Over just over a decade, socialite Arianna Huffington has patched together a veritable media empire. Huffington Post, launched on May 10, 2005. AOL acquired Huffington Post in 2011 for $315 million. The next year, Huffington Post became the first commercial digital outlet to win a Pulitzer Prize, taking home the award for national reporting. The company has since spun off local editions in Chicago, New York, Denver, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Detroit, Miami, and Hawaii, and international spin-offs in Canada, and Great Britain as well as French, Spanish, German, Brazilian Portuguese, and Arabic language versions and partnerships.
The Huffington Post has always been a mixed bag. It drives up its stats with “clickbait.” Pulitzer notwithstanding, this detracts from the seriousness of its news coverage, as does its occasional penchant for polemic and conspiracy theory over fact. Nevertheless, Huffington must be credited for her very real impact. The format might be different, and her politics may have migrated over time, but the results are indisputable: today Arianna Huffington really has become the Matt Drudge of the political left.
Alas, while her politics may be firmly ‘progressive’ and mainstream even if to the left in the American context, they are anything but in the Arab world. Her “Huffington Post Arabi” has become a cesspool less for serious news, and more a mechanism to legitimize conspiracy, promote the Muslim Brotherhood, anti-Semitism, sectarian strife, anti-gay bias, and more. Admittedly, much of this lays less with Huffington directly than with the partners she choose and which now provide her Arabic site with content. Having sampled HuffPost Arabi, Brian Whitaker, a former Guardian journalist and Arabist whose own writings trend hard to the political left and occasional conspiratorial anti-Americanism, called her out for the content of her Arabic affiliate, much of which he seemed to blame on her partner, former Al-Jazeera Media Network chief Wadah Khanfar.
The Huffington-Khanfar partnership is curious. In 1997, Khanfar published a dissertation on “The Israeli Policy in Africa,” the introduction to which warned of “The Zionist project… [as] an expansionist project that seeks to establish a ‘Greater Israel,’ stretching from the head of the Nile to the mouth of the Euphrates in order to establish a presence across the African continent.” Khanfar warned of Israel’s looming “return to Africa…to drain it of its bounties and exploit its natural resources and use them to grow its industrial machine, and to fulfill its aspirations to dominate the region.” For most, such loony conspiracies would be a red flag. Huffington appears either not to care or to be unaware. Either way, the partnership is deeply troubling. Nor is Khanfar shy about his Hamas ties. While in South Africa, he shared an address with the Al-Aqsa Foundation, which the U.S. Treasury Department designated “a critical part of Hamas terrorist support infrastructure.” Such linkage to Hamas seems to be more rule than exception. Wadah’s brother Mahdi appears to be a Hamas activist, and two other brothers—Fahmi and Hakim—have been arrested for Hamas activities.
It was in South Africa that Khanfar joined Al Jazeera. In 2001, he transferred with the company to Afghanistan, and he became Iraq bureau chief in 2003. Huffington opposed the Iraq war, but her alliance with the Al Jazeera bureau chief at the time is curious. After all, on several occasions during Operation Iraqi Freedom, U.S. servicemen received anonymous tips drawing them to specific locations, only to find Al Jazeera reporters manning positions around what they later determined to be a massive booby-trap. Watching American servicemen murdered might make good ratings, but Al Jazeera at the time seemed to cross the line between journalism and terrorism.
Back to Khanfar: Whitaker reports Khanfar subsequently started “Integral Media Strategies,” and describes Khanfar’s Islamist leanings and writings at length, he only scratches the surface about Khanfar’s long obsession with “integral media.” Long before he formed his company, Khanfar argued in various seminars and speeches, that the goal of “integral media” is to challenge the influence of a media environment he believes overly dominated if not controlled by corporations and governments. In what might be considered extreme projection, Khanfar has suggested that too many traditional outlets present opinion as fact and do not represent the interests of “the people.” Both the rise of social media and the steep reduction in the cost of media technology, he argues, provide an opportunity to exert the collective will of “the people” over traditional power centers and curate news in the new media environment. Gobbledygook aside, what this means in practice is that “integral media” could generate content and gather news by social networks using smart bloggers with only basic knowledge of professional journalism. With savings generated by eliminating the traditional newsroom, he could invest in huge numbers of bloggers. The end result would not be the stiff hierarchies so common in major media corporations, but rather a small number of managers presiding over relatively flat networks. The Arab Spring—and especially Al Jazeera’s experience in Egypt—catalyzed Khanfar’s vision. As the Mubarak regime cracked down on foreign correspondents, Al Jazeera’s “New Media Department” distributed several hundred flip cameras to build a network of citizen-reporters who could post content online. (Iran’s Al-Alam did something similar among Iraqis ahead of the U.S. invasion of Iraq).
