Jeffrey Goldberg's Assault on Free Speech

Correction (8/15/2015, 12:12am EST): The section of this post dealing with Jeffrey Goldberg's 2006 book, Prisoners: A Muslim and Jew Across the Middle East Divide, has been corrected. In Prisoners, a book that was largely about his disillusionment with the occupation, Goldberg describes his previous service as a guard in a prison camp in Israel, where he and a Palestinian prisoner named Rafiq met and began a decades-long friendship. This blog post cited a passage of Prisoners and inaccurately stated that Goldberg "recounts beating Palestinian prisoners at the Ktzi'ot detention camp." The relevant passage, which can be read here, is in fact about Goldberg witnessing another guard beating a prisoner and putting a stop to it, after which he then covered for that guard. Goldberg touched on this event again in The Atlantic on July 8, 2014, writing, "I saw a handful of other beatings, and broke them up as well... I would not cover-up again for a soldier who was committing a crime."

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The debut of HuffPost Arabi last month has caused enormous political waves. The new website is the first arm of The Huffington Post to focus on a region rather than a single country, representing over 22 Arab nations and more than 370 million people. It includes verticals covering business, politics, art, culture, religion and much more. HuffPost Arabi provides a vital mouthpiece for a region in a period of total social and political transformation.

It also includes a blogging section featuring content created by people of vastly different backgrounds, an unfortunately scarce opportunity in a region still struggling with sectarianism, authoritarianism and terrorism. The blog section offers a high profile forum for people, regardless of age and experience, to share their perspectives freely.

While the majority of feedback has praised the new website as a much-needed step towards democratization, a small but influential group of antagonists have attempted to introduce concerns that the Arab news blogging publication also offers an elevated platform for supporters of unpopular organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood, which is outlawed and treated as a terrorist organization by the governments of Bahrain, Syria, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and the military junta of Egypt.

Let me be clear, I have no sympathy for the Muslim Brotherhood and would never cast a vote in their favor. However, labeling the Arabic HuffPost as a mouthpiece for the Muslim Brotherhood is not only patently false, it is an attempt to constrain free speech that endangers journalists who are already suffering for simply reporting facts, or their insight, on Arab issues.

The lack of diverse and critical voices in the Arab world is one of the most acute symptoms of authoritarianism. Many Arab regimes fear being exposed by the media for their corrupted and oppressive policies. That is why, in most Arab countries, media is completely controlled by the state. HuffPost Arabi is giving the Arabic people a voice to narrate their first-hand experiences from a region that is often reported and analyzed by outsiders.

"Our goal with Arabi is to go beyond the obvious reporting of violence and an inventory of who has died," said HuffPost co-founder and editor-in-chief Arianna Huffington. "We want to present the Arab world from the inside out."

Ms. Huffington has said that she believes the site will put the "devastating rise of ISIS, extremism, and sectarian and ethnic tensions" into a refreshing new perspective for Arab audiences.

The idea of free expression itself is a beacon of hope to Middle-Easterners, many of whom are repressed or punished for speaking opinions that do not align with the narrative of whatever regime holds power in their region. For safety, The Huffington Post chose to base the Arab branch in London to minimize legal and physical threats against its journalists and staff from regimes that have historically and viciously oppressed a free press.

True to the principles of free speech, HuffPost Arabi includes not only the views of pro-democratic and progressive bloggers, but also the contributions of those who might support an unpopular stance or doctrine of beliefs. The hope is that the varied perspectives will spark productive discussion between people from different backgrounds or limited exposure to differing views.

For some, the concept of Arabs sharing news, viewpoints and stories is difficult to comprehend. It contradicts an ideologically monolithic narrative of the Arab world that is heavily promoted in western media. It is precisely this narrative that can easily lead to unfounded accusations against the newest HuffPost branch, such as calling it an instrument of propaganda.

