Meet Al-Mahatta: Hezbollah’s New Digital Mouthpiece

Meet Al-Mahatta: Hezbollah’s New Digital Mouthpiece

Employing a rhetorical claim of “independent, but not neutral” journalism and utilizing YouTube, this channel engages in a malicious propaganda campaign that ultimately benefits Hezbollah.

Confrontational and often accusatory, Al-Mahatta, a Lebanese YouTube channel, is emerging as a de facto digital mouthpiece for Hezbollah. Its aim is to consolidate its influence by gaining a broader digital audience while continuing to cater to its well-established constituency in Lebanon.

The success of this channel should come as no surprise, as many members of Al-Mahatta’s team are either originally from or still affiliated with Al Akhbar—a Beirut-based, daily leftist Arabic newspaper widely regarded as a mouthpiece for Hezbollah. Despite Al-Mahatta’s attempts to present itself as a novelty in the Lebanese media landscape, employing a rhetorical claim of “independent, but not neutral” journalism and utilizing YouTube—a popular platform for political commentary in the Arab world—the familiar language and recurring themes clearly demonstrate that Al-Mahatta’s coverage is nothing more than an audiovisual extension of Al Akhbar’s agenda.

The Origins and Agenda of Al-Mahatta

To better understand Al-Mahatta, it is necessary to explore its precursor, Al Akhbar.

Conceived in the aftermath of the Israel-Hezbollah war in 2006, it was emerged out of an alliance between the Lebanese left and Hezbollah (and its allies) in opposition to the neoliberal economic policies initially championed by the late Lebanese former prime minister Rafik Hariri in the 1990s. To this day, it unabashedly articulates resistance against Israel and holds an anti-imperialist and anti-neoliberal stance, particularly against U.S. policies in the Middle East.

Although Al Akhbar maintained a certain degree of intellectual left-wing independence during its early years, it gradually veered towards becoming a full-fledged platform for Hezbollah’s rhetoric. While there are currently multiple left-leaning trends present in Lebanon, the paper undeniably promotes a particular form of radical leftist discourse that aligns closely with Hezbollah’s present-day political and economic aspirations. So apparent is this dynamic that, for some, Al Akhbar serves as a prominent example of how Hezbollah successfully hijacked the Lebanese Left, appropriating its anti-neoliberal and long-standing anti-Israel discourse. More recently, however, the newspaper has experienced a rapid decline in popularity and revolutionary appeal due to its stance against the 2011 Syrian uprising and its opposition to the 2019 October mass protests in Lebanon.

It is from this intellectual and journalistic milieu that Al-Mahatta originates. Among its listed five founding members, the outlet’s two principal and most productive founders appear to be the Lebanese journalists Radwan Mortada and Hasan Illaik. Both come from Al Akhbar, and were among the early recruits during the newspaper’s beginnings. Specializing in security and judiciary affairs, they are experienced and crafty in their reporting on such matters. Both are also considered to be early apprentices of Al Akhbar’s editor-in-chief, Ibrahim al-Amin, who is known for his close ties and access to Hezbollah’s senior leadership and Syria-aligned intelligence networks in Lebanon.

The pair appear determined to carry on Al Akhbar’s legacy. They replicate and refine the newspaper’s approach via Al-Mahatta by focusing on a series of key topics that primarily serve Hezbollah’s geopolitical and strategic interests in Lebanon and the wider region. Moreover, whether criticizing Hezbollah’s political opponents, the Lebanese security apparatus, the judiciary, or the media within Lebanon, a consistent aspect of Al-Mahatta’s coverage has been a strong rebuke of U.S. policies in the country. They accuse Washington of seeking to exert significant influence over Lebanon's military, judiciary, financial sector, and media—a clear reflection of Al Akhbar’s anti-U.S. editorial agenda.

It is worth examining more closely the specific topics that Al-Mahatta’s focuses on: Lebanon’s Military/Security Institutions, Lebanon’s Judiciary, and the U.S.-brokered Maritime Border Agreement between Israel and Lebanon.

Military/Security Institutions

Attacks by Al-Mahatta’s team on Lebanese military and security institutions and its members are not only frequent but a cross-cutting issue across the outlet’s coverage. This happens concurrent with promotional content that serves Hezbollah’s preferred narrative, while also highlighting and vilifying the fact that Lebanon’s military and security institutions and members receive financial support from the United States.

