Saturday, April 18, 2015

There are Other Issues with Richard Engel

We learned this week about another scandal at NBC News, this time involving the kidnapping of Richard Engel in Syria (unless you read As’ad AbuKhalil's article on Angry Arab News Service in 2012 ).

I first heard about it on Emptywheel
In both Syria and Ukraine, the US press has largely been as obedient as the press is forced to be in Russia, telling convenient narratives that justify our armed intervention. The notion that US Congressmen who themselves spew propaganda are squealing about Putin’s great power of propaganda is almost pathetic in the face of all that.
The New York Times broke the news after their investigation

A Sunni militant group not connected to Assad, Iran or Hezbollah
NBC News on Wednesday revised its account of the 2012 kidnapping of its chief foreign correspondent, Richard Engel, saying it was likely that Mr. Engel and his reporting team had been abducted by a Sunni militant group, not forces affiliated with the government of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria.
Engel did not see a dead body himself
In his Vanity Fair article, Mr. Engel described one of his captors lying dead. In his statement Wednesday, he acknowledged that he did not see bodies during the rescue.
He said that one of his producers, Aziz Akyavas, climbed out of the van through the driver-side door, stepping over a body. “I climbed out of the passenger-side door,” he wrote. “A bearded gunman approached and said that we were safe now. That was our introduction to Abu Ayman. He said that he and his men had killed the two kidnappers. Under the circumstances, and especially since Aziz said that he had seen and stepped over a body, I didn’t doubt it and later reported it as fact.”
Glenn Greenwald at The Intercept elaborates about who knew what and when.  No one has said outright that Engel knew who his captors really were.
There were ample reasons at the time to be suspicious that this was a scam (perpetrated on (not by) Engel and his fellow captives) to blame Assad for the abduction.
Nobody can blame Engel — a courageous reporter, fluent in Arabic — for falling for what appears to be a well-coordinated ruse. Particularly under those harrowing circumstances, when he and his fellow captives believed with good reason that their lives were in immediate danger, it’s completely understandable that he believed he had been captured by pro-Assad forces. There is no real evidence that Engel did anything wrong in recounting his ordeal.
But the same is most certainly not true of NBC News executives. In writing his new account, Engel does not mention the most important and most incriminating aspect of The New York Times reporting: that NBC officials knew at the time that there was reason to be highly skeptical of the identity of the captors, but nonetheless allowed Engel and numerous other NBC and MSNBC reporters to tell this story with virtually no questioning.
Engel's own statement says
I, along with two other Arabic speaking members of our six-member team, believed they were from the Shabiha.
it is clear that we were kidnapped by a criminal gang for money and released for propaganda purposes. We still cannot determine whether we were set up to be kidnapped from the start
The Myth of the Moderate Free Syrian Army
As’ad AbuKhalil: I was skeptical about the entire enterprise of Western journalistic coverage of Syria, particularly by American correspondents in the region. There was a lot of stuff that’s been told and transmitted that contradicted the realities on the ground. They created this myth about a moderate, secular group called the Free Syrian Army. And they were, in fact, attacking people like myself and others who were saying that the bulk of the fighting force of the so-called Syrian revolutionaries were militant fanatics of the bin Ladenite style. And in reality, we knew at the time that what is so-called the Free Syrian Army is no more than a coterie of criminal gangs and thugs that were running amok throughout the area of the so-called liberated sections of Syria, and they were engaged in sectarian kidnapping, ransoms, murder, indiscriminate shelling, and they would sometimes kidnap people, and they’d sell them to other gangs
So, but there is also something political, as Glenn mentioned, which is, there is—there was a war lobby. There were people hedging at the time in order to get the United States to intervene militarily on the side of these rebels, along with Saudi Arabia, the same allies that we now have in the so-called war on Yemen. And at the time, the statements that Richard Engel made—and I should mention that what is—I mean, there is a political story, and there’s a journalistic story. I mean, there are questions to be raised not only about the credibility of Mr. Engel, but also about bad judgment. And this is a correspondent, one of the few who’s fluent in Arabic. He can speak it fluently, he can understand it. And yet, upon his release, he taped a video in Arabic for the propaganda arm of the Free Syrian Army, in which he made fantastic claims. And I went and watched it yesterday to my amazement. I mean, he admitted yesterday to The New York Times that in fact he may have lied when he said he witnessed, at the time of his rescue, dead bodies. Now he’s saying he didn’t. But if you watch the video he taped for the Free Syrian Army benefit, he in fact claimed he saw more dead bodies upon being captured. And he also told a fantastic story about how these awful Shiite militias went about to burn somebody alive, but they couldn’t find enough gasoline. I mean, he has to account for that.
As'ad writes also that
Richard Engel has to account for those statements in this propaganda video for the Free Syrian Army
As'ad writes about Engel's Arabic that
I am most impressed with Engel's Arabic. He is really fluent in Arabic and speaks it with a semi-Egyptian accent. I must state that I did not expect this and I don't recall knowing or meeting one US correspondent in the Middle East with such fluency. He did not get stuck on words in the entire video and uses the language with such facility. If all correspondents in the region know Arabic like Engel, US media coverage of the region would be much better.
When I heard about the story I immediately knew this was not a lone incident with Richard Engel

