The following article by Brian Whitaker appeared in the Guardian on 28 September 2005. This article discusses MEMRI briefly, following a more in-depth critique (Selective Memri) by the same writer three years earlier, a subsequent debate between him and MEMRI president Yigal Carmon, and another article in the TBS Journal in Spring 2005.
A new online translation service provides the west with an English-language digest of the Arabic press, writes Brian Whitaker
The idea of a “mysterious” east has been around for centuries, and even today there is nothing more mysterious for the average westerner than an Arabic newspaper with its squiggly back-to-front writing.
“As far as I can tell,” William Rugh, former US ambassador in the Middle East told a conference a couple of years ago, “there are no prominent American politicians, state governors, members of congress, members of the government, or members of the national press corps among those reading Arabic newspapers. In the entire US government … only a handful of people can read Arabic and they are so busy these days that they generally do not have time to read Arab newspapers.”
This is not particularly surprising but if we look at the situation the other way round there’s a very different picture. Large and increasing numbers of Arab politicians, government officials and journalists are fluent in English. Many of them – thanks to the internet – are now avid readers of the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Guardian and other western newspapers.
It’s much the same among ordinary Arabs, too. Even if they don’t read the foreign newspapers, they still tend to know more about what westerners are thinking than westerners know about what Arabs are thinking.
Considering the central role of the Middle East in western foreign policy and the latest US attempts to win hearts and minds in the region, this is a serious gap in our knowledge.
“Americans are not entirely ignorant of what appears in the Arabic press,” Rugh said, “but the few items of which they are aware have often been translated selectively and with hostile intent.”
The pioneer in this field was the Middle East Media Research Institute (Memri), which has been circulating translated snippets from the Arabic press since 1998. It has become influential in the US among politicians and journalists, and was once described by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman as “absolutely invaluable”.
Though Memri claims to be “independent”, its founders were Yigal Carmon, a former colonel in Israeli military intelligence – who is currently its director – and Meyrav Wurmser, an ardent Zionist who helped to draft the now-famous 1996 Clean Break document proposing the overthrow of Saddam Hussein as a step towards reshaping Israel’s strategic environment.
“This service does not present a balanced or complete picture of the Arab print media,” Rugh said. “Its owners are pro-Israeli and anti-Arab. Quotes are selected to portray Arabs as preaching hatred against Jews and westerners, praising violence and refusing any peaceful settlement of the Palestinian issue.”
Having written about Memri at length before, I don’t propose to do so again here. Readers unfamiliar with the organisation and the controversy surrounding it can refer to Wikipedia, where there’s a page with background information, links to the relevant articles and discussion of the pros and cons. Since I first wrote about Memri, however, several other English language sources have come along, and they are worth a look.
The two leading pan-Arab dailies, ash-Sharq al-Awsat and al-Hayat both publish some of their content in English translation on their websites. There’s also the Iraqi Press Monitor, produced by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, which provides a daily summary of items from the Iraqi newspapers. These sources are all free of charge.
For a general view of what the Arabic newspapers are saying – as well as some of the Farsi newspapers in Iran – the most useful and affordable service is the recently-launched Mideast Wire, which monitors more than 50 publications and provides extracts from 30-40 news items and opinion articles every day. It’s not free, but at $87 (£50) a year, the basic-rate subscription is quite modest considering the amount of copy supplied – around 10,000 words a day.
Mideast Wire was started by four journalists associated with the Daily Star in Beirut; two Americans, Nicholas Noe and Seth Walls, and two Lebanese, Majdoline Hatoum and Maha al-Azar.
After subscribing for several weeks, I think it’s safe to say there’s no obvious political agenda apart from a desire to inform people about what Arabic newspapers are saying.
“I realised there was a lot more diversity of opinion than was being portrayed,” Noe said during a visit to London last week. “Ultimately, that’s our core mission.”
“We’re not seeing ourselves as a counterbalance to Memri,” he said. “We’re interested in the whole range of opinions. The Arab media isn’t black and white … often we try to put together a number of different sources on the same issue.”
One example of this was after the London bombings in July, when Mideast Wire translated six different editorials commenting on the attacks. “This is our big difference with Memri,” he said.
Unlike Memri, which has always been secretive about its financial backers, Noe was happy to talk. Mideast Wire got $25,000 start-up money from Abdrew Rasiej, a New York internet entrepreneur, he said – though in future they hope to rely on subscription income as their best guarantee of independence.They have a team of 12 people but keep costs down by not having an office, and they work on the blogging principle, Noe said, discussing what to translate and generally keeping in touch with each other over the internet.
Making use of the time difference between the Middle East and the US, they get their translations ready in time for Americans to read them each morning. This is an important benefit, though there’s a trade-off between speed and polish. Some of the translations are a bit ragged, though they are adequate for most purposes.
As elsewhere in the world, Arab newspapers range from the serious to the sensational. Some are government and some privately owned – often by politicians or businessmen with an axe to grind – and there are very few that can truly be considered independent. The quality of the journalism also varies a great deal.
Even a perfect translation is only as good as the original article and particularly in the Middle East, it’s essential to know the quality of the source before jumping to conclusions about a story.
Over the last few weeks, Mideast Wire has translated a lot of articles – from a variety of sources and viewpoints – about Syria, Lebanon and the ongoing investigation into the assassination of Rafik Hariri.
They included several stories from a Kuwaiti newspaper about strange goings-on in Syria which, if true, would have been astounding. It seemed a bit odd that a Kuwaiti newspaper should have knowledge of the innermost machinations of the Syrian regime, so I asked a Kuwaiti journalist what he thought of the reports.
“Probably 50% accurate,” he replied. So I’m still trying to work out which 50% was accurate and which was not.
At present Mideast Wire (along with Memri) gives very little information to help readers judge the reliability or importance of the sources it translates. When I put this to Noe, he said they had already recognised the problem and would shortly be providing a background guide to the papers they monitor, including circulation figures.
In the meantime, around 2,000 people have signed up for the service, he said. They include journalists, researchers, NGOs, government bodies, sections of the US military and writer and activist Noam Chomsky. Since this is probably the first time that Chomsky and the US military have seen eye-to-eye on anything, it surely counts as a recommendation.