By Sharmine Narwani
Imagine: Max Blumenthal can write anything he wants at Al Akhbar…so he quits.
Max Blumenthal resigned this week from Al Akhbar English in a public blogpost – classy. In it, Max makes spurious claims against one of the better-regarded daily publications in the Arab world, accusing the Lebanese paper of toeing a pro-Assad line, and naming myself, commentary writer and academic Amal Saad-Ghorayeb and Editor-in-Chief Ibrahim el-Amine as the main perpetrators of this “crime.” “Courageous,” is how he portrays Al Akhbar, before joining as a blogger last year. I, like Max, joined Al Akhbar precisely because of its reputation as a paper dedicated to exposing corruption, advancing pluralism, showcasing superb investigative reporting, and fundamentally opposing imperialism.
Max is entitled to his opinion, but he over stretches throughout his tirade. “I recently learned of a major exodus of key staffers at Al Akhbar caused at least in part by disagreements with the newspaper leadership’s pro-Assad tendency,” says Max from his perch in New York. The events in Syria have been a contentious issue for many in the Middle East, including within the various regional media outlets. And while a few staffers departed Al Akhbar perhaps partially over this issue, they have also done so at other media – Al Jazeera most notably. Max doesn’t seem to know that this issue is dated where Al Akhbar is concerned – the few who left did so well before I started writing for their English website in November 2011, and many of our writers who are critical of the Syrian government stay on and pound out their opinions on a daily basis – both in Arabic and in English. What Max fails to note – probably because he has absolutely no knowledge of the inner workings of the paper from his vantage point across the Atlantic – is that the Syrian government has even periodically inhibited Al Akhbar staff from entering the country.
The narratives battle over Syria is a vicious one and we are seeing full-on information warfare from all sides. Propaganda is calculatingly deployed to sway populations and pave the way for foreign intervention, sanctions and the militarization of this conflict – and my articles, which are subject to Max’s vitriolic outburst, focus primarily on countering false information that serves this particular agenda. I write opinion and analysis on regional geopolitics and have consistently written counter-narratives to Washington’s story lines – whether on Palestine, Iran, Syria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia or elsewhere. Folks who have little disagreement with this niche of mine in better times, should not be notably surprised by my Syria commentary today. Anti-imperialism and anti-zionism inform much of my work – you will never find me in a line-up that includes NATO, GCC and Israel, that’s for sure. Some progressives, we are discovering, have little problem with their new bedfellows – that is their choice and good luck to them in this unchartered no-man’s land.
This does not make me or anyone else at Al Akhbar pro-Assad, or pro-Gaddafi, for that matter. I stand proudly behind my articles, many of which bring new information to the media marketplace and highlight facts that are quite deliberately buried in the mainstream media that feeds at the trough of their governments’ narratives. Max also does me a disservice when he seeks only to hone in on perceived “weak points” in my articles – namely an “anonymous journalist” who happens to be one of the very few Arab reporters to have managed to infiltrate armed salafist groups in Lebanon, Syria and beyond. He is unnamed for obvious reasons – so that he can continue his courageous work, unrecognized by those who might seek to kill him for pursuing these difficult stories. Max, however, conveniently forgets that his “dominant narrative” on Syria in the mainstream media consistently and repeatedly sources “unnamed activists” to bolster their dubious story lines on a daily basis.
Instead of addressing the substantial evidence at the core of my articles, Max chooses to conflate my opinions with that of zionist Israel and imperialist America in order to malign by association. Then this man, whom I have never met and who knows next to nothing about my personal views on Bashar al-Assad, accuses me of cobbling “together a scattershot of YouTube clips” to make my arguments. Nothing could be further from the truth. I actively avoid YouTube footage from either side in Syria and have publicly stated that I believe them to be highly unreliable as sources of information – entirely unverifiable unless there is a “known” individual in them (Gilles Jacquier, Danny Abdul Dayem), and have even written that some amount to little more than “snuff films.” Meanwhile, Max’s preferred media – the ones that reflect his viewpoint on Syria – regularly feature unverifiable video footage as evidence in their stories. He just flat-out lies about my use of YouTube footage. Amazing.
“None of Assad’s apologists appear to have done any journalistic fieldwork to support their opinions. Ghorayeb and Narwani seem to have confined themselves to Beirut,” declares Max. Wrong. I have made two trips to Syria in the past six months – the first to interview a wide range of domestic opposition figures, most of whom have spent years languishing in Syrian prisons; the second just a week ago, to spend time with the UN Observer team and learn about the changed military landscape throughout the country.
No journalistic fieldwork? How would Max know? He has done none on Syria, yet he presumes to condemn the dogged pursuit of truth by others. Even the unlikely neoconservative National Review recognized the value of the extensive research I did on the myths surrounding the Syrian “Casualty List,” calling that piece “perhaps the only serious attempt yet made to assess the solidity of those grounds (humanitarian).”
Like I said, Max is entitled to his opinion. But it is important to note that Al Akhbar English has, at no time, ever sought to prevent Max from expressing his views on Syria. If Max knew the first thing about the English-language website and its staff, he would know that my views there are the minority opinion. Max didn’t bother typing out a reasoned argument against the government of Bashar al-Assad, based on empirical evidence and diligent research. No, he thought it easier to cast stones at the entire Al Akhbar enterprise. Tell you what Max, next time you whine about your employers publicly, you may want to make sure you have good reason. Your freedom of speech was not suppressed at Al Akhbar. On the other hand, AOL-Huffington Post, for which Max also blogs, has censored all but one of my dozen or so articles on Syria, starting last December. Did he tweet that article of mine exposing the suppression of information by a major American media outlet? Did he share it on Facebook – this media censorship against a HuffPost/Al Akhbar colleague of his? No.
I have never stated any personal sentiment for or against Bashar al-Assad in any of my articles. I leave that decision entirely to a current and future Syrian majority. Max may feel strongly about “what Syrians need and deserve,” but his views are of little consequence in a region with which he has no connection. He has no right to determine these things, and has even less right to angrily expect “natives” to follow his American lead.
The fact is that my blogposts at Al Akhbar English get on average three times as many readers as Max’s pieces. These are views that are representative of populations in the Middle East. Who is Max to preach to these people? Who is he to determine, condemn, suggest what they read?
Cry me a river, Max. You just became part of information warfare in your attempt to discredit one of the few newspapers in the Arab world that pursues free speech as a fundamental tenet. Languish in your hypocrisy as you bang out more-of-the-same uninformed narratives for the increasingly disconnected North American publications who embrace your not-particularly-courageous stands. They wouldn’t publish them if you were genuinely stepping outside an accepted parameter for discourse. But Al Akhbar would.