Looking around I remembered where I had seen the articles discussing other problems with Engel's reporting in the Middle East.

In July 2012, Engel wrote himself that
the first casualty of war is the truth.
Here is the full paragraph as Engel documents Assad's crimes
The Assad goverment is concentrating its firepower on big cities like Damascus and Aleppo. Government troops left this village last night to join the attack on Aleppo. But the rebels, and Syria, need urgent help to prevent huge losses of life, both among fighters and civilians – Sunni, Allawite and Christian.
Many myths circulate in Washington and in the media about the Syrian opposition and the fighting in this country. From what I’ve seen traveling with the rebels, many of the commonly accepted ‘truths’ seem to be incorrect. After all, the first casualty of war is the truth.
He reports on "myths" and reports what he sees on the ground (random examples)
Myth: The rebels are getting weapons and money from abroad and will soon finish off Bashar’s army on their own.
View from the ground: The rebels are fighting with almost nothing
Myth: The rebels are disorganized, have no leaders and are rife with infighting.
View from the ground: The rebels have no central leadership. They do not have a single commander. The rebels generally do not recognize the leaders of the Syrian opposition in exile in Turkey and Europe. But on the ground here in Syria the rebels are well organized.
Myth: The rebels are al-Qaida or at least infiltrated by al-Qaida.
View from the ground: We have not seen evidence of a large al-Qaida presence. This is not an al-Qaida fight.
Engel was 100% right in 2009 about Afghanistan
“I honestly think it’s probably time to start leaving the country.” Engel added, “I really don’t see how this is going to end in anything but tears.”
As As'ad recognized, Engel learned Arabic in Egypt, and so his coverage of Egypt differs from other countries.

Remember that I look for biases in media.

FAIR explains
But on Meet the Press (8/18/13), NBC foreign correspondent Richard Engel appeared to make his feelings known: The U.S. should not cut off aid to the Egyptian military:
People in this country and around the region think it would be an absolutely disastrous idea for the United States to cut off aid, that Washington has real interest with the Egyptian military, preferential access to the Suez Canal, military over flights, and not to mention the Camp David Accords.
Preferential access to the Suez Canal (for oil shipments and other trade issues with the West), military over flights are not necessarily Egyptian interests.  They are Western interests and have been since Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798.  The Camp David Accords is a good-neighbor policy and where US aid fits in to Egypt's interests.

Then there is the Arab Spring in Egypt. FAIR explained the "controversy." (emphasis mine)
NBC Nightly News reporter Richard Engel held up a tear gas canister on the air to show that it was stamped “Made in the USA.” But something else he said on the January 28, 2011 newscast struck me:
But what’s scattered on the streets of Cairo right now are these little canisters. These were the tear gas canisters that were fired by all those riot police today. And if you look at them closely, they say clearly in English, “Made in the USA.” Egyptians have been picking them up, they’ve been looking them over. And from an Egyptian perspective, it does seem like Mubarak and the United States are working together. So the U.S. is walking a fine line here.
Strange perspective they’ve got over there.

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