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The New Zeus on the Block

Unplugging Al-Manar TV

by GREG MOSES

They are not even a dozen strong, but the Islamic activists (mostly Shiah women) who posted recent statements at Houston IndyMedia say they are backed by principles found in the First Amendment to the Constitution of the USA, Article 19 of United Nations Declarations of Human Rights, and Islamic principles, "which call for the pursuit of knowledge throughout one’s life and the dissemination of knowledge."

At the time that Houston activists posted their first statement Friday morning, the State Department had not yet announced its decision to place Hezbollah-backed television station Al-Manar on the terrorist watch list. But within hours, the decision had been announced and the Intelsat satellite company had stopped relaying the station’s signal to USA audiences. The year-old group known as Texas Muslims for Islamic Change (TXM4C) said on Friday that it was "dismayed at this development and considers it to be part of the American government’s assault on Constitutional rights." On Sunday the group countered claims by the State Department that Al-Manar incited terrorist violence.

"On the other hand, TXM4C a sees this as yet another step in America’s progression away from democratic values. To date, it has not seen properly documented evidence brought forward that would support the State Department’s claims that Al Manar ‘preaches violence and hatred’ or ‘serves to incite … terrorist violence’. Rather, this Houston-based group of Muslim thinkers and activists feels that the loss of access to Al-Manar will remove from the American people a valuable source of information about the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East, governmental policies of countries around the world, and especially Islam."
Meanwhile, a Washington-based civil rights group on Friday pointed to a Cornell University study showing that 44 percent of Americans believe that the government of the USA should curtail the civil liberties of Muslims. The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) called on public officials to address rising levels of Islamophobia.

A State Department spokesperson on Friday claimed that action against Al-Manar was justified because "terrorist activity" by Hezbollah was linked to "incitement" by Al-Manar television. "The designation is to put Al-Manar Television on the terrorist exclusion list because of its incitement of terrorist activity. Our law says that the organization can be put on the list if it commits or incites to commit any terrorist activity, and that is what we’ve found them," said Richard Boucher.

The terrorist exclusion list (TEL), authorized by Section 411 of the USA PATRIOT Act of 2001, authorizes the exclusion and deportation of aliens who support terrorist organizations. According to the State Department’s website, TEL also deters donation or contributions to named organizations, heightens public awareness and knowledge of terrorist organizations, alerts other governments to U.S. concerns about organizations engaged in terrorist activities, and stigmatizes and isolates designated terrorist organizations. Journalists at the State Department briefing on Friday were curious about the effects that such principles might have on Americans at home.

"What about any Americans in this country that provide programming or things like that? Are — ," begins a follow-up question. The spokesperson interrupted, insisting that, for the time being, we should remain focused on foreigners, not legal principles. It would have been interesting to hear the complete question in order to determine if the reporter was asking about Americans who provide pro-Arab programming such as provided by Al-Manar or anti-Arab programming such as provided by Fox, Viacom, or MSNBC.

"I don’t know what the legal implications might be," said the spokesperson who had earlier begged journalists to bear with him while he looked up the exact State Department language concerning the Al-Manar decision: "Let me look it up because it is a legal matter and I want to get it right."
"I think this list, in particular, only has to do with the exclusion of aliens from the United States," said the spokesperon. "So whether there are other designations that might imply something for Americans, I don’t know. I’m not aware of any restrictions at this point on finance or things like that."
As news reports have pointed out, "the US Treasury could further decide to include Al-Manar on its terrorism blacklist, freezing its assets and making any financial dealings with the channel illegal."

What about Americans who help to distribute Al-Manar in the USA?

"I’ve given you the criteria," said the spokesperson. "We will be examining people and activities to see whether they fall within that criteria."

Does the move by the State Department reflect undue influence by Israeli lobbyists? The spokesperson denied the allegation by spinning Hezbollah’s terror as an interference in Palestinian affairs. Palestinians, said the spokesperson, were trying to win peace by peaceful means.
"It’s not a question of freedom of speech. It’s a question of incitement to violence, and we don’t see why, here or anywhere else, a terrorist organization should be allowed to spread its hatred and incitement through the television airwaves."

International legal scholar Francis Boyle says Arab advocates should sue Fox News for "inciting terroism." Via email, Boyle says he just gave an interview to that effect while visiting Dubai.

In Beirut, meanwhile, Al-Jazeera reports that 50 cable operators have cut signals from French TV5 in retaliation for France’s decision last week to suspend Al-Manar’s signal.

"Al-Manar was dropped from French-based Eutelsat’s broadcasts on Tuesday after a Paris court found it guilty of being anti-Jewish," a reports Al-Jazeera. "On Friday, French-owned satellite carrier GlobeCast removed al-Manar from US airwaves after the state department announced it had added the channel to its list of suspected terrorist organisations that face sanctions."

An analysis of the French initiative by New York Sun staff writer Eli Lake gives credit to former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky for leading the campaign against Al-Manar. In America, too, says the report, Sharansky showed videotapes of Al-Manar clips to members of Congress.

Meanwhile, one of the satellite companies, Intelsat, that quickly pulled the plug on Al-Manar’s signal, is undergoing a stormy year of privatization. An "Initial Public Offering has been delayed several times. In October, the company announced that it would sell itself to a coalition of venture capitalists operating out of Bermuda under the name "Zeus".

According to a release posted at Intelsat’s website, Zeus is a mosaic of other captial venture firms such as Apax Partners Worldwide, LLP and Apax Partners, Inc., Apollo Management V, L.P., MDP Global Investors Limited and Permira Advisers LLC. Directors from Apax and Permira (Richard Wilson and Graham Wrigley) joined the board at satellite company Inmarsat in December 2003. According to FCC documents, one Inmarsat rival accuses the company of engaging in anticompetitive practices. Inmarsat unfairly uses "proprietary protocols and technology" says rival MSV (Mobile Satellite Ventures–owners of MSAT satellites 1 & 2).

At the Apollo group, one of the founding principals, Marc J. Rowan, has been known to exhibit an appetite for XM Satellite Radio stock.
As these satellite giants are targets for capital ventures seeking communication dominance, the unplugging of Al-Manar by Intelsat raises questions about rights to free speech in a privatized communication infrastructure.

An August report by the European Institute for the Media reports on page 211 that, "In order for the media to carry out its function as the fourth estate, and in order for the citizen to be fully informed regarding the democratic process, a ëfreedom of information’ system is also required in a democratic system."

"The ‘war on terrorism’, the fight against crime and the fight against right wing extremism can pose problems for the practice of investigative journalism," says the report. Under the cover of anti-terrorism, the state is exercising new forms of surveillance and control over journalists (p. 214).
As a handful of conservative, Texas, Islamic activists suggest, the listing of Al-Manar by the State Department and the rapid disconnection by satellite giant Intelsat indeed poses deep questions about the structure of information freedom at the advent of a second Bush administration.

GREG MOSES is editor of the Texas Civil Rights Review and author of Revolution of Conscience: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Philosophy of Nonviolence. His chapter on civil rights under Clinton and Bush appears in Dime’s Worth of Difference, edited by Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair. He can be reached at: gmosesx@prodigy.net

NOTES:

(1) A concise version of this story is posted at a http://www.alternet.org/rights/20796/"Alternet.

(2) Also see statement by a Reporters Without Borders.