Syria Censorship at AOL-Huffington Post?

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Let me be clear that this blogpost is not about sour grapes.

But the media cacophony on Syria has just become too shrill - reporters, too reluctant to raise obvious questions - to just sit back and let this one slide.

Especially when it is taking place under my nose at the place I have blogged for two and a half years. There’s no other way to look at this: by refusing to publish all but one of my seven Syria articles, AOL-Huffington Post is censoring a viewpoint that challenges the dominant narratives on Syria in the mainstream media.

As all my articles were published without controversy in the period prior to AOL’s purchase of the Huffington Post in early 2011, I can only surmise that AOL has established a new “editorial policy.” In lieu of feedback from my editors as to why these articles remain unpublished, it isn’t hard to conclude that the new company has altered course, and is more comfortable only nipping at the edges of the more irreverent blogosphere.

I have been blogging for the Huffington Post since September 2009, shortly after returning from a summer research tour through the Levant. Hanna Ingber, who recruited me as a blogger, was the founding World Editor of the Huffington Post. Hanna, who has since left the company, was particularly keen to have me write about my meetings and interviews with resistance groups Hezbollah and Hamas. I thought that was pretty ballsy for a US publication, online or not, and happily committed myself to bringing a fresh perspective on Mideast affairs to the pages of the Huffington Post.

At the time, the Palestinian-Israeli peace process had become a running joke, the “War on Terror” was an open-ended disaster, US-Iran tensions were front and center…it seemed a good time to question the premises of our assumptions.

I wrote hard stories about these issues. Face it, none of our political or economic problems are going to be solved with some gentle tweaks - we need to take an industrial-strength sledgehammer to our policies and rebuild many from scratch. My HuffPost blogging was not meek - I sought to unearth perspectives that were widespread in the Middle East, but consciously avoided by Washington decision makers...and by extension, the mainstream media.

My articles sometimes enraged, but I also gained fans who often thanked me for highlighting issues that were unavailable elsewhere. While I mostly covered Mideast geopolitics – my area of study – I discovered quickly that my niche at the HuffPost was providing counter-narratives to Washington’s narratives on the region.

The Huffington Post, to their credit, published each and every piece. Even ones with titles like Israel’s Human Shields and Live Bait; Netanyahu’s Shame and the Fiction He Weaves; “Kill” The Peace Game - and a favorite - Thomas Friedman: Hasbara Grandmaster or Elitist Dupe?

That is, until I posted an article entitled Rupert Murdoch and Hezbollah’s Scuds in July 2011, a few months following the announcement of AOL’s purchase. After several efforts on my part to find out why it hadn’t yet been published online, the weak suggestion came back that perhaps I could shorten it.

Now, I write long pieces – this is true. It is hard, after all, to challenge narratives that have been pounded into our heads without providing important background, context and nuance. I have always exceeded the HuffPost recommendation of 500-800 word posts – to be fair, many of their bloggers do. And I should note that there is no cut-off – simply a reminder in the blogger guidelines backstage that “If your post is especially long, it may take us longer than 24 hours to get to it.”

I shortened the article, but to no avail. It went unpublished and only appears on Mideast Shuffle, where it still holds the distinction of being the second most widely read article on my blog.

The next article the Huffington Post refused to publish was The Iran-Saudi Assassination Hoax written in October last year. This time I received an explanation from an editor: “Hi Sharmine -- Thanks for your latest post, but I'm afraid we're going to have pass on this one, as it gets too far into the realm of conspiracy theory proscribed in our blogger guidelines.”

The irony is thick. The article, after all, was about Washington’s own unlikely conspiracy theory that a middle-aged, Texas-based, Iranian, ex-car salesman who may or may not have been a cousin of someone in an elite unit of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, conspired with elements of a Mexican drug cartel to assassinate a Saudi diplomat in the American capital. These allegations were solid enough to appear as headlines in every newspaper in the country. But my pointing out that the US needed the Saudis to look like “victims” of an aggressive Iran so that they could push through $60 billion in approved weapons sales… apparently “gets too far into the realm of conspiracy theory.”

