Saturday, December 14, 2013

Al-Manar apology: Protecting business or message from Iran?

[Originally posted at NOW]

The Hezbollah media arm’s apology to Bahrain has outraged many of the Party’s supporters.

In a move met with surprise by Hezbollah’s critics and outrage from some its prominent supporters, the Lebanese Communication Group (LCG), the Party’s media arm, issued an apology to the Kingdom of Bahrain on Saturday for what it said was a lack of “objectivity” in its coverage of Manama’s crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators since 2011.

The move was quickly followed by a statement from Hezbollah that the apology had been made independently of the party’s leadership, whose “position in support of the cause of the oppressed Bahraini people has not changed.”

This, however, fell short of the expectations of certain Party sympathizers, such as Al-Akhbar editor-in-chief Ibrahim al-Amin, who called for those responsible for the apology to “resign from their posts after offering supporters of the resistance an apology, live on the air!” California State University Professor Asaad AbuKhalil wrote that the “despicable apology” had sparked an “overwhelming and pervasive” negative reaction from the Party base, and concurred with Amin that it warranted the dismissal of “someone at Al-Manar,” the television station owned, along with Al-Nour radio, by LCG. The Group’s spokesperson, Ahmad Musulmani, declined to comment to NOW.

Confusion as to why LCG would take such an unpopular and uncharacteristic step has sparked a variety of interpretations, ranging from the strictly commercial to the geopolitical.

One suggestion – reportedly confirmed by Al-Manar Director Abdallah Qassir – is that it was simply a maneuver to protect LCG’s business interests. It was, after all, read out at the general assembly of the Arab States Broadcasting Union (ASBU), a body from which Bahrain has repeatedly attempted to get LCG removed. ASBU members benefit from a number of shared services and resources, as well as preferential rates for certain broadcasting rights. They also gain membership to the World Broadcasting Union. Therefore, it is argued, LCG sought to maintain its ASBU membership by mending ties with Bahrain, leaving Hezbollah to manage the political backlash.

“I don’t think there is [any] reason other than [what] the channel announced; that they were afraid of being expelled from the [ASBU] if they didn’t apologize,” said Nazeeha Saeed, a Bahraini France 24 correspondent who was reportedly tortured by Bahraini authorities during the violent 2011 crackdown.

On the other hand, it has been argued elsewhere that the apology was part of a wider Iranian charm offensive directed both at the West and its regional allies. Recent weeks have seen a comparative warming of relations between Tehran and various Gulf Arab states, with Iranian Foreign Minister Muhammad Javad Zarif paying rare visits to the UAE, Qatar, Kuwait, and Oman.

“Al-Manar’s decision to issue an apology was surely intended to send out a certain message,” said Mustafa Fahs, a Lebanese commentator and son of the prominent Shiite cleric, Sayyid Hani Fahs. “That message goes to the Gulf in general but specifically Saudi Arabia, and it is that Hezbollah is able to take steps back. It is part of the Iranian pragmatism which can make Hezbollah, one of its main tools, reconsider some of its positions.”

Accordingly, Fahs dismissed the notion that LCG’s decision was taken without Hezbollah’s approval, arguing the Party must have in fact backed the apology.

“Hezbollah is an iron-clad organization, and there are no contradictions within it. Everything they state has already been discussed and planned, and comes out as planned,” he told NOW.

“The management of Al-Manar would never do something like that without approval from the higher [Hezbollah] leadership,” agreed analyst Qassem Qassir.

In which case, argued Fahs, the anger the apology generated among Hezbollah’s supporters reflects their disbelief that the Party would soften its stance against its erstwhile antagonists; a reaction which Fahs likened to Iranian hardliners’ dissatisfaction with the conciliatory rhetoric of new President Hassan Rouhani.

“The breach is not between Hezbollah and Al-Manar, but between Hezbollah and its base. They just cannot seem to absorb what happened. And they don’t seem able to connect what’s happening to the contradictions present inside Iran, between Rouhani and the Revolutionary Guards.”

Luna Safwan contributed reporting.

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