Bermuda-based satellite operator that sells capacity to GlobeCast, the company that carries Al-Manar in the United States, would abide by any such laws, said a Washington-based spokesman, Fritz Stolzenbach.
“It goes without saying that if the U.S. federal authorities enact regulations or legislation that requires us to undertake an action along those lines, we’re a company that follows the law,” he said.
Stolzenbach emphasized that Intelsat was several steps removed from Al-Manar; linking his employer to Hezbollah is like linking a company that “lays fiber in the ground” to an offensive Web site, he said.
A spokesman for GlobeCast, a subsidiary of France Telecom, was unavailable.
Efforts overseas to remove the channel have been successful. An Australian satellite provider removed Al-Manar a year ago. In France, the station’s persistence in broadcasting anti-Semitic libels despite explicit promises to stop doing so led French authorities this week to order EutelSat — Intelsat’s European equivalent — to remove the station.
Attempts to ban incitement to hatred in the United States have foundered, however, against the broad free speech protections of the First Amendment.
The AJCommittee’s Harris said he anticipated free speech defenses against any ban of Al-Manar, but he also was certain that his organization’s decades of work defending freedom of speech would help undercut such arguments.
“Our free-speech efforts are quite impeccable. We are very comfortable with what we are doing,” he said. “Does the First Amendment protect national suicide? Do we become ‘useful idiots’ in our destruction?”
Another murky area is the government’s tendency to avoid regulating cable and satellite content.
“One of the things that is not regulated is which channels a cable provider carries,” said Monroe Price, a communications law expert at Yeshiva University’s Cardozo School of Law currently on leave at the University of Pennsylvania.
The Federal Communications Commission, which this year ordered conventional broadcasters carrying Howard Stern to pay record fines, declined Wednesday to even consider fining satellite stations that broadcast the shock jock, saying simply that it does not deal with subscription services such as cable or satellite.
Even Al-Manar’s direct appeals for funds for Hezbollah — complete with bank account information — might not be subject to regulation in the United States.
“I don’t know whether there’s any policing of cable channels for objectives for which money is raised,” Price said. Cable and satellite providers tend to abjure themselves of any responsibility for content, he said, noting the proliferation of home shopping and evangelical fund raising across cable and satellite.
Whatever the immediate consequences of the ban, the mere listing of the station could have an inhibiting effect on broadcast of the channel — if only because it implies formal U.S. recognition of the relationship between Al-Manar and Hezbollah.
“It is a commercial entity owned by a designated terrorist organization,” said Matthew Levitt, a former FBI analyst now with the Washington Institute.
Avi Jorisch, who wrote “Beacon of Hatred” and who now is an analyst with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, said the station’s clear incitement makes it vulnerable to sanction. His study — accompanied by a CD-Rom packed with clips — uncovers calls for suicide attacks against Israelis and against Americans in Iraq.
“The incitement to violence that takes place at Al-Manar crosses all red lines,” he said.
Jorisch’s book, which was sent in bulk to State Department officials in recent weeks, recommends a long list of far-reaching sanctions, including U.S. pressure on other countries to remove Al-Manar and to bar its correspondents from reporting. He even calls for the criminal prosecution of Dalbah, the Washington freelancer.
That might be far-fetched, but there are precedents showing that even the threat of sanctions can be effective.
EutelSat, for instance, removed Serbian TV broadcasts during the Yugoslavian wars of the last decade, pre-empting European lawmakers who were calling for an end to the broadcast of Serbian incitement.
Harris said the Al-Manar listing was just the tip of the iceberg.
“The whole issue of how terrorists use satellite technology and cyberspace merits much greater attention,” he said. “The national laws are ambiguous.”