Two short months later, the Huffington Post published a newswire article announcing the sale of $30 billion worth of F-15 fighter jets to Saudi Arabia, citing Iranian “threats” to the US ally.

Noticeable Censorship on Syria

Then, on December 5, I submitted the first of my Syria articles to the Huffington Post. The article, entitled Dubious Dealings: Syria and the Arab League, contained exclusive information – the list of Syrian amendments to the Arab League’s protocol to green-light an investigative mission into Syria. They did not publish it and did not respond to any emails.

The HuffPost published my subsequent article Stratfor Challenges Narratives on Syria which quotes extensively from US intelligence analyst Stratfor’s report that the Syrian opposition has been fabricating claims and events.

Since then, I have posted five further articles on Syria backstage at the Huffington Post. None have been published, and after many attempts to email editors there, I have still not received any explanation as to why. I list them here:

Syrian Snapshot: A View From The Capital is based on my own visit to Syria in January 2012 to interview opposition figures and gain some insights into the crisis in the country. Huffpost had one of their own bloggers inside the country and chose not to publish this first-hand account.

Foolishly Ignoring the Arab League Report on Syria unearthed the Arab League mission report that challenges the one-sided reporting on Syria by the mainstream media.

Veteran US Diplomat Questions Syria Storyline gives voice to the concerns of a former senior US diplomat who served at the embassy in Syria, and delivers some critical blows to current policy.

High-Tech Trickery in Homs places recent CNN satellite photos of Homs under a microscope, and shows how the photos tell an entirely different story than the network purports.

Questioning the Syrian "Casualty List" investigates the daily death toll in Syria and the inaccurate assumptions behind these casualty lists.

Every one of my Syria articles that the Huffington Post refused to publish provides exclusive information of some kind. Its World News section, instead, is filled with wire articles written outside Syria - usually from Amman or Beirut - often citing unverifiable information and claims from “activists” inside the country.

It is worth noting, these past few months, Syria has dominated Huffington Post world news headlines more than any other country or issue - it is clearly a story of great interest to the editors.

I have posted a screenshot below of my publishing history at the Huffington Post. It has been edited slightly to remove a recurring article, and another that was never completed. Importantly, it provides a clear visual contrast of the Huffington Post’s comfort in publishing “counter-narratives” in the period before AOL purchased the company, and in the aftermath of the deal.

Imperfect as it may be, I have a great deal of affection for the Huffington Post – I don’t just blog there, I have been an avid reader and participant on the comments sections of its Mideast postings. So much so, that I have earned the right to moderate reader comments, based on my record of fairness with flagging inappropriate ones.

Why not publish articles that have an edge on the competition? Who would refuse exclusive information? The Huffington Post censoring viewpoints? How did the world’s biggest blog suddenly become the champion of conventional wisdom and mainstream narratives?

While I hope the company will realize the intrinsic value of a blog read around the world, with contributors and opinions from all corners - I actually expect this AOL-Huffington Post hybrid to just shut down my blog.

I will coyly remind them, however, that they didn’t give David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, the boot when he went public after they refused to publish his Gaza flotilla article.

But the turmoil in the Middle East this past year has morphed into a battleground for much larger interests – economic, political, financial – and the players see this as an existential fight; the final showdown, so to speak. The battle for narratives is the frontline of this war, and it is a dirty one. Where once we thought fabrications of WMDs in Iraq and yellowcake uranium in Niger would never, ever pass through our vigilant scrutiny again – today, those stories barely compare to the barrage of unverified propaganda that filters through both social and mainstream media sites every, single day.

It matters then, if AOL-Huffington Post stops publishing a point of view. That is taking sides in what may come to pass in the Middle East. That is snuffing out information, analysis and opinion from a part of the world where viewpoints differ markedly from those in Washington. That, in plain English, is determining what the American people can and cannot know. And, that, is decidedly not what we expect from our media.