Khanfar went further, however. Rather than allow the free content he generated to diffuse passively across the web, he and a team of close associates set up multiple websites, each of which would both generate some fresh content, but then re-post and amplify material from other websites in the network. Imagine, for example, an Arabic equivalent of Associated Press, albeit without professional journalists. The sheer number of outlets, combined with Youtube, twitter, and other social media could place the content he generated into the center of political discussion. Take, for example, the following news outlets, the websites for which were all registered by one Mohammed Arnous:
- Noon Post: Managed by Arnous, also the new media director at Al Jazeera Turk, Noon Post’s tone is consistently more sympathetic to Islamist terrorism and more hostile to Israel and moderate Arab states than mainstream Arabic media. Just a quick glance at its twitter feed (@NoonPost) demonstrates this. On August 24, 2014, it declared, for example, “the Palestinian Resistance Wings… [to be] the next nucleus of a Liberation Army,” and a few weeks later, it glorified terrorist attacks in Israel with effusive praise, declaring, “The Vehicle and the Knife Succeed in Threatening the Security of Israel.” When Huffington Post announced the start of HuffPost Arabi, Noon Post broadcast the press release across its network. HuffPost Arabi was going to be its partner, not its competitor.
- The Tunisian Press Agency: Established in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, this official-sounding news service has led the charge to condemn Egypt’s designation of the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization,” and generally promotes political Islamism against the backdrop of Tunisians seeking a more secular government.
- Libya Al-Khabar: This site heralded the arrival of Libyan militants trained in Egypt and regularly amplifies the supposed heroism of Libyan radicals and Islamists.
- Turk Press: With Tayyip Erdoğan’s suppression of more liberal and independent press and simultaneous promotion of Islamist papers and web portals, Turkey’s media scene hardly needed Islamist reinforcement, but that’s exactly what Turk Press is. On November 10, 2014, for example, it headlined “Where is the Islamic Ummah on the American-Israeli Agreement?”
There are sites as well:
- Middle East Eye: Jonathan Powell, an Al Jazeera employee in charge of special projects in the Chairman’s office and close associate of Khanfar (the three are pictured together in a photo tweeted by Huffington among key colleagues at a desert dinner in Qatar), was the launch consultant for this outlet staffed largely by Muslim Brotherhood acolytes. In theory, Middle East Eye covers the region, but in reality, it maintains a steady drum beat of criticism of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s government in Egypt.
- Sasa Post: Whitaker wrote at length about the Sasa Post which has published such articles as “How the Jews Control the Global Economy,” but that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Here, for example, Sasa Post suggests the Jews cynically manipulate the Holocaust to their aims, and that they really didn’t care or talk much about the Holocaust until the 1960s, when it became politically convenient. The site was initially registered to Majid Al-Adwan, a social media specialist for Qatar Charity and a presenter of the Qatar Foundation radio show (also pictured at the desert gathering), although the site subsequently switched its registration to a proxy.
The importance of these sites is that they generate content and cross post, both among each other and then to HuffPost Arabi. In effect, Huffington gives these outlets a greater audience and an ability to launder their hatred into the mainstream.
The Arab world is politically diverse. There are progressive forces, and there are regressive forces and, in the Sunni Arab world, the battles between the two have become particularly bloody. The Arabic media environment, meanwhile, is likewise not homogenous. There are real professionals across the landscape who risk their life to report real news, but the proportion of the press landscape occupied by unethical, unprofessional, polemical, and conspiratorial journalists is far greater than in perhaps any other region on earth. How unfortunate it is that with HuffPost Arabi, Huffington choose to cast liberals, religious minorities, secularists, and gays aside in order to empower, publish and promote the Sunni Islamist religious fringe.