In an embarrassing retreat, the French broadcasting authority asked the country’s top administrative court to ban broadcasting from a pro-Hezbollah TV station less than two weeks after the authority granted the station a license.
The High Audiovisual Council, known by its French acronym, CSA, said in a statement that it has requested the court to order the Eutelsat satellite company to stop beaming the Lebanese channel Al-Manar because the TV station violated its licensing agreement, most notably by airing a program last week charging that Israel was exporting deadly diseases such as AIDS to Arab countries.
The reversal came after Jewish groups, leading politicians and the media criticized the CSA, the French government and President Jacques Chirac for granting Al-Manar a license to broadcast in Europe via Eutelsat.
“We are hoping the Conseil d’Etat [France’s top administrative court] will take its responsibilities and enforce the ban,” said Marc Knobel, a researcher with CRIF, the French Jewish umbrella organization. Knobel has been tracking the issue for several months.
The CSA petitioned the Conseil d’Etat last July, asking it to ban Al-Manar after the station broadcast an antisemitic Syrian TV series. In an elaborate agreement, the court ruled that the TV station had two months to obtain a broadcasting license, which it eventually obtained November 19. The thinking was that the regularizing of the status of Al-Manar would rein in and give standards to the station, which had been broadcasting for several years illegally.
If the court agrees with the new request, it would effectively ban Al-Manar from European airwaves, forcing the satellite provider to take Al-Manar off the air for good.
Calls seeking comments from Al-Manar in Beirut were unsuccessful.
The latest spat has rekindled Jewish accusations that the French government, despite highly touted efforts to fight antisemitism, is not taking seriously enough the issue of antisemitic incitement.
Moreover, some observers wondered how a country that decided recently to ban religious symbols in public schools could allow the broadcasting of a TV channel linked to Hezbollah, a group that has a bitter history not only with Israel, but also with France. The terrorist group carried out a deadly suicide attack against French soldiers and held French journalists hostage for years in Lebanon in the 1980s.
Even though Al-Manar agreed “not to incite hatred or violence or discrimination based on race, sex, religion or nationality” in the agreement, and the license was granted for one year instead of the usual five years, the CSA decision elicited strong protests from Jewish groups in France and in the United States.
Leaders from the opposition Socialist Party, who were roundly condemned by Jewish groups for their tepid response to the wave of antisemitic incidents until they were voted out in May 2002, blasted the conservative government over the decision and urged it to weigh on the CSA to overturn it.
CRIF President Roger Cukierman said in a statement that “the decision of the CSA to license Hezbollah’s television station Al-Manar amounts to an official authorization delivered by France to antisemitic propaganda.”
He also accused the government of succumbing to diplomatic pressure from Syria and Iran, Hezbollah’s main backers.
Knobel noted that there had been meetings between Lebanese and French diplomats in July and August to discuss the Al-Manar license and petitions from leading Muslim intellectuals and groups favoring it. In addition, Al-Manar officials said earlier this fall that grating the license could improve relations between Hezbollah and France and affect the fate of two French journalists kidnapped in Iraq two months ago.
While the CSA is technically independent, its members are political appointees and it consults with the government. Observers say the government and possibly Chirac gave at least a tacit approval to the license.
It was not clear whether the CSA’s reversal was the result of political pressure, especially since Al-Manar’s programming provided ample justification.
In a statement aired a day after it obtained the license, Al-Manar said it had “checkmated the attempts by Israel and the Zionist lobby to prevent the broadcast of this Arab station in France and Europe.” Its director general said in a subsequent interview with the daily Le Figaro that while the station would abide by the guidelines of the agreement, the channel would not alter the substance of its program.
Still, this proved untenable.
On November 23, a so-called “expert on affairs pertaining to the Zionist entity” said during a press review that over the past few years, there had been several Zionist attempts to spread deadly diseases to its Arab neighbors.
A week later, saying that such statements violated the agreement, the CSA asked the court to ban Al-Manar.