CANBERRA (Reuters) - Australia is seeking to block a radical anti-Israel satellite TV channel linked to the militant Hezbollah group and broadcast from neighbouring Indonesia, the government’s broadcast watchdog said on Thursday.
The al-Manar channel, owned by the Lebanon-based Hezbollah, is popular with Arabic speakers in Australia, broadcasting programmes including “The Spider’s House”, a talk show targeted at uncovering weaknesses in “The Zionist Entity”, or Israel.
“The Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) has strong concerns about the broadcast in Australia of programmes that contain terrorist-related content,” ACMA spokesman Donald Robertson told Reuters.
Al-Manar, or “The Beacon”, was banned in the United States in 2004. It describes itself as the “Station of the Resistance” against Israel and U.S. foreign policy, with around 15 million viewers around the world.
Launched in 1991 with backing from Iran, the station has just resumed broadcasting into Asia and the Pacific using the Indosat telecommunications service partly owned by the Indonesian government.
Other controversial programmes carried by the channel include “My Blood and the Rifle”, which lionises Hezbollah fighters and encourages viewers to join the anti-Israel resistance.
A spokeswoman for Indosat, Adita Irawati, said on Thursday: “Basically this is a purely business deal.
“We treat them like any other broadcasters who request to use Indosat’s transponder. There’s no special issue here. Our review shows that they (al-Manar) are meeting the criteria as our customers so it’s a pure business deal.”
She said the contract, signed in April, would last for 3 years. It did not regulate the content of the broadcasts.
Earlier this month U.S. diplomats complained to Indonesian authorities about the channel, but Information and Communications Minister Mohammad Nuh said the government had no right to label a television station as a terrorist network or shut it down.
“Al-Manar is similar to Al Jazeera, BBC and CNN, they are television broadcasters,” the state Antara news agency quoted Nuh as saying.
Sasa Djuarsa Sendjaja, head of the Indonesian Broadcasting Commission, said the broadcasts posed no threat to the national interest or security.
“We are also monitoring its contents, and it’s good to have a balance of news from America and the West,” he said. Al-Manar could only be seen with a satellite dish, in other words by less than one percent of the 226 million people in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country.
In January 2008, the Australian watchdog complained to Thai-based satellite service Thaicom about al-Manar’s transmission, with the service being dropped afterwards by the parent Shin Satellite Public Company Ltd.
Robertson said Al-Manar was in breach of Australian television anti-terrorism standards because it sought funding for “the activities of terrorist organisations” by calling for donations and publishing their website addresses.
Robertson said the ACMA could launch legal action against Indosat, requiring it to stop broadcasting the service, but he would not say what it could do if Indosat failed to comply.
“We can issue a notice to an overseas-based service provider. We would confront that situation when we are confronted with it. I can’t really discuss a hypothetical situation,” Robertson said.
ACMA would have the option of referring any breaches to Australia’s public prosecutor and the country’s Federal Court.
The Australian Jewish community numbers around 120,000 and is concerned about anti-Semitism and protection from terrorism.
The B’nai B’rith Anti-Defamation Commission said it was distressed at the “disgraceful anti-Semitic propaganda” broadcast by al-Manar.
“The television station al-Manar, backed by the terrorist organisation Hezbollah, goes beyond the acceptable limits of free speech,” chairman John Searle said in a statement, demanding that the government take action to close down local broadcast.
Communications Minister Stephen Conroy would not raise the matter directly with Indonesia, but would leave investigations to ACMA, his spokesman told Reuters.
Australian Arabic Council Chairman Roland Jabbour said al-Manar was popular with many Muslim viewers in Australia and any block would be an interference with free speech.
“The accusations that are directed at the station, that it advocates suicide bombings, I think if it does that it does it in the context of using whatever means are available in order to defend their territory,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Harry Suhartono in JAKARTA)
Editing by Roger Crabb