Click here for enlarged image

Sharmine Narwani is a commentary writer and political analyst covering the Middle East. You can follow her on twitter @snarwani.


Thanks for everything Sharmine.... just wanted to let you know that you are doing an amazing job, I really appreciate it a lot ;)

This knowledge.Excellently written article, if only all bloggers offered the same level of content as you. I'm looking forward for your next post, I’ll try to get the hang of it.

Censored comment on Huff Post:
Syrian president Bashar al-Assad belongs to the Shi'ite branch of Islam.
Iran is also predominately (90%) Shi'ite
Both Syria and Iran provide support to Hezbollah, a Shi'a Islamic organization that actively opposes the Israeli agenda in Palestinian lands.
Israel has had a full court press with its American lobby to get the US military involved a military conflict against both Syria and Iran.
Ed Husain is right when he says that it doesn't pass a test of reasonableness that Syria's Assad would do anything to cause US military involvement, especially when that something isn't sufficient to really change his advantage in the war.
What's more likely? Israeli backed rebels or even false flag operation to make it appear that the Syrian government "crossed Obama's red line" or, the Syrian government, as Husain states, who are killing 5000 a month with conventional means, would be foolish enough to invite US military to join in by using gas to kill 400 or 1000?

Hi Sharmine. I blog for the Huffington Post too (in Canada) - this has not happened to me and I hope it won't. I am wondering if you have also tried Reader Supported News? I have submitted a blog there. They seem to have stories that no one else does. Good luck. Take care.

Haha, shouldn't you be chairgng for that kind of knowledge?!

Thanks for this insightful blog and the links to your other censored offerings to Huffington Post. To be honest, I was never a big fan of it, preferring because I like longer pieces. But I'm not surprised by this; something very strange has happened to the media on Syria, and I was surprised by how little anyone commented on the contradictions of the GCC reigning in on human rights violations in Syria, since Saudi Arabia is hardly in a position to bellow about human rights.

I think it's important for there to be more reporting on Syria that doesn't just fit into the dominant narrative in the Western media, because the last thing the Arab world needs is another Libya, where all kinds of so-called serious people demanded NATO intervention and then have nothing to say about what is going on in Libya today. That maybe not all parts of the Syrian opposition are angels seems to escape the media, just as it did in Libya.

But then much of the media, including the Arab media, prefers simple morality tales rather than political analysis that is actually up to the challenges of the complexity of what is happening on the ground in all of the countries in the Arab world.

I sympathize with your disillusionment about HuffPost. I have recently noticed an increased censorship of comments, especially regarding the issue of Syria. We are witnessing a full-blown "wag the dog" campaign on Syria. Assad is neither a great guy nor a bloodthirsty lunatic.

maybe they didn't publish them because they were not that insightful, like much of your other commentary. i know, life as a pundit can be hard sometimes.....

How this person can ever complain about the corporate-media's broad use of unverifiable, biased or anonymous sourcing when its suits their purposes is beyond me.

Take her mealy-mouthing for Assad: in one article defending the regime, we receive our information from: "A recently-departed senior Arab League official ... a well-connected, non-Syrian source ... A senior Arab League official who would not speak on the record ... a Syrian source."

Or take her complaint about the 'censorship' of her article "The Iran-Saudi Assassination 'Hoax?' " Look at the specious reasoning she uses (she offers no evidence in the first instance):

Premise 1: Without a pretext for doing so, Washington will find it more difficult to overrule objections to its multi-billion-dollar arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

Premise 2: Like all other states, Saudi Arabia can legitimately use arms in self-defence against an aggressive, external enemy.

P1 and P2 yield
Conclusion 1: An aggressive external threat to Saudi Arabia can at least provide a pretext for US arms sales to the country.

