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Arabsats Get the MEMRI Treatment

"Dear Dr Bautista," the email began. "You may be interested in the Middle Eastern media ... I would therefore like to take this opportunity to introduce the Middle East Media Research Institute ... MEMRI has just launched a TV project, which monitors approximately 18-20 Arab TV stations, translates them in real time and sends them immediately to Western news channels," it continued. "MEMRI does not advocate causes or take sides. It is an independent, non-profit organization ... Since the institute was founded in 1998, our translations and analyses have reached tens of thousands of people around the world and have become a trusted source of information for politicians, irrespective of party, as well as for researchers, diplomats and journalists. MEMRI sources have been used in parliamentary debates and the international press: Al Jazeera TV consults us frequently, while The New York Times describes MEMRI as "invaluable."

It sounds impressive, and the recipient of this message -- Dr Julius Bautista, in the Faculty of Asian Studies at the Australian National University -- duly forwarded copies of it to his colleagues.

Deceptive emails to academics, editors and politiciansare one way that MEMRI has established itself as an "independent" source of information about the Middle East, especially among those with little or no first-hand knowledge of the Arab media.

MEMRI may not directly "advocate causes," but it is far from impartial. Its co-founder and current director is Yigal Carmon, a former colonel in Israeli military intelligence and a long-standing opponent of the Oslo accords.

In 2002 he gave testimony to the House Committee on Foreign Relations in the US, in his capacity as head of MEMRI but without mentioning his Israeli intelligence connection. Among other things, he informed the committee that the Arab media "overwhelmingly approved" of the September 11 attacks on the US, and praised Usama bin Ladin. He continued: "Many articles in the Arab media have said that the attacks were the work of the United States government itself and/or a Jewish conspiracy. Recent Gallup polls show a large majority of the Arab world continue to believe it." The poll findings were Mr. Carmon's own invention, as the Gallup Company later confirmed.

Mr. Carmon's partner in setting up MEMRI was Meyrav Wurmser, one of the authors of the now-famous "Clean Break" document which proposed reshaping Israel's "strategic environment" in the Middle East, starting with the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. The document, originally produced as guidance for the incoming Israeli government of Binyamin Netanyahu in 1996, later played a key role in shaping the Bush administration's Middle East policy. Ms. Wurmser is a close associate of Richard Perle, the chief architect of the war in Iraq (and a co-author of "Clean Break"). She is also an ardent Zionist who has written that leftwing Israeli intellectuals pose "more than a passing threat" to the state of Israel.

This political background, besides undermining MEMRI's claims of impartiality, helps to explain its agenda when selecting items for translation. "Quotes are selected to portray Arabs as preaching hatred against Jews and Westerners, praising violence and refusing any peaceful settlement of the Palestinian issue," William Rugh, a former US ambassador, told a media conference held in the UAE in 2002.

"This service does not present a balanced or complete picture of the Arab print media, because its owners are pro-Israeli and anti-Arab," he said. "One might argue that it is unfair for MEMRI to portray the Arab print media in such a negative light, but we cannot say that MEMRI has actually made up or fabricated the passages that it quotes."

For those unfamiliar with the Arab media (which in the West means almost everybody), the cumulative picture obtained by relying on MEMRI is a false one. It gives the impression that Arab readers and viewers are fed a daily torrent of extremism, anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism, and very little else.

In its translations from the print media, MEMRI makes scant efforts to disabuse people of this. It rarely gives a proper indication of how significant (or not) the publications that it quotes really are, or how representative the opinions expressed may be. To do so might damage its broader message.

In theory, MEMRI's move into TV monitoring is a good idea, since television is far more important in the Arab world than newspapers. Happily for MEMRI, the endless live discussion programs also provide a ready supply of stupid remarks of the kind that it loves to circulate to a Western audience.

Unlike MEMRI's press extracts, the TV clips have a visual impact. Besides being able to understand the words, Westerners can now see strangely-dressed men with beards ranting and gesticulating -- and be suitably terrified.

There is clearly a public demand for this sort of material in the West, in the same way that people enjoy watching horror films. MEMRI's lists of the most-viewed clips suggest that the more outrageous the remarks the more popular they are likely to be with visitors to its website.

One problem with the video clips is that MEMRI plucks them out of their original context and recycles them without adequate explanation. Clip 596 is about a computer game produced by Hizbullah. There are snatches of conversation in which a reporter from Al Arabiya TV discusses the game with two boys.

"You are supposed to kill Israeli soldiers," one of the boys says. "We learn from this that anyone who occupies my land -- I should kill him and get my land back. This is how the confrontation should be."

The reporter asks "What does one get for winning?"

"He reaches the martyrs' paradise, and lives among the young men he had been with during the days of Jihad, who liberated the land with their blood."

Was Al Arabiya trying to promote the game? Is it widely available? Where were the children from, and what was their background? What sort of program was the clip taken from? MEMRI's researchers make no attempt to tell us.

