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
One of the most notable launches in foreign affairs publishing of the last decade has been Al-Monitor, a website founded in January 2012 that dubs itself “the pulse of the Middle East.” The main site, which is in English, also links to Arabic-, Farsi-, Turkish-, and Hebrew-language pages, with coverage broken down by region, or “pulses”—including “Iraq Pulse,” “Turkey Pulse,” “Lebanon Pulse,” “Israel Pulse,” “Palestine Pulse,” and others.
The main site offers analysis as well as reporting by seasoned journalists. Washington reporters Barbara Slavin and Laura Rozen hold down the domestic front, while Al-Monitor’s Middle East correspondents include experienced journalists like longtime Haaretz columnist Akiva Eldar, who signed on last year as a full-time contributor to the “Israel Pulse” section. Other contributors include former D.C. policymakers like Aaron David Miller, The Washington Post’s former Middle East bureau chief Thomas Lippman, and 30-year CIA veteran Bruce Riedel, alongside newer faces like Iranian-American journalist Roxana Saberi and influential Emirati analyst Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi. Each “pulse” includes original work commissioned for Al-Monitor, as well as articles translated from dozens of publications it has partnered with throughout the Arab world, Turkey, Iran, and even Israel.
All of which has led The Washington Post to call the site “an invaluable Web-only publication following the Middle East,” and The Huffington Post to say that Al-Monitor is “increasingly a daily must-read for insightful commentary on the Middle East.”
“It’s a new venture,” Eldar told me in a recent phone interview. “The first one ever with Iraqis, Turks, Lebanese, and Israelis writing at the same website. I like seeing my articles published next to those of colleagues who represent different opinions across the political spectrum.”
Recently, Al-Monitor has started to garner a different sort of attention, as one of the stories it covers intensively—the Syrian civil war between the country’s Alawite minority regime and its Sunni majority opposition—has grown exponentially more brutal and bloody. Observers assert that the arguments and positions of the Assad government receive heavy coverage in the site’s “Lebanon Pulse” section, with an emphasis on translated material from pro-Hezbollah, pro-Assad media outlets as well as original content produced for Al-Monitor by writers who also work for pro-Hezbollah, pro-Assad media.
“Al-Monitor doesn’t cater to a regional audience but rather to a Western one,” said Hanin Ghaddar, who is the editor-in-chief of NOW Lebanon as well as a public policy scholar in the Middle East program at the Wilson Center and a contributor to Slate and the New York Times. “American readers take it like Al-Monitor provides a great service in translating articles and presenting news from the region. They don’t take the news and analysis presented in it with a grain of salt.”
Until Al-Monitor was founded, pro-Hezbollah journalists could only publish in resistance media outlets. In Al-Monitor, by contrast, their work is printed alongside reporting and analysis that falls within the mainstream of public policy discourse. Several of Al-Monitor’s critics point specifically to August 2011, when Al-Monitor’s founder and owner, a Syrian-born businessman named Jamal Daniel, bought a large share of As-Safir—a Beirut daily newspaper that the New York Times has variously described as a “pro-Assad Lebanese newspaper,” and “a left-leaning publication that often supports the pro-Assad Lebanese group Hezbollah.”
Seen from one perspective, Al-Monitor is fulfilling one of the founding traditions of the modern Western press by publishing writers of different backgrounds and opinions. According to this view, the site is the embodiment of what an American media mogul might imagine for the Middle Eastern press: a large and diverse ethnic mosaic, mixing together Jews, Arabs (of all kinds), Iranians, Turks, and others. Timur Goksel, the Beirut-based editor for Al-Monitor’s “Turkey Pulse,” thinks that it’s a good thing for American decision-makers and ordinary citizens to hear other voices, even those from Hezbollah. “It’s pathetic that all these years the American public has been served by three or four writers who give their opinions on the Middle East.” But critics have begun to suggest that the effect of juxtaposing well-respected, conventional voices alongside pro-Hezbollah, pro-Assad pieces is to inject into the mainstream more radical voices that might not otherwise be heard which allows those voices to be heard as equally reasonable, and worth hearing.
I tried to reach two of Al-Monitor’s most prominent American writers, Rozen and Slavin, for comment about assertions made by the site’s critics in the region. Neither replied. Several efforts to reach Daniel also failed; an assistant at his Houston office said he was traveling.
I also tried to speak with Al-Monitor’s editor-in-chief and CEO, Andrew Parasiliti, who previously served as foreign policy adviser to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel when he was in the Senate. (According to his biography, Parasiliti had never worked in journalism before being hired to run Al-Monitor.) Parasiliti refused to comment, instead referring all questions to Al-Monitor’s counsel, Viet Dinh.
Dinh, who served Assistant Attorney General of the United States under George W. Bush and is widely reputed to be one of the chief architects of the Patriot Act, also refused to address questions about Al-Monitor’s coverage. “You can’t throw a firebomb into a theater and claim as an excuse that someone else gave you the bomb,” Dinh wrote in an email. “This has to stop.”
Daniel, president and chairman of Crest Investment Company in Texas, was born in Tartous, a port city on the Syrian coast that makes up part of the historical heartland of the Alawite sect from which Syria’s ruling regime is drawn. Daniel comes from a Christian family, one that the Financial Times reported, in December 2003, to have been involved in the founding of Syria’s ruling Ba’ath Party. Beirut’s respected Daily Star newspaper noted that Daniel is also said to be “a close friend of Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem.” Daniel was educated in Lebanon and Switzerland before he moved to the United States, where he got his bachelor’s degree at Pepperdine University in 1980 and an MBA at the University of Texas at Austin. He earned his pull in D.C. power circles as a friend and business partner of former president George W. Bush’s brother Neil, and as a “major contributor” to the presidential campaigns of George H.W. Bush and his son. Daniel’s biography notes that he has “over thirty years of experience managing investments in oil and gas, telecommunications, high technology, media, manufacturing and real estate.”
Representatives of the site would not verify information about Al-Monitor’s regional staff and how it is structured; some writers appear to be full-time salaried employees, although the vast majority seem to be freelancers. “We’ve partnered with five Turkish newspapers,” Turkey Pulse editor Goksel said. “We pay a little better than most Turkish papers.”
By publishing Israeli journalists alongside those from Arab countries, many of which are still officially at war with Israel, Daniel is breaking all sorts of Arab-owned media taboos. And the name journalists who draw salaries from the site who I did speak with all said that the site’s owner does not interfere with their work. Eldar said he met Daniel only once, in Paris. “He interviewed me for the job and I interviewed him,” Eldar told me. “I said I need full journalistic independence, and I’ve never been censored or told what to write.” The prominent Israeli journalist Ben Caspit echoed Eldar’s sentiment. “My condition is to write whatever I want to write, and no one touched my text,” Caspit told me. “I’m not sure I had this kind of freedom before.”
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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