"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.
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.
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
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
The reporter asks
"What does one get for winning?"
the martyrs' paradise, and lives among the young men he had
been with during the days of Jihad, who liberated the land with
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.
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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