Australia has a record of success in fighting terrorism—witness the capture earlier this month of 18 terrorists who planned to attack a military base. But Canberra may be forgetting that the long war against violent extremism is a war of ideas as much as a war of arms. The decision last month to allow Hezbollah's al-Manar television station to begin broadcasting down under is a dangerous development for Australia and Indonesia and could reverberate around the world.
Free speech protections may protect the hateful content of their messages but should not cover the role of these media outlets as operational weapons. Radical groups like Hezbollah, al-Qaeda, Hamas, the Taliban, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and others use media outlets all over the world to plan attacks, recruit and train jihadists, fundraise, intimidate and incite. Hezbollah established al-Manar in 1991 as a tool to incite hatred and violence and recruit children and adults as terrorists. According to an al-Manar official interviewed by al-Manar expert Avi Jorisch, the station's programming is meant to "help people on the way to committing what you call in the West a suicide mission." Al-Manar reaches an estimated 10 to 15 million viewers daily and, before international action against the station, it had worldwide coverage through a network of 13 satellite providers as well as advertising support from western corporations.
Al-Manar routinely airs inflammatory speeches seeking to mobilize crowds to take action. For example on December 3 and 5, 2008, Islamist clerics instructed Palestinian viewers: "We saw how, on a day in 1929, you slaughtered the Jews in Hebron. Today, slaughter them on the land of Hebron. Kill them in Palestine . . . let pure bodies blow up again in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv," according to a translation from the Middle East Media Research Institute. Similarly, each year on Hezbollah's "Martyr's Day" on November 11, al-Manar airs hours of speeches glorifying suicide bombers.
It's puzzling, then, that the Australian government decided to reverse two previous government decisions banning al-Manar. According to its press release, the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) made the decision after a mere week of monitoring al-Manar broadcasts from Indonesia. Never mind the deep operational ties between al-Manar and Hezbollah: ACMA said it found no violation of the "Anti-terrorism Standard" in a 2006 broadcasting law because "no content . . . could reasonably be construed to directly recruit people to join or participate in the activities of Hezbollah, or to solicit funds for . . . Hezbollah." This decision makes it much more difficult to persuade Indonesia to stop its satellite provider, Indosat, from broadcasting the Hezbollah station to homes across Australia. The same might be true for any Australian satellite provider.
At present satellite operators in nine countries with global distribution have terminated broadcasting of al-Manar thanks to the efforts of antiterrorism agencies, but the Australian ruling could provide an excuse for countries to accept al-Manar's demands for broadcasting rights in the future. In the United States, after a lengthy interagency investigation, the Treasury Department designated al-Manar as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist entity in March 2006, placing al-Manar on the same terrorism list as Hezbollah itself. The Treasury Department based its decision on al-Manar's direct operational role in support of Hezbollah: Al-Manar employed numerous Hezbollah members; actively recruited and raised funds for Hezbollah and Palestinian terrorist groups; and provided pre-attack intelligence for Hezbollah.
In Europe, the European Union focused on the station's incitement to violence and anti-Semitic programming. In 2005, on the basis of the station's content, European authorities determined that al-Manar violated European law. Four European satellite providers and five other operators—based in Australia, Hong Kong, Thailand, Barbados and Brazil—terminated their transmissions. Two executives of a U.S.-based provider in late 2008 pleaded guilty to material support for a terrorist organization after refusing private requests to stop broadcasting the station. They are currently serving jail terms.
Likewise, the German government banned al-Manar in 2008 after recognizing the station's threat to German security and its role in radicalizing German Muslim youth. And, after being alerted to their advertising on the terrorist station, some of the world's best-known multinationals discontinued almost four million dollars in annual advertising, according to an investigation by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. From 2003 to 2008, 10 global satellites ceased al-Manar transmissions once they became aware of its content, ownership or operational links to Hezbollah.
The ACMA decision may have serious consequences for Australia, which has a larger proportion of Muslim youths at risk of turning to radical Islam than any other nation, according to a government study in 2007. Reuters reported in 2007 that between 2,000 and 3,000 youths in Sydney alone had already been targeted by radical Islamic teachers, with some at risk of making the jump to militancy.
Australia and Indonesia have additional reasons to stop al-Manar's broadcasts: In recent weeks, Indonesia tried to capture Noordin Top, who perpetrated a number of deadly terrorist attacks including the 2002 and 2005 Bali bombings that together killed 222 people, including 92 Australians. Indosat, along with Saudi-owned Arabsat and Egyptian-owned Nilesat, continue to broadcast al-Manar on Asian, European and Middle Eastern airwaves.
Al-Manar should not operate with impunity. Hate speech and violent incitement have been prosecuted as war crimes, initially at the Nuremberg trials against the Nazi regime and, in 2003, at the United Nations tribunal for Rwanda against three Rwandan media executives who used Rwanda's Radio Mille Collines to call for the extermination of Tutsis. In response to the conviction by the U.N. tribunal, Reed Brody, Human Rights Watch's legal counsel, said that "if you fan the flames, you'll have to face the consequences."
By providing operational support for terror attacks, al-Manar is doing more than just fanning the flames. It is providing the match, the gasoline and the arsonist. Australia should follow the lead of the U.S. and Europe and hold the terrorist station accountable for its well-established support of Hezbollah's operational goals.
Mr. Dubowitz is executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Ms. Bonazzi is executive director of the Brussels-based European Foundation for Democracy. They are co-directors of the Coalition Against Terrorist Media.