July 12, 2016 marked the 10-year anniversary of the beginning of the Israel-Hezbollah war. That 34-day conflict—initiated when the Lebanese-based, U.S.-designated terror group crossed the border—ambushed and kidnapped Israeli soldiers and bombarded northern Israel with rockets—sparked examinations and reviews from the Israeli government and the United Nations, among others. However, one aspect of that war deserves more attention: Hezbollah’s use and manipulation of the media.
During the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah conflict, the terror group proved adept at exploiting the press. Hezbollah’s tactics included indiscriminately launching missiles and artillery from civilian areas, purposefully using them as “human shields” for propaganda purposes. Many in the media failed to note this tactic or uncritically quoted claims of anti-Israel NGO’s that—echoing Hezbollah propaganda—charged Israel with indiscriminately targeting civilians.
Sometimes, however, the cloak fell. On July 30, 2006, the Australian newspaper the Herald Sun published images clearly showing Hezbollah members wearing civilian clothes and operating antiaircraft weaponry in a residential part of a Lebanese border town. On a July 24 broadcast, CNN host Anderson Cooper noted that Hezbollah was giving the press staged “guided tours” complete with photo opportunities of prearranged ambulances, sirens blaring, driving around in circles. CNN producer Charlie Moore called it a “well-coordinated and not-so-subtle piece of propaganda.”
Hezbollah’s attempt to influence the press are not surprising when one considers the premium that the Shiite Islamist group places on propaganda. As Hezbollah commander Sheik Nabil Qaouk told The New York Times in July 2000, “The use of the media as a weapon” has “an effect parallel to a battle.”
In recognition of this strategy, Hezbollah operates its own TV channel, Al Manar (The Beacon). Founded in 1991, Al Manar has a global reach and had an estimated 10-15 million viewers daily at the time of the 2006 war. Those tuning in could watch calls for “Death to America” interspersed with music videos, commercial advertisements and a television series that took the Tsarist-era forgery and antisemitic tract “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” as the basis for its script.
Along with other Hezbollah-linked media entities, such as Lebanese Media Group and Radio al-Nour, Al-Manar was labeled as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist Entity by the U.S. Treasury Department in 2006. In its statement announcing this move, Treasury noted that “one al Manar employee [is] engaged in preoperational surveillance of Hezbollah operations under cover of employment by al Manar.”
According to terror analyst Matthew Levitt of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a Washington D.C.-based think tank, this surveillance was “used to plan Hezbollah attacks on Israeli positions prior to the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon [in 2000], and the live footage of the actual attack was then used to produce propaganda videos” for the terror group.
In addition to operating an extensive and advanced media operation, Hezbollah uses blandishments to curry favor with news purveyors.
As New York Times reporter Neil MacFarquhar noted in his 2009 book The Media Relations Department of Hizbollah Wishes You a Happy Birthday, Hezbollah has a specific section that assiduously works to cultivate the press—even sending out birthday cards and well wishes. Similarly, journalist Michael Totten detailed in his 2011 work The Road to Fatima Gate how Hezbollah’s media relations office initially welcomed him, arranging interviews with English-speaking representatives of the organization, affecting a friendly tone and disseminating well-rehearsed talking points.
But when hospitality fails, Hezbollah resorts to intimidation. Totten reported that after he posted an online joke about the terror group he was reminded by a formerly friendly Hezbollah “press officer” that they knew where he lived. CNN producer Charlie Moore noted that he and his film crew were “being watched” by Hezbollah operatives while visiting Lebanese border towns during the 2006 conflict. Hezbollah itself came to prominence in the 1980s amid a host of terror attacks and kidnappings—some of which targeted journalists, such as Terry Anderson of the Associated Press, who was held captive for more than six years.
Since the 2006 war, Hezbollah has not shown signs of change. In 2012, journalist Rami Aysha, then-head of TIME magazine’s Lebanese bureau, reportedly was kidnapped, beaten and interrogated by Hezbollah while investigating the group’s arms trafficking to Syrian rebels. According to NOW News, a Beirut-based Lebanese news site, Hezbollah pressured a local station, MTV, to alter footage aired on Feb. 3, 2016 showing Hezbollah captives held by al-Qaeda affiliate al-Nusra Front, a rival terror group.
Ten years after the 2006 conflict, with Hezbollah continuing to amass weaponry, another war with Israel seems to be a matter of “when” not “if.” That Hezbollah will seek to manipulate the media seems equally likely. Perhaps less certain is whether brave reporters will expose the propaganda.