The coordinated media campaign against Hanin Ghaddar was crude and malicious. The objective was to intimidate her into silence, and barring that to raise the specter of violence against her because she dared to criticize Hezbollah’s disastrous military intervention in Syria, and had the temerity to call out Iran’s malevolent role in Syria and Lebanon, during a conference in Washington last week. Ghaddar, the managing editor of NOW English, a successful website based in Beirut, is an accomplished journalist known for her sharp and courageous criticism of Hezbollah, Syria and Iran, the so-called Axis of rejection and resistance.
Like the hyenas on the Serengeti Plain in Africa which hunt in packs by circling their victim from different directions then attack relentlessly, the Hezbollah media mouthpieces, who were on the prowl for Ghaddar for some time, launched their attack before her return to Beirut hoping to score a quick kill. The intimidation was intense to the point that some distant members of her family allegedly issued a statement ‘disowning’ Hanin, a shameful tactic that has been used in the past by Hezbollah against its Shiite critics by terrorizing their families and distant relatives, to shun, ostracize and isolate the offender.
Thought control and mythmaking
The attack on Hanin Ghaddar, was waged by members of the thuggish journalist militia that serves Hezbollah and its masters in Iran as the premier thought control and mythmaking instrument in Lebanon. These journalists, along with an assortment of intellectuals and political hacks have managed to exploit Hezbollah’s battlefield tactical successes against the Israeli army (before and after its withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000) to weave a complex web of myths around Hezbollah’s supposed invincibility, and deterrence. They created a new parlance designed to make Hezbollah untouchable and above criticism, elevating it into a status equal, if not more important than the Lebanese state. Hezbollah has become, in the collective memory of many Lebanese at one time, synonymous with “resistance”. Hezbollah needed this new mythical status to justify maintaining its arsenal and its military structure after the withdrawal of Israel from Southern Lebanon. The mythmaking included deceptive assurances from Hezbollah and its legions of propagandists that it will never turn its guns on fellow Lebanese, and that its mighty sword will be sharpened exclusively for use against the Israelis. In this manufactured political environment, criticizing the “resistance’ is tantamount to treason.
The people, the army and the resistance
Hezbollah’s mythmaking and thought control was so successful in the past to the point that they controlled and influenced almost the whole political class in the country. Even after they turned their guns on fellow Lebanese in 2008, briefly occupying West Beirut and unleashing their thugs to burn their rival’s television station and newspaper and laying siege to the Prime Minister’s office, they managed to forced their opponents to recognize their status as a non-state actor equal to the Lebanese state. They cowed their weak and fractured opponents in the March 14 movement to include in each ministerial document after the formation of a new cabinet a reference to the so-called “tripartite formula of the people, army and the resistance”. In 2008 Hezbollah brought the whole political class in Lebanon to the airport to give a hero’s welcome to a Lebanese prisoner released by Israel after many years of incarceration following his conviction of shooting in cold blood a 28 year old Israeli civilian and smashing the head of his 4 year old daughter with the butt of his rifle.
The baseless case against Hanin Ghaddar
On May 12, Al-Akhbar newspaper, an influential daily that supports the tripartite alliance of Hezbollah, Syria and Iran published an unsigned editorial titled “ A Lebanese journalist competes with (Ehud) Barak” the former Israeli Prime Minister. Ghaddar was invited by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy to participate in a panel discussion of “Syria and Its Repercussions” along with Monzer Akbik representing the Syrian Opposition Coalition, and moderated by the Institute’s Syria expert Andrew Tabler. Al-Akhbar, and the other Hezbollah mouthpieces, created the erroneous impression that Ghaddar was on the same panel with Ehud Barak, who was one of many speakers invited to the Institute’s annual conference. After criticizing the Institute’s well known support for Israel, the editorial claimed that Ghaddar instead of discussing the war in Syria she focused on what the audience wanted to hear, that is Iran’s plan for “regional dominance” and the role of Hezbollah “Iran’s regional militia” and how Hezbollah’s role in Syria is stoking the Sunni-Shiite war. The editorial was indignant that Ghaddar referred to Hezbollah’s “resistance brigades” a reference to their enforcers in Lebanon as “thugs”.
Rarely a week passes by without a journalist, or a blogger or a commentator is harassed, jailed unfairly, beaten or assassinatedHisham Melhem
On the same day, Hezbollah’s television Al-Manar joined the fray, perpetuating the lie that Ghaddar spoke in the presence of Ehud Barak ( a violation of Lebanese Law) and accused her of “going beyond “ Barak in attacking “the resistance” and the Lebanese army. The television station interviewed someone representing something called “the campaign to boycott Israel’s supporters” who accused Ghaddar of committing “serious” violations of Lebanese laws, such as inciting against Lebanese institutions, primarily the army and calling on the authorities to interrogate her. Other media, including the Free Patriotic Movement’s Tayyar.org followed suit.
Context and pretext
The attack on Hanin Ghaddar comes in the context of a renewed campaign by Hezbollah’s media machine against the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, STL investigating the Assassination of former PM Rafik Hariri and others, which accused Al-Akhbar's editor-in-chief Ibrahim Al-Amin of contempt for his refusal to appear at a hearing at The Hague. Al-Akhbar and Al-Jadeed TV, another supporter of the Axis of Resistance were charged with “knowingly and willfully interfering with the administration of justice by broadcasting and/or publishing information on purported confidential witnesses”. The publication of a confidential list of witnesses was seen as an egregious violation of the law covering the working of the STL, and an outright intimidation of the witnesses, if not an incitement to commit violence against them.