Premise 3: An Iranian assassination plot against a Saudi ambassador indicates that Iran is an aggressive threat to that ambassador's country.

C1 and P3 yield
Conclusion 2: The Iranian assassination plot can at least provide a pretext for US arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

Premise 4: Selling arms to Saudi Arabia is immoral.

Premise 5: All pretexts for immoral US foreign policy are spurious.

C2, P4 and P5 yield
Conclusion 3: The assassination plot is spurious.

Begging the question much to reach C3??

My point is that I have no idea whether the assassination plot was real or a crude propaganda op—and that she doesn't either. She provides reason only for hesitation in accepting the plot's authenticity, but she doesn't demonstrate it. Any leaked documents cited, e.g.?

Overall, I don't find your jumping to conclusions and mealy-mouthing for Assad particularly convincing, Sharmine. I'll continue to tune in elsewhere for more sober analysis of Western criminality that doesn't overstep the boundaries set by cogent reasoning and the need for evidence.

Thank you Sharmine,

your article offers a great insight to what happened with the Huffpo.

It may answer the question, why AOL paid a whopping 12 USD / unique monthly visitor. The Huffpo provided for a couple of yours a counter-narrative to many things. I might imagine that it may well be that AOL paid the money to kill the counter-narrative. Compared to "$60 billion in approved weapons sales" for Saudi Arabia the $300 million AOL paid for the Huffpo is rather small money.

Regarding AOL editorial policies, Om Malik wrote something interesting in February 2011:

"In a recent article in The New Yorker (subscription required), Armstrong pointed out that since the Internet was a chaotic place, AOL would prove to be the filter and provide information that was crafted by its editorial production line."


The keywords I find here: "be the filter and provide information that was crafted by its editorial production line."

Sharmine, I have just finished reading several of the most excellent articles on your blog. It is very obvious why HP is not publishing your work. You did not get the memo to get in line behind the narrative of TPTB.

It is not in the interest for TPTB to allow Syria to remain as a supporter of Iran, and the other enemies of Israel. It is not in the interest of the West to allow Russia to have a strong "mideast connection". It is not in the interest of the Arab states to allow Iran to grow stronger.

HP has turned into the AOL concept of Money before Content. HP continuously ignores major events taking place in the world, but has no problem in finding room for Rick Santorum Sweater Vests news, on the Front Page, the Political page, the Business Page, the Science page... Ok, I exaggerate but HP has gone down the drain as regards content.

Political News is the overwhelming "multi-headline multi-clicks" method of getting visitors to stay on pages longer, and deliver hundreds of wasted clicks, pursuing the same story under different headlines.

Contentious news has disappeared. Very important World Events are totally ignored. Economic/Business News is a Joke. World News could be better organized and content chosen by my 12 year old.

Sad what HP has become.

All I can say is: Thank God for al-Akhbar english news!

The Iranian assassination plot was perhaps the most flagrant example in recent memory of US media regurgitating the outlandish, almost comical claims presented by the government ( the competition for this dubious honor is stiff; as you noted, it in no way reached its peak with the yellowcake uranium story). To write off your piece as going too "far into the realm of conspiracy theory" is outrageous given how nutty and implausible the whole plot was.
However, having said that, I have little sympathy for people who continued working with HuffPo after the AOL merger. The decision to sell out the HuffPo was disgraceful and a slap in the face of everyone who believed in its mission and contributed largely for free, only for Huffington to make a huge profit and alter the course of the site without any input from the people who made it what it is. It's no surprise really. Arianna Huffington has no principles. She simply recognized the dearth of brassy liberal counterparts to the Drudge Report and other rightwing sites at a very bleak time in US history (after Bush's re-election) and took advantage of it.

Very true, and well said.

