Monday, January 28, 2008

Like all international terrorist groups, Lebanon-based Hezbollah has always relied on the classic methodology of terror: horrifying, grisly attacks and detonations that produce mass casualties in order to garner as much press as possible. In short, its goal is to terrorize the public as a means of manipulating the same. Groups like Hezbollah, al Qaeda and others continue to wage such blood-and-fire campaigns against civilian populations. They know it works because the threat alone is often enough to manipulate the press, too, thus frightening them so that they will act, or react, in a certain way as well.

Today, however, terrorist groups have become more sophisticated and their tactics do not always begin with something so overtly terrorizing. In the case of Hezbollah, there is a new and far more sinister weapon in its arsenal which begins with the media itself and utilizes Hezbollah’s ability to influence and even control it. In recent years, Hezbollah has been able to influence much of the Lebanese mainstream and alternative media, including national media and international reporting. Increasing numbers of paid Hezbollah sympathizers have insinuated themselves into traditional Lebanese print and broadcast media, thus enabling them to present stories in a way they want them to be understood. Western journalists in Lebanon have now bought into the same influence as well, whether wittingly or not.

This has been deliberate on the part of Hezbollah: As some Lebanese citizens would argue, “Hezbollah is trying to wash its public face.” How do they do it? With Syrian support, Iranian money and the infiltration of newsrooms. This is also achieved by deceiving the Western media, showing international reporters only that which Hezbollah wants them to see and destroying the credibility — through the bought-and-paid-for media — of anyone who dares to say otherwise. To tell the truth about Hezbollah and its activities can and does result in lethal action.

A case in point: National Review’s former stringer W. Thomas Smith Jr., a former Marine, author and longtime reputable reporter whose good name and creditable work has been sullied because he simply got too close — a quality which, under normal circumstances, would be revered. In September and October, Mr. Smith was in Lebanon blogging for National Review and reporting the truth about Hezbollah developments and activities. He was blogging, so his first-person postings were often subjective and without sourcing, as is normally the case with blogs.

Mr. Smith’s enemies — including Hezbollah, Hezbollah’s sympathizers and their apologists in the West (many of whom wrongly view Hezbollah and other terrorists as less threatening than they actually are) — had to shut him up. They tried, as Mr. Smith has been savagely and widely accused of “lying” and “fabricating,” though such accusations have absolutely no basis in fact.

Moreover, his attackers created fancifully inaccurate stories about what he actually wrote in order to discredit and destroy him. In short, it was Mr. Smith’s enemies who openly lied, not Mr. Smith, enabling others to repeat the lies — classic propaganda — so that the reality of Mr. Smith’s reporting was wrongly negated in the process.

But they’ve failed because Mr. Smith continues to write. And the former Marine told me in a recent phone conversation, “My opponents will never shut me up.” However, Hezbollah’s propaganda and media manipulation doesn’t end with simply buying stories, influencing or coercing local journalists or international correspondents and attempting to ruin the reputations of true opposition reporters like Mr. Smith.

Hezbollah has its own Lebanese press outlets: television (Al Manar TV), print media (Al Akhbar newspaper), smaller news sheets and radio stations. Hezbollah also maintains Internet sites, and it closely monitors news reporting in the West, including that on obscure Web sites and blogs. Hezbollah also controls and monitors telecommunications. In fact, there are a few telephone hubs for international calls into Lebanon, and Hezbollah has direct access to the hub for Beirut. Thus, no information gleaned from international calls placed to confirm stories there could ever be deemed reliable.

Simply put, Hezbollah is directly involved in virtually all aspects of Lebanese government and society. Further, it has access to nearly every sophisticated media tool available to us in the West, which it uses for purposes such as crushing free speech, distorting facts or releasing only certain stories to an unwitting public. It also continues to use the old standbys that have served so well in the past: libel and character assassination; direct and indirect threats of physical harm; and, yes, murder.

Until the West, especially its own media, wakes up to this enemy’s clever tactics of denial and deception, it is clear that the reporting of the more fearless journalists like Mr. Smith will be silenced. Attempts will be made (some successful) by some naive people to destroy their careers.

Tom Harb is secretary-general of the International Lebanese Committee for U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559.

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