quarta-feira, 20 de novembro de 2013

Nada al-Ahdal: a tiny piece of modern propaganda (pt 1)

Anyone who saw this viral video last summer was probably conquered by amazing 11-year-old-Yemeni girl, Nada al Ahdal. Beautiful and articulate, she stands up against a terrible custom: arranged marriages of children with middle-aged men. There is no denying about the existence of this practice (in Yemen or elsewhere), but the video (gone-viral) seems to be sending a much broader message to the “civilized” world: in Yemen, they marry little girls (implying it is a backwards place). The viewer’s reaction might be: how dare they waste the life of kids as bright as Nada?

Never mind our total ignorance about the place, which is Muslim by the way. Never mind the long history and the cultural complexity (which produced little wonder Nada). This single piece of information should be sufficient for “us” to get a pretty good idea about the place, shouldn’t it? And in the end, the drone attacks on Yemen, a major and preoccupying piece of Yemeni news (this time not so viral), are not that bad, are they? We are not shown the results of the attacks, we just know they went to bomb a bunch of "bad people".

This post is about the way we, as a mass, may buy an idea (Muslim places are backwards, women and especially little girls are helpless, most guys from these places are not cool, potentially dangerous and narrow-minded), while on the other hand, highly controversial and grave matters such as drone attacks are barely questioned. This strange couple needs to be addressed more often. 

The video, diffused by MEMRI TV, is a perfect example of the mechanisms contributing to draw a negative image of this part of the world while it is bombed by unmanned planes (among other things, including being bombed by manned aircrafts). For this reason, it is wise to question oneself about the channel this video took to then become viral, after being relayed by newspapers and social media (in which order, I do not know). So here’s the basic question: what exactly is MEMRI and who took two minutes to look it up? I did.

MEMRI stands for Middle East Media Research Institute. Doing a bit a research leaves no doubt: it is not your average YouTube account holder (apparently, they left YouTube). Here’s how they present themselves on the front page of their site:

Founded in February 1998 to inform the debate over U.S. policy in the Middle East, MEMRI is an independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit, 501(C) 3 organization [which means they receive public money through their tax return]. MEMRI's main office is located in Washington, DC, with branch offices in various world capitals. MEMRI research is translated into English, French, Polish, Japanese, and Hebrew

A source of valuable information or a propaganda machine?

MEMRI might be serious regarding the quality of translation, and even rigorous in their written production (Inquiry and Analysis Series). On the other hand, a passage on their site shows a clear pattern of selection targeting many manifestations of negativity of the so-called "Arab world". 

The videos (picked among a hundred or so channels) emphasize on the “apparent” inability of these “remote” places to be orderly or to be heading towards “progress”. MEMRI gets the work done by showing and translating a lot of arguing, cursing, stubborn radical views... Islamist extremism a must... stupid comments will do... and in a more subtle register, implying how difficult it must be to lead a normal life for whoever happening to be “miraculously” good-willed and moderate.

The trick is to make the whole thing look scary, but not with gruesome pictures; with words. This tactical communication endeavour’s “pièce de résistance” is very smart indeed. This is propaganda at its best, because it sends such a powerful message and trustworthy message: MEMRI shows you the problem, but it’s locals who tell you about it, not us; we only provide the translation (and the selection)

The written analysis seems to target another kind of public (US officials, college graduates...?). The relevant point for this post is that the texts are signed by MEMRI’s members of staff, collaborators or even the boss himself:

Who is Yigal Carmon?

Brian Whitaker (the Guardian) did some research on MEMRI back in 2002 for two reasons. First, he and fellow workers had been receiving MEMRI material on a regular basis. It seemed to attract the attention of many of his fellow workers, to the extent of the journalist being advised and even asked to write stories based on some of this material. However, he also realized that this good quality material came from an organisation that failed the test of transparency. His research was fruitful.

MEMRI’s founder, Yigal Carmon, was Colonel in the Israeli military intelligence for 22 years. Then, he served as a counter-terrorism adviser for two Israeli prime ministers. Whitaker also found two other staff members with similar backgrounds. Added to that, co-founder Meyrav Wurmser happens to be a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, a US conservative think tank. Whitaker portrays her as a powerful and qualified messenger against Israeli left-wing intellectuals. Although it is part of her private life, it is relevant to add that she is married to David Wurmser, who was Dick Cheney’s Middle East adviser when he was the (Vice) President of the United States. Having made this point, the journalist goes over two of MEMRI’s stories in order to show how they are carefully and selectively produced, omitting key information and context (because it is propaganda?). 

Independent and bipartisan? 

Some questions need no answers. More than ten years after Whitaker’s article, others wrote about the organisation, but MEMRI is going well and is now a lot more transparent (or at least it seems to be). It is a partner of the US government as well as the military in the War on Terror (WOT). Some facts need no comments, and it is a bit scary, because the WOT was itself fueled by propaganda right from the start. A great match, indeed. 

MEMRI’s definitely not a place for Nada Al-Ahdal and journalists should know better. Especially because MEMRI should be well known. For instance, Al Jazeera did a story on it in 2011 (The Listening Post: 15th minute).

Back to Nada 

Probably because of the scope of the online fuss, a small part of the media and especially a civil society organisation ended up verifying the story. Shouldn’t it be done before? If social media cannot wait, the main media should do a minimum of homework before jumping on a story gone viral, or at the very least, play the video explaining briefly what’s MEMRI all about. It is time to check who did their homework and who didn’t (work in progress, there will be a second post).

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