Despite its established record as a terrorist organization, Western governments and Western media present conflicting assessments of Hezbollah. While governments in both the U.S. and EU have designated Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, Western media outlets have been more hesitant about describing Hezbollah as such in view of its political role in Lebanon. Nonetheless, Western media will typically reference Hezbollah’s terrorist activities.
Following the 1983 attacks against U.S. targets in Lebanon, Western media did not provide extensive coverage of Hezbollah until the 1990s, when the group was linked to a growing number of international attacks.
While the U.S. labels Hezbollah a terrorist organization, media coverage of the group largely replaces “terrorist” with “militant.” For example, Reuters uses the “terrorist” and “terrorism” labels only for quoted material. According to the Reuters handbook, “Terrorism and terrorist should not be used as single words in inverted commas (e.g. terrorist) or preceded by so-called (e.g. a so-called terrorist attack) since that can be taken to imply that Reuters is making a value judgment… Terror as in terror attack or terror cell should be avoided on stylistic grounds.”Sean Maguire, “When Does Reuters Use the Word Terrorist or Terrorism?” Reuters, June 13, 2007, http://blogs.reuters.com/reuters-editors/2007/06/13/when-does-reuters-use-the-word-terrorist-or-terrorism/. Other Western news organizations appear to follow this example. A 2004 Washington Post article on the U.S. designation of Hezbollah’s Al-Manar television station as a supporter of terrorism described Hezbollah as a “Lebanese militant group.”Mintz, “U.S. Bans Al-Manar, Says TV Network Backs Terror.” In 2006, a New York Times report on Hezbollah’s incursion into Israel, which left eight Israeli soldiers dead and two captured, described Hezbollah as a “guerilla group.”Greg Myre and Steven Erlanger, “Israelis Enter Lebanon After Attacks” New York Times, July 13, 2006, http://www.nytimes.com/2006/07/13/world/middleeast/13mideast.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0.
While European nations debated whether to label Hezbollah a terrorist organization during 2013, U.S., European, and Israeli media ran a number of op-eds from international leaders, such as Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and former Canadian justice minister Irwin Cotler, decrying Hezbollah’s terrorist activities. Some sections of the media opposed the prospective “terrorist” label. For example, The Guardian hosted a forum for both Livni and Sami Ramadani, a university lecturer, to provide opposing arguments. Ramadani arguied that labeling Hezbollah a terrorist organization was “futile” and flew “in the face of the facts.”Tzipi Livni and Sami Ramadani, “Should the EU Designate Hezbollah a Terrorist Organisation?” Guardian, July 22, 2013, http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/jul/22/eu-hezbollah-israel. Ramadani further stated, “Like all genuine resistance movements, the Lebanese resistance, led by Hezbollah, was born as a reaction to occupation.”Tzipi Livni and Sami Ramadani, “Should the EU Designate Hezbollah a Terrorist Organisation?” Guardian, July 22, 2013, http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/jul/22/eu-hezbollah-israel. The European press thus attempted to cover all angles regarding the suitability of the label, while European leaders were at variance as they sought to balance the issue of Hezbollah’s designation with the potential damage to Lebanese relations.
Though the EU did not take up the debate until 2013, there were calls for it to do so for many years previously. For instance, in 2006 the Baltimore Sun questioned why the EU would not designate Hezbollah a terrorist organization in spite of Hezbollah’s attacks on Israel earlier that summer.Aaron Resnick, “When Will EU Shun Hezbollah Terrorists?” Baltimore Sun, October 6, 2006, http://articles.baltimoresun.com/2006-10-06/news/0610060186_1_hezbollah-terrorist-organization-hamas.
The debate over what to label Hezbollah, both within the media and by governments, finds its origin in a 1998 piece by academic Augustus Richard Norton. Norton proposed that, despite Hezbollah’s violent activities, its provision of social services in Lebanon creates two distinct parts of the organization: one dedicated to terrorism against Israel and the other to being a social-services organization.Augustus Richard Norton, “Hizballah: From Radicalism to Pragmatism?” Middle East Policy Council, accessed January 28, 2015, http://almashriq.hiof.no/lebanon/300/320/324/324.2/hizballah/norton.html.
While Western media typically does not use the word “terrorist” to describe Hezbollah, media reports reference some of the terrorist attacks perpetrated by the group and the influence of Iran on its activities. Thus, Reuters recently described it as “an Iranian-backed Shi’ite Islamist group.”Tom Perry, “Hezbollah Commander Killed In Iraq: Sources,” Reuters, July 30, 2014, http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/07/30/us-lebanon-iraq-hezbollah-idUSKBN0FZ2BI20140730. The EU’s debate over the designation of Hezbollah as a Foreign Terrorist Organization was sparked by the 2012 Bulgaria bombing, attributed to the Shiite terror group. The BBC reported in early 2013 that Bulgarian officials had linked the bombing to Hezbollah and the news agency included U.S. calls for Europe to label Hezbollah a terror group.“Hezbollah Linked to Burgas Bus Bombing in Bulgaria,” BBC News, last modified February 5, 2013, 2014, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-21342192. Following the end of the 2006 conflict, a New York Times article reported on the Lebanese people returning to their homes, shocked by the damage. The article explored Hezbollah’s position in Lebanese society, or, as one Lebanese professor called it, “a state within a non-state,” referring to the failure of Lebanon’s government to provide adequate services and security.John Kifner, “Hezbollah Leads Work to Rebuild, Gaining Stature,” New York Times, August 16, 2006, http://www.nytimes.com/2006/08/16/world/middleeast/16hezbollah.html.
Further, media reports frequently note Hezbollah’s ties to Iran and Syria. For example, when reporting on the U.S. ban of Hezbollah’s television station Al-Manar in 2004, the Washington Post referred to Hezbollah as a “radical Lebanese political party” whose military wing is “funded by Iran and dedicated to the destruction of Israel.”John Mintz, “U.S. Bans Al-Manar, Says TV Network Backs Terror,” Washington Post, December 22, 2004, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A18011-2004Dec21.html.
Although Western media may avoid specifically labeling Hezbollah a terrorist organization, it largely – but not always – recognizes Hezbollah’s violent nature and terrorist history. A 2013 New York Times article on Hezbollah’s vow to increase its presence in the Syrian civil war, for example, neglects to mention Hezbollah’s connections to the murder of civilians. The article describes Hezbollah “as a popular movement to fight Israel’s occupation of southern Lebanon… while firmly based in Lebanon’s Shiite community, [it] has long tried to portray itself as a national resistance movement that exists to protect all Lebanese. The strength of its fighters, who constitute Lebanon’s strongest military force, once made them — and Mr. Nasrallah — heroes throughout the Arab world.”Ben Hubbard, “Hezbollah Makes Vow to Step Up Syria Fight,” New York Times, August 16, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/17/world/middleeast/hezbollah-makes-vow-to-step-up-syria-fight.html. The article notes Hezbollah’s annual commemoration of its 2006 war with Israel, crediting Hezbollah for rebuilding a nearby village destroyed in the war. However, the article omits the fact that Hezbollah initiated the conflict by crossing the border and attacking Israeli soldiers.Ben Hubbard, “Hezbollah Makes Vow to Step Up Syria Fight,” New York Times, August 16, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/17/world/middleeast/hezbollah-makes-vow-to-step-up-syria-fight.html.