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Cablegate: Information Minister Pressured to Attack

VZCZCXRO5242
RR RUEHBC RUEHDH RUEHKUK RUEHROV
DE RUEHLB #0108/01 0341438
ZNY CCCCC ZZH
R 031438Z FEB 10
FM AMEMBASSY BEIRUT
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC 6459
INFO RUEHEE/ARAB LEAGUE COLLECTIVE
RHEHAAA/NSC WASHDC
RHDIFCC/FCC WASHDC

C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 02 BEIRUT 000108

SIPDIS

STATE FOR NEA/ELA, NEA/PPD, EEB/CIP
E.O. 12958: DECL: 01/29/2020
TAGS: PTER PGOV PREL KPAO PINR LE
SUBJECT: INFORMATION MINISTER PRESSURED TO ATTACK
ANTI-HIZBALLAH HR 2278

Classified By: Ambassador Michele J. Sison for reasons 1.4 (b) and (d).

1. (C) SUMMARY: Minister of Information Tareq Mitri informed
the Ambassador on January 27 that President Sleiman continues
to be personally interested in the issue of House Resolution
2278 regarding satellite providers broadcasting channels
carrying anti-American incitement to violence. Mitri said
that most Arab League Information Ministers fear that such a
bill would only serve to strengthen the radicals in their
calls to violence. Mitri revealed that he has been pressured
by Hizballah to take a more active, public role in attacking
the resolution. Mitri also offered insights to the workings
of the new Lebanese cabinet, but said that its true tests
remain in front of it. End Summary.

ARAB LEAGUE FEARS RADICAL SATELLITE CHANNELS, TOO
--------------------------------------------- ----

2. (C) The Ambassador and PAO met with Information Minister
Mitri at the ministry on January 27. He had recently
returned from the Arab League Information Ministers meeting
in Cairo on January 24, where the topic of HR 2278 and its
proposed sanctions on satellite companies was the main topic
of debate. Mitri said that most ministers felt that proposed
legislation such as HR 2278 would "make their lives more
difficult," giving radicals another weapon in their arsenal
to radicalize others. He offered that all of the ministers
needed to be seen as defending the freedom of their satellite
companies even though, as Mitri opined, "the content of these
broadcasts do more harm here than in the United States."
Mitri said that both Arabsat and Nilesat, the two main
satellite providers in the Arab world, felt that they could
not be held responsible for the content of the broadcasts on
the channels they transmit. After all, said Mitri, "if they
are licensed in their home countries, it´s not (the satellite
companies´) problem."

3. C) While his fellow ministers had harsh criticism for the
bill, Mitri asserted that he was the main drafter of the
statement released after the January 24 meeting and was the
one responsible for adding the mitigating language in the
second part of the statement, condemning all media that
incites violence and terror. Mitri explained that most of
his fellow ministers present were committed to fight against
extremism and elements in their countries that incite
violence, while maintaining a caveat for "legitimate
resistance." (Note: He specifically excluded the Syrian
information minister. End note.) Mitri expects that the
issue of HR 2278 will be on the agenda of the Arab League
Heads of State summit, scheduled for March in Libya.

HIZBALLAH PRESSURES ON HR 2278, ´CLEANS UP´ AL-MANAR
--------------------------------------------- -------

4. (C) Mitri met recently with the Lebanese parliament´s
media committee, which is chaired by Hizballah MP Hassan
Fadlallah, to discuss the GOL´s reaction to HR 2278. Mitri
relayed that he was "ridiculed" by the Hizballah deputies in
a "silly way" for holding a view that Obama´s election would
mean an improvement for U.S.-Arab relations. Mitri also
talked in detail on how Hizballah had approached him in his
role as information minister to enlist his help in their
campaign against HR 2278. Mitri said that he was under great
pressure to go to Washington to hold consultations with the
USG regarding Lebanon´s objection to the resolution. He
noted that he really did not "want to go, but Hizballah folks
are really very smart about this." Mitri described a
three-phase strategy Hizballah employed with him personally
to try to get his buy-in. First, they appealed to his sense
of duty to protect Lebanon´s freedom of speech, saying that
as information minister he was the key state player in this
regard. Second, they told Mitri that he was "a very smart
man, and they could use his intelligence" to come up with a
strategy. Third, Hizballah officials suggested to Mitri that
since he "knew the Americans" he could use his friends and
contacts in the U.S. to advocate on Lebanon´s behalf on this
issue. They even went so far as to ask if he would look into
contacting a lobbyist firm to act on Lebanon´s behalf.

