By Sean Savage/JNS.org
As debates about “fake news” continue to rage worldwide, a Mideast-focused watchdog organization is taking its quest to hold the media accountable to a new language.
The Boston-based Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA) recently announced it has hired Syrian-born researcher Ahed al-Hendi to spearhead the organization’s new Arabic-language media department.
According to CAMERA, the new department will monitor Arabic versions of major Western media outlets including the BBC, Sky News, CNN, Agence France-Presse, France24, The Associated Press, Reuters, the Huffington Post and Al Jazeera.
“No organization currently monitors Arabic-language media for accuracy and adherence to professional codes of journalistic practice,” CAMERA Executive Director Andrea Levin said. “Other excellent organizations monitoring Arabic-language media, such as MEMRI (the Middle East Media Research Institute), are doing vital but different work, providing translations of Arabic-language media reports. CAMERA’s Arabic project has an entirely different objective and will complement but not overlap with MEMRI and other related groups.”
CAMERA hopes to build off its decades of work holding English, Hebrew and Spanish media accountable for bias and misreporting when it comes to Israel.
“My staff and I will begin by addressing influential outlets such as the BBC and CNN, reviewing their Arabic coverage of the Arab-Israeli conflict and communicating with editors to promote accurate, complete news,” Hendi told JNS.org.
Hendi comes to CAMERA with considerable firsthand knowledge and experience regarding the challenges facing the Arab world. Born in Syria, Hendi spent 40 days in a Syrian prison in 2006 for co-founding a pro-democracy group known as Syrian Youth for Justice.
“While in prison, I was able to understand that I was not living in a free ‘republic state,’ but in a state whose ruler treated himself like a god,” Hendi said, explaining that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad acts as if he is “divine” and “untouchable.”
“I had no right to question my arrest, to speak to my lawyer or to contact my family,” he said.
Eventually, Hendi fled Syria to Jordan in 2007 and gained refugee status in the U.S., where he has been living since 2009. With the advent of the Syrian Civil War in 2011, Hendi become an outspoken activist in support of the pro-democracy movement in his native country, briefing former heads of state, members of the U.S. Congress and other high-level officials on the situation there.
Hendi said his experience in Syria has led him to understand the importance of media and how repressive governments use it as a tool to control their citizens.
“When I grew up in Syria, we had two official TV stations, and we did not have access to different political point of views. The Assad regime used this control to spread all types of lies. These lies, such as those propagated against the Jewish state, are widely believed,” he said.
Hendi came to realize many Arab governments used the Arab-Israeli conflict to bolster their own regimes, while maintaining repression at home.
“After prison, I started to read more about Israel. I came to believe that all the myths propagated about Israel are useful tools that help despotic regimes like Assad’s maintain their rule,” Hendi said. “Portraying Israel as evil is a technique that many Arab rulers use so that they can be perceived at home as protecting [their people] from the Jewish state.”
Hendi considers his personal story the exception to the rule, as many in the Arab world have not had similar revelations about their governments and cultures. Anti-Semitism remains rampant even in Egypt and Jordan, Arab countries that have official peace treaties with Israel.
“Anti-Semitic myths are unfortunately very common in the Arab world,” Hendi said, pointing to blood libels; the enduring popularity of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” an anti-Semitic fabrication; and many Arabs’ belief in anti-Jewish 9/11 conspiracy theories.
“All of these are widely believed conspiracies in the Arab world. Unfortunately, the media plays a vital role in disseminating such dangerous nonsense,” he said.
Seeking to address this challenge, some Jewish and pro-Israel organizations have tried to hold Arabic news outlets accountable. CAMERA recently prompted a correction in the Huffington Post’s Arabic-language website regarding its reporting on President Donald Trump’s recent Middle East visit.
Hendi said the presence of more accurate reporting on Israel might lead to a broader shift in the Middle East.
“By encouraging news organizations to engage in objective, unbiased reporting about Israel, it could help the free people of the Middle East to debunk all the theories that their ruling regimes use to oppress them,” Hendi said.
“If you take a look at many major Arabic media outlets, they often only discuss Israel from a conspiratorial perspective,” he said. “Debunking such conspiracies is essential to the advancement of Arabic societies and a freer, more prosperous Middle East.”