Originating from Musa Sadr’s Shi’a Amal Movement during the Lebanese Civil War, Hezbollah – ‘God’s Party’ literally; the ‘National Resistance’ in Lebanese colloquial – has arguably become the most substantial non-state force in the Middle East. Militarily successful, politically astute, and strategically flexible, the functional diversity of this Islamist movement is undoubtedly striking: operating four hospitals, 12 schools, and two agricultural centres; and holding 13 of 128 seats as a coalition partner in the Lebanese Parliament (no single party has ever won more than 16 seats) as well as attaining two cabinet seats. Moreover, Hezbollah maintains a military force of around 1,000 full-time members – bolstered by an additional 8,000 trained volunteers – with a long-range missile capability made effective by an arsenal of over 100 rockets.
Equally as impressive is Hezbollah’s media structure: “the most organised and wide-ranging of any Islamist grouping in the Arab world” [Olfa Lamloum]. Indeed, the party’s use of media appears fundamental in maintaining and expanding its base of support while also serving to discredit its enemies. Here, I seek to briefly explore the objectives, strategy, structures and outlets of Hezbollah’s media machine in an attempt to shed further light upon Olfa Lamloum’s assertion.
The key objectives of Hezbollah’s propagation machine can be split into domestic and international paradigms. Whilst the former is more concerned with gaining popularity – so as to maintain and strengthen its political base whilst also fashioning the social conditions required for a true Islamic community – the latter is principally concerned with an appeal to the broader Lebanese diaspora and potential foreign sympathisers, regardless of sect and religion. The denunciation of proclaimed enemies, most notably Israel, represents another significant international objective.
Ron Schleifer notes that Hezbollah’s appeal is decisively broad in an attempt to bridge sectarian divides, presenting “a mixture of Islamic [and] revolutionary secular annals of national liberation.” Recurrent themes in media messages include the glorification of Hezbollah’s resistance as well as its care for the people. Light is also shed upon Hezbollah’s leaders and guerrillas, martyrdom, and bygone successes; and these are frequently captured through the lens of ‘God’s will.’ Moreover, rhetoric frequently makes reference to the Palestinian conflict as the issue resonates with many beyond Lebanon’s borders, growing support outside of the immediate Lebanese Shi’a community.
Hezbollah’s media also targets enemy audiences. Attempts are often made to instil guilt and disaffection amongst the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) as well as the wider Israeli public: Israeli efforts are recurrently depicted as being futile and in breach of internationally recognised human rights standards. Hezbollah’s determination to resist over the long-term is habitually re-iterated.
There are three important structures within Hezbollah’s media empire. Firstly, the War Information Unit. This structure – operating adjacent to Hezbollah’s armed wing since 1984 – is primarily responsible for waging an information war against Israel. The documenting of all armed activity, including recording testaments given by militants before committing ‘martyrdom,’ is another one of its prerogatives. Secondly, the Bureau of Information publicizes Hezbollah’s statements, arranges meetings with Hezbollah officials, reviews the group’s media coverage, and also maintains relationships with representatives from Lebanese, regional, and international reporters. The Artistic Activities Unit represents the third structure. Primarily dealing with Hezbollah’s symbolism management, this unit also oversees cultural and public activities such as theatre, film and song production; demonstrations and the production of ‘resistance paraphernalia’ like flags; festivals; and even the Mleeta museum, which expresses resistance against Israel.
In 1984 Hezbollah launched its first weekly newspaper, al-Ahed [the Promise], which ran as the organisation’s only media outlet over the following four years. Re-named to al-Intiqad [the Critique] in 2001, it remains as Hezbollah’s official paper today. Indeed, this publication’s application to fulfil objectives noted previously are manifest: “The people of this region will welcome [the United States] with rifles, blood, and martyrdom… we are not afraid” [al-Intiqad, March 14 2003]. Additionally, 1991 witnessed the appearance of a more comprehensive monthly journal, Baqiyatu Allah [Which Stays with God]. Placing more emphasis on theoretical and theological questions, this publication is mostly intended for internal use.
However, it was the establishment of Hezbollah’s first radio station, al-Nour [the light], in 1988 that truly facilitated the delivery of messages to a mass audience for the first time. With transmission time extending to 15 hours a day in 1989, its program content evolved accordingly to cover a wider array of cultural and political issues.
A further significant step in broadcasting was taken with the launch of al-Manar [the Beacon] television station in 1991. Within 10 years, al-Manar had already begun broadcasting 24 hours every-day via satellite transmission. A website for streaming live programmes was successfully launched in 2006.
Since its formation, al-Manar has gained a regional and global following. In its first nine years of broadcasting, 40 per cent of programming was dedicated to internal fighting in southern Lebanon alone. In 1996, the station took a more proactive role in Hezbollah’s regional offensive against Israel: broadcasts in Hebrew directly addressed and condemned the Israeli public and IDF, and al-Manar’s new offshoot, the Hebrew Observation Department, began to closely analyse Israeli media in an attempt to better understand Israeli society. The invasion of Iraq in 2003 provided further kindling for al-Manar to expand and resonate amongst a broader Arab audience; the station quickly became known as Qanat al-Arab wa’l Muslimin [station of the Arabs and the Muslims] and is now among the most popular channels in the Middle East.
Al-Manar’s ability to adjust and evolve – like its parent organisation – remains impressive. Today, the station’s reach is global, providing first-hand news reporting from around the world (in Arabic, English and French) as well as game-shows, talk-shows, and children’s television programmes. Nonetheless, there has been no departure from Hezbollah’s overall media objectives. Talk-show Beit al-Anakabut [the Spider’s House], for example, is dedicated to uncovering the weakness of the Zionist entity. Furthermore, Avi Jorisch asserts that frequently aired music videos of around three-minutes are designed to promote resistance, martyrdom, and anti-Americanism/Zionism. Adverts also push for donations to the organisation.
In 2004, however, Gabriel Weimann proclaimed that it was actually the internet that had become “one of Hezbollah’s most important communication tools.” By 2008, the organisation was in command of at least 50 active websites. The official website, Moqawama.org, presents topical analysis on an assortment of issues, provides a history to the organisation, makes available interviews and biographies of key individuals and leaders, presents photo-stories of historic events, and offers a ‘mailing list’ for daily updates. Hezbollah is also active in social networking. alMaaref.org allows “members and sympathizers from around the world to interact and engage in discourse guided and moderated by Hezbollah-appointed web administrators” [Weimann]. The development of online gaming poses further significance: Hezbollah’s ‘Special Force’ franchise lets gamers fight in previous Hezbollah battles, practice shooting at former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, and gain credit from current Secretary General Nasrallah.
It therefore seems that Olfa Lamloum’s assertion holds significant weight. Certainly, Hezbollah’s media machine appears well designed: successfully enhancing the organisation’s social, financial, and now political influence. For any policy-maker wanting to understand this substantial actor within a regional context, its media machine may be a worthy place to start.