Hezbollah’s media machine succeeded in framing the controversy over the SPL charges, as an assault by the SPL against “Lebanon, and against freedoms in Lebanon” according to Al-Amin who claims that SPL is an “enemy” of Lebanon and is devoid of any moral legitimacy. On Al-Manar television, broadcasters and commentators accuse the SPL of committing terror against Lebanon, and its traditions of free expression. Mr. Al-Amin who defended Hezbollah’s attacks in 2008 against the media outlets of its political opponents, is claiming now that he is hounded by the SPL because he is a fighter in the cause of press freedom. In recent weeks, many Lebanese journalists held sit-ins and solidarity meetings at the Press Syndicate headquarters in Beirut to show support for Al-Amin, and the other broadcasters at Al-Jadeed TV. Few voices dared to expose this collective hypocrisy and denial on the part of journalists in Lebanon, a country that once had the most diverse, thriving and freewheeling media in the Middle East. What was scandalous about this shameful display of cowardice and deceit is the fact that while the SPL is tasked primarily with prosecuting those responsible for the assassination of PM Hariri and 21 others, its mandate also covers “connected cases”, a reference to a series of assassinations that followed the killing of PM Hariri, including prominent Journalists such as Samir Qasir and Gebran Tueni of Annahar newspaper, who were known for their courageous criticism of Syria’s domination of Lebanon and Hezbollah’s complicity in Syria’s crimes in Lebanon. Mr. Al-Amin, the fake defender of press freedom in Lebanon has no compunction whatsoever in demonizing the critics of Hezbollah and inciting against them. In one of his television appearances he intoned that anyone who calls for disarming “the resistance” is an “Israeli agent” and such Lebanese should “prove to us” repeatedly that they are “good Lebanese”. This is the man that many Lebanese journalists are defending.
Before Ghaddar’s return to Beirut, many Lebanese took to social media to defend her right to express herself freely, and a campaign was launched in solidarity with her. The organization Media Against Violence, condemned as “cheap and malicious” the thuggish Hezbollah media smear campaign against Ghaddar. The NGO correctly charged that the campaign against Ghaddar “legitimizes the shedding of her blood by accusing her of participating in a conference in Washington [along with] former Israeli PM Ehud Barak”. The statement added “ Ghaddar was the mouthpiece of every Lebanese who adheres to their sovereignty, independence and free choice, whereas the real traitors are those who are trying to put an end to the STL with iron and fire through their cheap fabrications, and through keeping Lebanon under the yoke of the Iranian guardianship”.
Ghaddar, published on her website a poignant rebuttal of the core campaign against her, demonstrating first that she did not violate Lebanese laws, and telling her detractors “my patriotism is not defined according to the political allegiance of the aforementioned media outlets, which need to have their patriotism tested due to the threats and accusation of treason in some of their writings against me and other colleagues”. Finally, Ghaddar reminded her critics that everything she said in Washington she has written and published in Beirut. Unfortunately, very few voices were raised to defend Ghaddar’s rights in the mainstream media in Lebanon, and so far the very well-known columnists are not defending her, and defending themselves since they too could potentially be victimized by the same thuggish journalist militia.
Once upon a time
The relative silence of the media in Lebanon in this case, is a reflection of Lebanon’s diminishing traditions of free media and unhindered intellectual debates. There was a time when an attempt to ban a book would spark a storm among intellectuals and journalists. In 1969, the gifted progressive Syrian intellectual Sadiq Jalal Al-Azm published a collection of essays on religion titled “Naqd al-Fikr al-Dini”, Critique of Religious Thought, in which he exposed how Arab governments and the intellectuals and religious institutions that support them exploit the religious beliefs of their people to cover-up for their abject failure in governance.
He was charged with sedition and was imprisoned briefly. His trial in Beirut became a cause célèbre, and he received a wide support from other intellectuals, journalists and civil society in general. I met Sadiq, during his trial, when a group of us (mostly late teens and early twenties) made a point of going to court to show our solidarity with him. The charges were dropped later and the book, which created an impressive debate, became a best seller. Years later, following the infamous Fatwa against Salman Rushdi, Al-Azm published another collection of essays on the controversy, but this time book stores in Beirut would not display the book in the open, and a limited number of copies were sold clandestinely. As Bob Dylan would say “The Times They Are a-Changin.”
They shoot journalists, don’t they?
Journalists like Al-Amin do exist and serve obediently the powers that be in most Arab states. But there are many reporters, editors and columnists, who practice the craft honorably and professionally, and in most cases do so against tremendous challenges and threats of physical elimination.
Rarely a week passes by without a journalist, or a blogger or a commentator is harassed, jailed unfairly, beaten or assassinated. And when it comes to journalists, sometimes the opposition groups, particularly the armed ones, have proven to be as lethal as the structures of repression at the disposal of Arab governments. According to The Committee to Protect Journalists’ report on journalists killed in 2013, the three deadliest countries are Arab states: Syria: 28, Iraq: 10, Egypt: 6. In the Arab world they shoot journalists, don’t they?
Hisham Melhem is the bureau chief of Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC. Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. Melhem speaks regularly at college campuses, think tanks and interest groups on U.S.-Arab relations, political Islam, intra-Arab relations, Arab-Israeli issues, media in the Arab World, Arab images in American media , U.S. public policies and other related topics. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. For four years he hosted "Across the Ocean," a weekly current affairs program on U.S.-Arab relations for Al Arabiya. Follow him on Twitter : @hisham_melhem