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November 24, 2004

Repressive MEMRI


by Juan Cole

I just checked my campus mail and found a letter in it from Colonel Yigal Carmon, late of Israeli military intelligence, now an official at the Middle East Media Research Organization, or MEMRI. He threatened me with a lawsuit over blog comments I made at Informed Comment. This technique of the SLAPP, or Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation, has already been pioneered by polluting industries against environmental activists, and now the pro-Likud lobby in the U.S. has apparently decided to try it out against people like me.

I urge all readers to send messages of protest to memri@memri.org. Please be polite, and simply urge MEMRI, which has a major Web presence, to withdraw the lawsuit threat and to respect the spirit of the free sharing of ideas that makes the Internet possible.

Here is the letter:

November 8, 2004

Professor Juan Cole
University of Michigan History Department
1029 Tisch Hall
435 S. State Street
Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1003

Dear Professor Cole,

I write in response to your article "Osama Threatening Red States?" published on November 3, 2004 on Antiwar.com. The article included several statements about MEMRI which go beyond what could be considered legitimate criticism, and which in fact qualify as slander and libel. While we respect your right to argue the veracity of our translations, you certainly may not fabricate information about our organization. You make several claims that are patently false:

Trying to paint MEMRI in a conspiratorial manner by portraying us as a rich, sinister group, you write that "MEMRI is funded to the tune of $60 million a year." This is completely false.

You also write that MEMRI is an "anti-Arab propaganda machine" that "cherry-picks the vast Arabic press." If you have any level of familiarity with MEMRI, you should be aware of our Reform Project, which is one of the most important of MEMRI's projects, and which receives much of our energy and resources. The Reform Project (www.memri.org/reform.html) is devoted solely to finding and amplifying the progressive voices in the Arab world. It is especially disappointing that these charges do not come from an overzealous journalist, but from a member of the academic community, from whom one should be able to expect at least the minimum amount of research and corroboration.

In addition, you write that "MEMRI is one of a number of public relations campaigns essentially on behalf of the far right-wing Likud Party in Israel." This, too, is completely false. MEMRI is totally unaffiliated with any government, and receives no government funding. While I was formerly an Israeli official (and retired more than a decade ago), I have never been affiliated with the Likud Party, or any other party.

As such, we demand that you retract the false statements you have made about MEMRI. If you will not do so, we will be forced to pursue legal action against you personally and against the University of Michigan, which the article identifies you as an employee of. We hope this will not be necessary.

Sincerely,

[signed]
Yigal Carmon

Col. Carmon's letter makes three charges: 1) that I alleged that MEMRI receives $60 million a year for its operations; 2) that I alleged that MEMRI cherry-picks the vast Arab press for articles that make the Arabs look bad; 3) that I said that MEMRI was affiliated with the Likud Party.

This is how I would reply:

1) I am glad to publish the annual funding of MEMRI, and its sources, as provided by Col. Carmon, if he will tell us what the figure is, which he has not. As a historian, I have no desire to have anything but the facts in evidence. MEMRI obviously a well-funded operation, as any familiarity with its scope and activities would make clear. In the meantime, I am glad to acknowledge that the figure I gave has been disputed by Col. Carmon. I think he would find that in democratic countries, in any case, a dispute over an organization's level of funding would be laughed out of court as a basis for a libel action. In fact, I am giggling as I write this.

2) I continue to maintain that MEMRI is selective and biased against the Arab press, and that it highlights pieces that cast Arabs, especially committed Muslims, in a negative light. That it also rewards secular Arabs for being secularists is entirely beside the point (and this is the function of the "reform" site). On more than one occasion I have seen, say, a bigoted Arabic article translated by MEMRI and when I went to the source on the Web, found that it was on the same op-ed page with other, moderate articles arguing for tolerance. These latter were not translated.

3) I did not allege that MEMRI or Col. Carmon are "affiliated" with the Likud Party. What I said was that MEMRI functions as a PR campaign for Likud Party goals. Col. Carmon and Meyrav Wurmser, who run MEMRI, were both die-hard opponents of the Oslo peace process, and so ipso facto were identified with the Likud rejectionists on that central issue.

Col. Carmon was not a formal member of the Likud party while serving in Israeli military intelligence because active-duty military are not usually involved in civilian political parties! Since he retired to the U.S., he did not have the occasion to join the Likud, but there seems little question that if he were living in Israel he would vote for Likud rather than Labor, given his public stances.

So, the charge that I claimed an "affiliation" of MEMRI with Likud, isn't true in the first place, and there is nothing to retract. That issue almost certainly generated the entire letter. MEMRI is a 501 (c) 3 organization, which is tax-exempt in U.S. law, and therefore cannot engage in (much) directly political activity without endangering its exemption. I don't think MEMRI does so directly intervene in politics as to make its 501 (c) 3 status questionable. But it is obvious that 501 (c) 3 is widely abused by right-wing think tanks.

More discussion on MEMRI on the Web can be found here.

I've said all I am going to say to Col. Carmon just now. Israeli military intelligence is used to being able to censor the Israeli press and intimidate journalists, and it is a bit shocking that Carmon should imagine that such intimidation would work in a free society.

I will add another criticism of MEMRI, which is that it systematically violates the intellectual property of Arab writers by appropriating their content without paying for it, storing it on their servers, and then claiming copyright in the work as translated! This is a shameful way of proceeding. Where the source articles are published in a country that is signatory to the major international copyright agreements, it may be illegal. All sites dealing in other languages do quote or translate from time to time, which falls under fair use. But MEMRI has a much more systematic set of appropriations going.

MEMRI has begun taking out blog ads. Since it can hardly go about threatening bloggers with lawsuits without violating the essential spirit of open discourse on the Web, it has forfeited any claim on our eyeballs. I urge all bloggers to decline advertisements from MEMRI until such time as Col. Carmon withdraws his outrageous threat.


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    Juan Cole is Professor of History at the University of Michigan. Visit his blog.

     

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