Mideast News Site Offers Diverse Voices—but Often Parrots Syrian Regime
Al-Monitor, a D.C.-based website, publishes Washington bigwigs, Israeli columnists, and, worryingly, Hezbollah-aligned writers
Yet the effect of the enterprise as a whole, some journalists suggest, may be different, especially when it comes to coverage of the Syrian civil war. Since the beginning of the uprising in March 2011, President Bashar Al-Assad’s regime has argued that the rebellion is driven not by Syrian citizens who were outraged by the regime’s brutality, but by foreign terrorists and Sunni extremists affiliated with al-Qaida. Of the latter, a group named Jabhat Al-Nusra—whose members are indeed present in rebel ranks—is often cited as proof of Assad’s argument.
A comprehensive inventory of the stories published up until June 19, 2013 in Al-Monitor’s “Lebanon Pulse” shows a distinct tendency to mirror the Assad regime’s version of events. For example, of the 32 stories written originally for “Lebanon Pulse” that mention “Jabhat Al-Nusra,” three could be classified as neutral articles—reporting, for example, from Lebanon on the Shia community’s concerns about Jabhat Al-Nusra’s “war of displacement” in Shia villages. One story challenges the notion that al-Qaida dominates the rebellion. The remaining 28 can fairly be classified as mirroring the narrative put forth by the Assad government—with pieces asserting that the opposition is dominated by dangerous Islamists affiliated with al-Qaida, that al-Qaida has spread to Lebanon, and even a story hinting at a connection between Jabhat Al-Nusra and the Boston Marathon bombers. Of these 28 stories, 24 were written by journalists who are affiliated with pro-Assad, pro-Hezbollah media.
In addition, Al-Monitor published another 28 Jabhat Al-Nusra related stories translated from the Lebanese press; all of these stories came from As-Safir—the pro-Hezbollah, pro-Assad newspaper in which Daniel invested in 2011. At the time of Daniel’s investment, the paper’s publisher Talal Salman told the Beirut Daily Star, “Daniel is an Arab patriot who believes in the Arab causes. He did not put any condition on the newspaper. In [sic] the contrary, Daniel is in our same line of political thinking.” Salman added that Daniel “loves his home country Syria and has close relations with several parties in that country. His relation with the Syrian government is also good.” Salman’s articles are regularly translated from As-Safir for Al-Monitor as are those of Sami Kleib, whose wife Luna Chebel is one of Assad’s media advisers.
Of the five writers who appear most regularly in the “Lebanon Pulse” section, three also work for Hezbollah- or Assad-affiliated publications. The three “Lebanon Pulse” writers formally affiliated with media outlets that are reportedly pro-Hezbollah are: Ali Hashem, Jean Aziz; and Nasser Chararah. Hashem is a former correspondent with Hezbollah’s television station Al-Manar, which in 2006 was officially listed as “specially designated global terrorist entity” by the U.S. government. He now works for Al Mayadeen, a new Beirut-based satellite station that France24—a broadcast and print media organization owned by the French government—has reported is believed to be a joint venture between the Iranians and Rami Makhlouf, Assad’s cousin.
On Sunday, Hashem published an article in the “Lebanon Pulse” section about seeing Hezbollah Secretary Hassan Nasrallah in the Syrian city of Qusayr, the site of a brutal battle in which the Assad regime and Hezbollah fighters defeated rebel forces. Soon after, Hashem posted a personal tribute to Nasrallah in Arabic on his Facebook page, later taken down, but captured here in a screenshot and published on Twitter. The message translates to: “I had the good fortune to see you, in between the rubble, in the heart of Qusayr, without a turban. I had the good fortune of a greeting smile from the leader whose smile alone petrifies enemies! That day in Qusayr I will never forget so long as I live.”