For instance, a recent and recurring key target of criticism, primarily as part of a series billed as “the presidential election battle” (as the country’s presidential election race is ongoing), has been the Commander General of the Lebanese Armed Forces, Joseph Aoun. Until recently, Aoun figured among the leading candidates for the Lebanese presidency, yet has been perceived by Hezbollah to be backed by the United States. He has been accused by Al-Mahatta of privileging U.S. foreign policy priorities and interests in Lebanon.

Another example is found in the series titled “The Files of Spies,” which consists of the interrogation records of Lebanese individuals suspected of spying for Israel. While this may contribute to Hezbollah’s information warfare, it also strongly critiques the Lebanese military judiciary’s handling of these spying cases. In one episode, Radwan Mortada describes the military judiciary approach as very lenient, further likening its processing of such cases to normalization with Israel.

Next, there is the series titled “The Series of Lebanese State Security,” which is nominally dedicated to exposing alleged corrupt practices involving the Lebanese State Security forces. So far, this series only consists of a few episodes, but the tone is largely accusatory and the reporting is generalized—certain facts may prove to be more complicated, beyond episodic incidents. In one episode, Mortada, who hosts the series, claims that he was asked by the security forces to report on and highlight their achievements as a national institution, instead of focusing on alleged improprieties, but he refused the offer.

Almost as consistently, Hasan Illaik in several episodes accuses the military and security high leadership in Lebanon of serving a U.S. agenda by allowing its members to receive financial aid from the United States. In some episodes, an apologetic tone is adopted toward the medium- and low-ranking staff, proposing that it is not their fault they receive foreign financial assistance but their leadership’s.

Army officials are also targeted in other series and episodes, such as the series “The Investigation Proceedings of the Beirut Port Explosion,”  which places the primary responsibility for said explosion on army officials, including and chiefly Aoun. This conveniently runs counter to any accusations about Hezbollah’s possible involvement in the tragedy; Illaik further claims that the United States is protecting army officials in connection with the matter.

The Judiciary

Criticism toward the Lebanese judiciary is also frequent, except for a few judges who are believed to be biased towards Hezbollah. There are often accusations that many members of the judiciary, including the judicial police, are funded and controlled by the United States.

This is most evident in the series “The Investigation Proceedings of the Beirut Port Explosion,” where Judge Tarek Bitar, who recently led the investigation and pressed charges against politicians aligned with Hezbollah, faces the most criticism and accusations of political bias.

Another instance is the series “The Corruption of Riad Salameh and Banks.”  Here, Al-Mahatta’s team reports on the alleged corrupt activities of Riad Salameh, the governor of Lebanon's Central Bank, and Lebanese banks. They also highlight ongoing domestic or European investigations related to these matters. The entire judiciary, including key members, is criticized for failing to prosecute Salameh and the major shareholders of the banks involved.

On a broader level, the primary target of these rebukes is the U.S. ambassador to Lebanon, Dorothy C. Shea. She is often accused of orchestrating plots in the investigation of the Beirut port explosion and in Salameh’s case for political purposes. Al-Mahatta alleges that she influenced Bitar and other judiciary members to act in certain ways. While Bitar and even Aoun are portrayed as having close ties to Washington and benefiting from its support and protection, Salameh is accused of being nothing more than an American spy.

The Israel-Lebanon Maritime Border Agreement

A series of episodes focused on a notable story: the U.S.-brokered maritime border agreement between Israel and Lebanon in October 2022. During the negotiations between the two, Illaik produced numerous episodes that clearly propagated Hezbollah’s perspective on the developments while ridiculing the narratives of other participants, including the Israelis, the United States, and even Lebanese political opponents who were accused of aligning with Israeli and American interests.

In a highly propagandistic manner, here again, the agreement was framed as a victory for Hezbollah, with significant disparagement of the United States’ involvement in the mediation process. For instance, the U.S. government was depicted as not being genuinely committed to reaching an agreement since the beginning of negotiations in 2010, as it had failed to demand either the disarmament of Hezbollah as a political price or to protect Lebanon's southern territorial borders and its rights for gas exploration as a geographical price.

Some episodes seemed to serve psychological warfare purposes, often employing militaristic terms. For instance, Illaik described a “progressive accumulation of strength” on Hezbollah’s side, potentially becoming the decisive factor in the ongoing negotiations. In other episodes, militarism was highlighted, such as when Illaik mentioned that Hezbollah members were instructed not to travel to Iraq for the Shiite “Arbaeen” ceremony, which marks the end of a forty-day mourning period for the slaying of Imam Hussein, indicating anticipation of a potential war with Israel. Additionally, one episode focused on Hezbollah’s deployment of drones over the disputed territory between Israel and Lebanon, portraying it as both a logistical and political tool to defend Lebanon’s national wealth.