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Hamas TV forced to halt broadcasts to Europe

By Ibrahim Barzak
Associated Press Writer / June 15, 2010

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GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip—A France-based satellite provider is halting broadcasts of the Hamas TV channel to Europe and parts of the Arab world because of concerns that it spreads incitement, a station official said Tuesday.

The decision will deprive Gaza-based al-Aqsa TV of most of its viewers, said the channel's head, Hazem Sharawy.

The Hamas station -- best known for its children's programs glorifying violence against Israel -- is the centerpiece of a growing media operation of Gaza's Islamic militant Hamas rulers. Losing the satellite provider will hamper the group's attempts to spread its message and raise funds abroad.

The decision to cut off the Hamas station came six years after a similar move by France and the U.S. against al-Manar, the channel of Lebanese guerrilla group Hezbollah.

In Paris, Eutelsat spokeswoman Vanessa O'Connor said that last week the French broadcasting regulator CSA ordered it to stop beaming the Hamas channel into Europe by June 26. Al-Aqsa TV is part of a package of channels transmitted by Bahrain-based satellite operator Noorsat, which passes them in a single signal to Eutelsat, O'Connor said.

Eutelsat has passed on the CSA's order to stop transmitting al-Aqsa TV to Noorsat. O'Connor said it was up to Noorsat to block the al-Aqsa TV signal. She would not comment on what would happen if Noorsat doesn't comply with the CSA order by the June 26 deadline.

Sharawy said Noorsat called late Monday, telling al-Aqsa TV that its programs incite to hatred.

The al-Aqsa chief alleged that the decision was politically motivated and meant to silence criticism of Israel. "The enemy (Israel) can kill us, destroy our lands and blockade us. But we aren't allowed to expose them," Sharawy charged.

The Hamas channel immediately flipped into campaign mode Monday. The top left hand corner of the channel showed a countdown and read "time remaining for broadcast."

The satellite broadcasts, which reach Europe, North Africa and parts of the Gulf, are expected to be halted Thursday, Sharawy said. The channel is not beamed to the U.S.

Al-Aqsa's second satellite provider only reaches viewers in the Middle East, he said. Viewers can also still watch the station on the Internet.

Sharawy said he did not know how many viewers the station had, but that viewer phone calls and text messages indicate the bulk are from outside Gaza. He said the station's coverage during Israel's three-week war with Hamas in Gaza that ended in January 2009 dramatically boosted al-Aqsa TV's popularity.

During the war, the station's building was bombed and employees broadcast from a secret location.

In the past, Israel and others have repeatedly accused al-Aqsa TV of inciting against Israel, especially in children's programs.

One of its most criticized programs, Tomorrow's Pioneers, once featured a high-pitched Mickey Mouse rip-off called "Farfour" who encouraged children to fight against the occupiers of Muslim countries, while taking calls from kids who were praised for singing about fighting Israel.

After a wave of criticism, the station killed off Farfour with mock-Israeli soldiers beating him to death. But it has not toned down the message of its children's programs.

The station is popular with conservative Muslims in Gaza for its Islamic-based programming. Women wear headscarves and sometimes face veils on morning talk shows. Music videos show girls modestly dressed in headscarves singing, as well as gunslinging militants fighting Israel and chanting for revenge. The channel's lengthy interview programs provide the Hamas viewpoint to the world.

Hamas sees media outreach as a vital part of the movement's success.

It has another television channel that broadcasts from Lebanon, several affiliated Web sites, a radio station, a glossy magazine for its military wing and two newspapers printed in Gaza. The militant group has also produced a movie glorifying one their militants and created animations boasting about their capture of an Israeli soldier held for the last four years in Gaza.

Six years ago, Hezbollah's al-Manar television was also limited. At the time, France's highest administrative body banned satellite broadcasts by the Lebanese television station. Later, the U.S. State Department placed the Hezbollah station on its list of terror organizations for broadcasting incitement.

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Additional reporting by Associated Press writers Diaa Hadid in Ramallah, West Bank and Greg Keller in Paris.

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