In the field of TV monitoring, MEMRI has some long-established competitors such as the Foreign Broadcast Information Service and BBC Monitoring, which are linked to the American and British governments. Both provide translations on a paid-for subscription basis, while MEMRI's services come free of charge -- thanks to the generosity of its anonymous backers.

Although the FBIS and BBC services are not comprehensive, they do try to identify broadcasts that are politically significant and relevant to current events. MEMRI's approach, however, produces some bizarrely unbalanced results. Authentic though the individual clips may be, together they present a grotesquely distorted picture.

A search for "tsunami" on MEMRI's website, for instance, identifies 14 video clips. Eight of these are from clerics or religious people claiming the disaster was God's punishment for sex tourism, homosexuality, drunkenness, corruption, religious disbelief, etc. Other clips accuse Zionists of abducting children from the disaster area and say the US was guilty of "passive murder" for not notifying Asian countries of the approaching tidal wave in time. Among the three clips that deal specifically with Arab support for the tsunami victims -- a notable feature of the international relief effort -- one highlights odd items donated by Saudi citizens: gold, company shares, and a 1988 Chevrolet.

Similarly, a search for "Lebanon" reveals just six clips in the month or so following Rafiq al-Hariri's assassination -- with barely any reflection on the momentous changes that were taking place there. The clips include: "Wife-Beating Debated on Lebanese TV Channels," "Palestinian Mufti Ikrima Sabri on Rafik Hariri's Assassination and The Protocols of the Elders of Zion," "Anti-Zionist Rabbis Join Hizbullah and Hamas At Beirut Pro-Palestinian Convention," and "Walid Jumblatt: Shab'a Farms Belong to Syria -- Not to Lebanon" (the latter headline is not exactly substantiated by the transcript that accompanies it, but we'll let that pass). There are also two predictably rhetorical extracts from speeches by the Hizbullah leader, Hasan Nasrallah.

Given the relative lack of other translations from the Arab media, MEMRI's impact has been considerable -- especially in the US. According to ex-ambassador Rugh, in a 17-month period up to January 2003, it was cited in more than 350 American newspaper articles. The Washington Times quoted it once a month on average, and The Wall Street Journal more often. Thomas Friedman, The New York Times' influential Middle East commentator, also makes frequent use of it. Al Jazeera's Jihad Ballout, on the other hand, was surprised to hear that MEMRI claimed the channel as a client; Ballout says, "We monitor all kinds of publications and media. I doubt very much that we would use this as a source of information because we can go directly to the Arabic sources."

One of MEMRI's most effective interventions came just a few days before last year's presidential election when Al Jazeera broadcast a new tape from Usama bin Ladin. In the recording, Bin Ladin argued that al-Qa'ida had refrained from attacking countries that had not shown themselves to be enemies of Islam -- Sweden, for example. He concluded: "Your security is not in the hands of Kerry or Bush or al-Qa'ida. Your security is in your own hands, and any state that does not toy with our security automatically guarantees its own security."

A couple of days later, MEMRI announced that everyone -- the US government, the BBC, Al Jazeera, etc -- had "mistranslated" the tape; what Bin Ladin said, or meant to say, was: "Any US state that does not toy with our security automatically guarantees its own security." An article by MEMRI's director, Yigal Carmon, said the tape contained "a specific threat" to each US state, "designed to influence the outcome of the upcoming election against George W Bush." Carmon's claim was based on the fact that in talking about "any state" Bin Ladin used the Arabic word wilaya. This is the normal term for an American state, though it has other meanings and has been used by Islamists to refer to nation states, such as the wilaya of Pakistan. The more usual Arabic term for states in general is dawla.

Maybe Bin Ladin was indeed talking about American states, but maybe not. If he had meant American states, he could easily have said so. Short of asking him, there is no way of knowing his real intention. Other translations rightly preserved the ambiguity of the original Arabic and MEMRI was wrong to jump to conclusions. It was also a clever bit of election propaganda on MEMRI's part, implying that Bin Ladin wanted Americans to vote for Kerry. The idea was taken up by Fox News on November 1, when John Gibson, anchorman for its evening news program, The Big Story, told viewers, "Over the weekend we finally got a good translation (i.e. from MEMRI) of Usama bin Ladin's tape, which suddenly appeared on the air on Friday. Back on Friday, it sounded like gibberish. Now, it's a bit more clear. Usama was trying to make a deal with Americans, along these lines: If you vote against Bush, we will not attack you. So, if Ohio votes for Kerry, Usama will not attack. If Florida votes for Bush, Usama will attack."

Viewers would have little trouble interpreting the message there: a vote for Kerry was a vote for Bin Ladin, and all right-thinking Americans should vote for Bush.

About Brian Whitaker

Brian Whitaker is Middle East editor of The Guardian, where he has previously written about MEMRI. In 2003 he took part in an email debate about the organization with Yigal Carmon (http://www.guardian.co.uk/israel/comment/0,,884156,00.html)

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