WASHINGTON – Leading journalists and policy-makers debated on Wednesday the issue of terrorist- and regime-controlled media and the ability of Western news organizations to debunk the ubiquitous disinformation spread by such non-democracies as the Islamic Republic of Iran, Syria and the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.
Clifford D. May, the president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and a former New York Times correspondent, asked, “Does anyone really think that they [Iran’s Fars News Agency and Press TV] operate according to the ethics taught in reporting and writing 101 at the Columbia School of Journalism?” It is worth recalling that Press TV participated in a torture session of Iranian-Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari, who was imprisoned in Tehran for his Newsweek reporting on the Green Revolution in 2009. He said he was beaten and threatened with execution during his 118-day incarceration period.
The FDD conference, titled “Terrorist, Regime and Western Media: The War of Ideas in the Disinformation Age,” delved into a number of current rows at the Washington-based Newseum where the conference was held.
The Newseum – an institution devoted to press freedoms and an independent media – was slated in May to honor two alleged journalists from Hamas’s media outlet Al Aqsa TV. The Obama administration designated Al Aqsa TV a terrorist organization in 2010. After the Newseum’s decision to honor Al Aqsa TV erupted into a scandal, Newseum pulled the plug on the award, stating it “decided to reevaluate” whether to add the Al Aqsa employees to its Journalism Memorial Wall. It is unclear if Newseum has made a final decision.
In a deeply bizarre posture for an organization that champions media transparency and a lively, assertive media, Newseum representatives refused to provide information about the Al Aqsa case.
May said that the Newseum declined to participate in the conference event. Perhaps the Newseum’s conduct should not be terribly surprising. After all, Al Jazeera – the Qatar monarchy’s news organization, which shows great sympathy for Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood in its programming, rents space for its show America Tonight from a studio in the Newseum.
May quoted Richard Engel, an NBC foreign correspondent, who neatly captured the way phony journalists have outmuscled and deceived the wider public: “Just because you carry a camera and a notebook doesn’t make you a journalist.”
Engel delivered his remark at the Newseum event intended to honor the Hamas Al Aqsa employees.
There may very well be an Act II of awarding alleged terrorist media representatives at the Newseum. An employee from the Syrian regime-controlled Al Dunya Television outlet, who was killed during a battle in Aleppo, is being considered for an honor ceremony at the Newseum.
Al Dunya has been designated as a terrorist entity by the US and the EU. According to the US Treasury department, “Correspondents of Al-Dunya and official Syrian television allegedly conducted interviews that were not broadcast, but were delivered to Syrian intelligence personnel who used them to arrest interviewees who refuted the reports of Syrian authorities.”
The Treasury department designation further noted: “After ransacking and storming farms in Harasta, Syria, Syrian government forces planted weapons and ammunition and brought in an Al-Dunya crew to falsely portray the location as a weapons depot.
“Correspondents from Al-Dunya and Syrian television accompanied Syrian military intelligence units to interview detainees. The detainees were interviewed after being tortured and threatened with death to force them to say what the government of Syria wanted.”
It is perplexing as to why an organization – Newseum – symbolizing the most advanced democratic media country in the world, entertains the idea to honor employees aiding nefarious regimes. Is it a case of journalistic naivete? Or the deterioration of quality journalism? Could the cashcow Al Jazeera’s rental payments to the Newseum in an age of financially strapped journalism enterprises have played a role? The ongoing challenge for media critics and news organizations will be to break away from an ostensible bottomless pit of journalistic relativism and adhere to democratic standards of news reporting on the growing trend of slick regime-dominated media promoting intensely non-democratic ideologies.
Benjamin Weinthal reports on European affairs for The Jerusalem Post and is a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.