Jeffrey Goldberg, a writer for The Atlantic and Bloomberg News who enjoyed a stint during the first Palestinian Intifada as a prison guard at Israel's largest detention camp for Palestinian political prisoners, went so far as to tweet the very disturbing and manipulative insinuation that the Arabic HuffPost publication is controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood. Goldberg's tweet links to an article that details the 2013 arrest of HuffPost Arabi's editor-in-chief Anas Fouda in suspicion of Muslim Brotherhood involvement. The cherry-picked article, published in the Lebanese news website NOW, intentionally neglects to mention that Fouda denied these allegations and was quickly released without any charges.

Other regimes have used the same tactic of accusing involvement or sympathy with the Muslim Brotherhood to silence or imprison innocent journalists across the Middle East. Every year hundreds of journalists across the Middle East are kidnapped, imprisoned or killed simply for doing their job. Saudi Arabian writer Raif Badawi for example was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes for his blogs about secular liberalism in 2012.

In Goldberg's 2006 book, Prisoners, he recounts witnessing the beating of a Palestinian prisoner at the Ktzi'ot detention camp. This camp has been widely criticized for its frequent beatings, lack of drinking water and forced labor. Goldberg also admits to lying, covering up for his fellow guard (and friend, Yoram) who was severely abusing a Palestinian prisoner. After describing the beating that he witnessed, Goldberg says in his book: "I held Yoram back. I told [the prisoner] Abu Firas to move. Then I went in search of someone to take Abu Firas to the infirmary. I found another military policeman, and handed off the wobbling prisoner, who was by now bleeding on me, 'He fell,' I lied. [...] The beating, I deduced, was prompted by something Abu Firas [the prisoner] said." His past involvement with oppressive regimes seems consistent with his lack of respect for basic human freedoms and penchant for spreading pro-Israel propaganda.

By targeting HuffPost Arabi with ideologically driven bile, Goldberg aims to undermine and discredit the democratic spirit of the website. In doing so, he inadvertently aids autocratic regimes that view journalists as an existential threat. Indeed, by creating specious links between Huffpost Arabi and the Muslim Brotherhood, Goldberg and other critics may have laid the grounds for Arabic governments to begin categorizing the publication's contributors as supporters of terrorism, and imprisoning them as such. Already, the salacious attacks have created a chilling effect that threatens to discourage contributions from dissident Arab intellectuals and journalists.

A good writer knows that words can empower an individual or a cause; and for the most part, people have praised the launch of HuffPost Arabi. Queen Rania Al Abdullah of Jordan provided the site's first royal contribution, in which she explained why she believes the launch is an important milestone for Arabs, whose online presence has been virtually nonexistent in comparison to other regions of the world.

"Many conversations happen online, but unfortunately, the Arabic content constitutes less than one percent of the cyber platform's content," Al Abdullah said.

Queen Rania's article goes on to emphasize the role of websites like HuffPost Arabi in drawing upon the rich and ancient cultures, history and sciences of the Arabic society. She believes the site will be used by the Arabic people to challenge the religious extremists who use the internet to broadcast their own ideology of violence and hatred.

A good writer also knows that words can be used as a tool for oppression and destruction. It's ironic that a journalist like Goldberg would use his own freedom of speech to attack a publication for trying to bring the very same right to the people living in Arabic nations.

As a writer born in the torn Middle East, I am deeply disturbed by the implications of Goldberg's vitriol and the effect it could have on those who contribute to HuffPost Arabi.

We need more critical voices in the Middle East -- voices that hold regimes (and other groups of power) accountable and challenge their repressive and corrupt policies. If The Huffington Post did not allow the Arabi branch to have contributors with a wide array of beliefs, it would defeat the purpose of a democratic publication.

There is little doubt that Goldberg's unfounded claims will be used by regimes to further crack down on independent media and endanger journalists' lives. With his long record of reckless positions, from ardently backing the disastrous U.S. invasion of Iraq to banging the drums of war on Iran, Goldberg might try stepping back for once and reflecting on the consequences of his knee-jerk behavior.

Achieving democracy in a society is a multi-phase process; HuffPost Arabi offers an essential step toward this goal. At a time when the Middle East is striving so hard to achieve this basic human right, those fighting against access to this tool are as anti-democratic as those directly committing crimes in the Middle East to suppress freedom of speech.