5. (C) Mitri said Al-Manar had been undergoing a concerted
effort to "clean up its act," especially in the wake of
actions taken by France to close French airwaves to its
broadcast. Mitri relayed a conversation he recently had with
the chairman of Al-Manar regarding the station´s operational
standards. During the meeting, the Al-Manar representatives
claimed that the channel makes a distinction between
incitement to violence against American interests and
opposition to USG policy. Al-Manar claimed that its
editorial board has banned incitement to violence. Mitri
challenged the Al-Manar representatives on this point by
saying the Al-Manar´s motto seems to be "Death to America,"
as this chant can be heard on Al-Manar on nearly a daily
basis. Al-Manar´s chairman countered that this was not
incitement to violence, rather it was just Al-Manar reporting
on protesters who shout that slogan.

6. (C) Mitri also produced a copy of an Al-Manar document
that seemingly sets broadcasting standards for its employees,
including rules limiting the depiction of "real or fictive
violence" for fear of "desensitizing viewers to violence."
Mitri offered that all of those efforts were aimed at
avoiding punishment by the international community. However,
he opined, Hizballah has begun to "outsource its trash" to
other media outlets in Lebanon, especially the pro-Hizballah
newspaper, Al-Akhbar. Mitri could not disguise his disgust
for Al-Akhbar, describing it as "without ethics or
guidelines."

7. (C) The Ambassador asked what role the Ministry of
Information had in enforcing journalistic standards. Mitri
explained that he had attempted to start a dialogue with news
directors and editors at Lebanese newspapers and television
stations about establishing a code of ethics, based on the
thought that code would be more efficient and encourage
higher levels of self-accountability. While Hizballah´s
media elements remained largely silent during the meeting,
pro-Hizballah Al-Jadid TV and Al-Akhbar newspaper both
insisted that any such code should include not only the
Ministry´s list of "do not´s" (i.e. not reporting hearsay,
not using inflammatory language, etc.), but also a list of
"do´s" (i.e. do report in a way that supports "the
resistance" etc.). The minister said that he had "almost
given up" on attaining positive progress on this issue, given
that the power to enforce most of Lebanon´s audio-visual laws
rests in the hands of the quasi-governmental National Media
Council, whose members were all chosen during the Syrian
occupation.

NEW CABINET DYNAMICS
--------------------

8. (C) Mitri said the current cabinet was working together
"better" than the previous cabinet (in which he was also
information minister), describing the atmosphere of good will
as a "truce" arising from a "unilateral cease-fire from the
March 14 ministers." Mitri said that the March 14 ministers
had conscientiously undertaken a campaign of "kindness" to
the opposition, which as been reciprocated by Hizballah but
not all other opposition ministers. Mitri said that
Hizballah leaves "other ministers to use harsh words" during
cabinet discussions, allowing Hizballah to act as the "wise
man" and present a compromise. Mitri revealed that there
were two FPM ministers who are always "in the trenches
waiting to react" negatively to initiatives from March 14,
and who are quick to fall back on "ideological positions and
refer to conspiracy theories" regarding PM Hariri´s agenda.
While he did not reveal their names, Mitri added that one of
them was not Gebran Bassil, whom he characterized as having a
constructive role in the cabinet.

9. (C) Mitri also noted the peculiarity of President
Sleiman´s continued presence as chair at more than 80% of the
cabinet meetings held during his term in office.
Traditionally, the PM and president alternate this role, he
said, although the Lebanese constitution does not explicitly
define the division of labor between the two positions in
this regard.

10. (C) Mitri was cautiously optimistic of the potential for
this cabinet to more forward on major issues, although he
said the pace of its work was slow and inefficient.
"Consensus does not mean mutual veto," Mitri said,
criticizing the cabinet´s habit of discussing issues at
length and then postponing a decision. Mitri said the real
test of the new cabinet would come when it takes up the issue
of the pending civil service appointments. He fears the
cabinet becoming a "Loya Jirga" insofar as it would act only
to "rubber-stamp" backroom agreements reached by Lebanon´s
political elites, rather than fulfilling its role as the
proper venue to debate issues of national importance. Mitri
lamented "either we are in a democracy or we´re not. If
we´re not, let´s tell the people."
SISON

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