June 29, 2012 | Haaretz

Paper Trail Leads to Damascus

June 29, 2012 | Haaretz

Paper Trail Leads to Damascus

In December 2010, the New York Times' Robert F. Worth wrote an article about the newspaper Al-Akhbar, “the most dynamic and daring in Lebanon, and perhaps anywhere in the Arab world.” The paper, whose offices evince “more of the feel of a college newspaper than a major daily,” carries a “youthful energy and conviction.” Worth favorably contrasted Al-Akhbar's crusading spirit to what passes for journalism in much of the Middle East, a “region where the news media are still full of obsequious propaganda.”

Lebanon has suffered civil war, sectarian violence, and was for many years a satrapy of its neighbor Syria. Surely then, given Worth's effusive praise, Al-Akhbar is courageously standing up to the Levant's bullies, namely the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Baathist government of Syria, and their shared puppet army in Lebanon, Hezbollah?

Hardly. In an interview with Worth, Al-Akhbar editorial chairman Ibrahim al-Amine described the paper's mission thusly: “We wanted the U.S. ambassador to wake up in the morning, read it and get upset.” This attitude is encapsulated in the portrait of Imad Mughniyeh, the late Hezbollah intelligence chief, that Worth observed hanging in Amine's office. Mughniyeh, indicted in Argentina for the 1992 bombing of the Israeli Embassy there, and complicit in countless other terrorist attacks, is “our Che,” Amine told Worth.

Nothing has made Al-Akhbar's authoritarian political sympathies clearer than its position on the Syrian uprising, which has now entered its 15th bloody month. The slaughter reached its height when the regime murdered over 80 women and children in the city of Houla a month ago, a massacre that belatedly led Western capitals to recall their ambassadors. President Bashar Assad has spared no cruelty in attempting to put down the rebellion. According to Radwan Ziadeh, a native Syrian and fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington, “The regime makes it a habit to arrest family members and hold them hostage in exchange for wanted persons.” Honest Lebanese journalists, even some who sympathize with Hezbollah, have condemned Assad, who has demonstrated that he will stop at nothing to stay in power.

But not Al-Akhbar. Sticking to its reactionary, faux-revolutionary politics, the paper has regularly delivered fulsome praise for Assad, portraying him as the last bulwark against Western imperialism. “Supporting Assad's struggle against this multipronged assault,” Lebanese political analyst Amal Saad-Ghorayeb wrote in the paper on June 12, “is supporting Palestine today because Syria has become the new front line of the war between Empire and those resisting it.” Last week Amine wrote an article entitled, “Things Assad Can Do,” whose suggestions notably did not include, “Stop Killing People,” but which did feature a defense of Bashar continuing his tenure as president. In April, another contributor published a long piece ridiculing Western journalists, including the wounded Sunday Times photographer Paul Conroy and his murdered colleague Marie Colvin, for their “feast at the trough of their own governments' narratives on All Things.”

None of this should come as a surprise to anyone remotely familiar with Al-Akhbar's politics, as Worth certainly was when he wrote his story just a year and a half ago. As a paper that “operates under the tacit protection of Hezbollah, Lebanon's most potent military force,” there was little doubt that Al-Akhbar would rise to the defense of Assad, who guarantees Hezbollah's power through money, intelligence and by allowing his territory to serve as a conduit for weapons from Iran. Rather than portray Al-Akhbar as serving the interests of two powerful and ruthless regimes, however, Worth depicted it as an underdog whose product is “refreshingly free of the slavish headlines that are so common across the Middle East.” Worth lauded Al-Akhbar for not having “a sectarian ax to grind,” which is laughable considering that Assad's entire defense of his reign is predicated upon the sectarian argument that his minority Alawite clan can only survive if he remains firmly in power.

Like so many other Western journalists who venture to the Middle East, Worth was swayed by the rhetoric of “resistance” to supposed American and Zionist imperialism. “Our project is basically anti-imperialism,” Khaled Saghieh, the paper's “mild and cerebral managing editor,” told Worth, who didn't appear to recognize the hypocrisy in such sentiments being expressed by a backer of a regime that occupied Lebanon for three decades. Likewise, Worth writes that the paper “champions gay rights, feminism and other leftist causes, even as it wholeheartedly supports Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Shiite movement.” A fair-minded reporter, and not a gullible stenographer, would have written more skeptically about a newspaper that claims to “champion gay rights” and “feminism” while serving as propaganda outlet for the Party of God.

At the end of his 2010 article, Worth recounted a conversation with Amine, in which the paper's editorial chairman reels off his “fondest hopes,” a list culminating with the desire, in Worth's words, to “remove Israel from the map and send the Jews back to Europe – they would be more comfortable, after all, in a capitalist environment.” This cold call for ethnic cleansing, replete with a medieval characterization of avaricious Jewry, did not faze the swooning New York Times scribe. Even Vogue, which published an infamous profile of Syria's first lady last year, was shamed into apologizing for its fawning coverage and went so far as to remove the article from its website. Perhaps now, some 15,000 dead Syrians later, Robert Worth will revise his original assessment.

James Kirchick is a fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a contributing editor for The New Republic.

Read in Haaretz


Hezbollah Iran Lebanon Syria