Aziz is also a columnist for Al-Akhbar, a Beirut daily that the American media typically describes as pro-Hezbollah, even if the paper has sometimes received generous treatment in the U.S. press. For instance, the New York Times profiled Al-Akhbar favorably in a December 2010 article—an assessment that prompted a sharply critical response from former U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon Jeffrey Feltman (who is currently U.N. Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs). “Al Akhbar,” Feltman wrote in a letter published in the Times January 8, 2011, “will no more criticize Hezbollah’s secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, than Syria’s state-run Tishreen newspaper would question the president of Syria, Bashar al-Assad.”
Feltman’s letter actually understated the symbiotic relationship between the newspaper and Hezbollah’s Islamic resistance. As Al-Akhbar’s editor-in-chief Ibrahim al-Amin wrote last year: “For us, the resistance is everything—our identity, honor and future. [Had Hezbollah Secretary-General] Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah whispered in our ear that the interests of the resistance required me to stop publishing Al-Akhbar, I would do so without hesitation.”
Another Al-Akhbar regular who contributes original articles to “Lebanon Pulse” is Nasser Chararah. Al-Monitor’s news editor Antoun Issa was previously a news and opinion editor for Al-Akhbar’s English-language version.
Al-Monitor’s critics argue that newspapers and television stations serve a different social and political function in the Middle East—a region of the world that lacks any deep-rooted tradition of a free press or the civil liberties on which the American media is based. In the Middle East, media is understood to be a tool to advance the political interests of states, and of wealthy individuals who depend on the support of states, even if there are also many instances of stellar journalism from the region. Al Jazeera English, for example, offered superior coverage of the 2011 uprising that brought down Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. But, observers note, Al Jazeera—both the English-language network and the Arabic-language mothership—was considerably less enthusiastic in its coverage of the 2011 uprising in Bahrain. The reason the coverage differed, they say, is that the station is owned by Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, the emir of Qatar, a small Persian Gulf nation that counts Bahrain as one of its neighbors.
The Syrian civil war has also led to warring narratives in the Arab press. Both Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, whose majority ownership comes from the Saudi royal family, faithfully reflect the foreign policy of its owners, who support the rebels against Assad.
In response, “there’s an effort on the part of media closer to Hezbollah and the Syrian regime to shape news coverage and create a counterweight to the big satellite channels established a decade ago,” said Michael Young, opinion-page editor of the Beirut Daily Star. “The media in the Middle East has become quite partisan. Ten years ago there was this notion that Al Jazeera had opened the path for a more freewheeling media that would challenge Arab leaders. This hope has only been fulfilled when directed outward, toward the leaders of other Arab countries. What we’ve seen is that media have usually became platforms for views of the governments controlling them.” The question now being raised by some critics is what role Al-Monitor plays in the narrative of the Syrian war.
When I asked Akiva Eldar what he thought about appearing in the same publication as pro-Hezbollah journalists, he mentioned Israel Hayom, the new Israeli daily newspaper funded by the American billionaire Sheldon Adelson. “I feel more comfortable writing for a publication which is owned by an Arab-American who has a peaceful vision for the Middle East than for an American Jew who supports Bibi and doesn’t believe in peace. Sheldon Adelson’s paper has people from the right and left writing for it. He bought the paper to make sure Bibi Netanyahu is in power and in my view Bibi jeopardizes the future of Israel. Adelson says and publishes radical things but it’s a legitimate newspaper.” I asked Eldar how he felt about the accusations of Hezbollah and Assad sympathy. “You won’t find me, or any of us in ‘Israel Pulse,’ writing a single positive line about Hezbollah or Assad.”
Ben Caspit went further. “It’s the dream of every Israeli journalist to get to speak with anyone in the region,” he told me. “Israeli journalists are not boycotting Hezbollah, or anyone. We want to talk to anyone. If Hassan Nasrallah were to invite me to interview him in the Dahieh, this would be my greatest achievement.”
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For the past three months, the country’s foreign ministry, gutted of its powers by political agreements, has been in disarray