Thank you for this article Sharmine. Finally someone is calling the Huffington Post to task. I have been writing for them since 2007 or a bit before and since AOL bought them the quality has slipped tremendously. They, like other media outlets, have gone entertainment and establishment. Having said that, I too have had issues with them. I used to get my posts published in a few hours, now it takes up to 72 or more making most of the writing irrelevant by the time it appears. To YOUR POINT, which is more important is that the only time I have not had a blog published is one I wrote on Syria ( I originally thought this was an oversight, but after reading this, I now realize that there may have been much more to it than that.

Your experience is most disappointing. Huffington Post has a real opportunity to reach beyond the mainstream, but instead, it seems they prefer to wade in it.

Thanks again Sharmine. We need more people to speak out about those who want to bury the truth or just change it for their own gain.

This crisis and its fallout has uncovered a lot about MSM and journalism nowadays.
Be it the Huff and its purchase by AOL, or other journalistic and MSM outlets, we can now clearly see that the 4th estate is the one that needs monitoring and scrutiny, or at least be questioned by its own people.
Sharmine has done a great contribution not only towards the Syrian crisis, but also on the present mistakes of journalism (including e journalism and TV) and the need for an awakening, be it journalists themselves or the editors or the indistry as a whole.

Good work as always Sharmine and hope your voice reaches more and more people

Sharmine - the day AOL bought HuffPost was the day I stopped subscribing to it. I am sorry you have been disapponted and sympathise with your concern and distress.

However, I fear it was inevitable.

Best wishes for the future

I first became aware of your writing through Huffington Post. It is both outrageous and disgusting that HP thinks it is acceptable to censor any article that actually tells the truth about a situation that the "mainstream" media is systematically lying about. It really seems as if the MSM (of which HP obviously considers itself to be a member) thinks it can continue to systematically lie and use misleading narratives, even after its grotesque failures and promotion of lies resulted in horrifying death and destruction over the last decade. I would recommend that anyone reading this article spread this information as far as possible, and link to the relevant pieces on any HP articles where they would add to the discussion.

An interesting article as always, Sharmine, and certainly important to learn that the Huffington Post is now more actively engaging in politicised censorship than it historically has been. I do have a couple points I'd like to raise though.

The first refers in part to your pre-statement, "Where once we thought fabrications of WMDs in Iraq and yellowcake uranium in Niger would never, ever pass through our vigilant scrutiny again...etc" In the next paragraph you go on to say, "That, in plain English, is determining what the American people can and cannot know. And, that, is decidedly not what we expect from our media."

Really? Both of those presuppositions sound pretty naive coming from someone who is as media savvy as your good self. The role of the news and media industries, both traditional and digital, and particularly in today's America, is not to shine a light into the darkest corners of humanity's soul, but to tell and sell stories. Or in your vernacular, narratives. Just ask Rupert Murdoch. I think we both agree that what we hope for and what we expect in relation to news media are two very different things.

How you tell your story, what your story is about, and what platform or soapbox you shout it from will all influence how it is perceived and heard. Every single event - or indeed moment in time - can be viewed in a great many different ways. Even the old preface that "History will show..." is patently wrong, as the pages of history are written by the survivors (and even then they may be altered and re-written ad infinitum down through the ages). People like yourself that provide us with the alternative view on any event or issue allow us fortunate readers to build our own ideas and opinions, and for that you are to be applauded.

Nevertheless, it is in the geopolitical interest of our lords and masters to tell the story such that it will gain them wealth and power. Some of these overseers even gain a warm glow by telling themselves (and their ilk) stories that - at least in their minds - reinforce the validity of their particular imaginary friend in the clouds over and above that of their enemies.

I'm not a contributor and am therefore unaware of the editorial policies of the Huff Post (or any other geopolitical blog for that matter) but it stands to reason that they have guidelines which they are meant to follow (of course, being a human based system this is of course fallible and open to abuse). I have no doubt that the AOL takeover of the Huff Post has caused an unfortunate, substantial and yet undeclared policy shift within the editorial hierarchy. As with any media/news source, this will change the news that the Huff Post reports, and the way it is reported. The storyteller has changed. Thus, the style of telling a story, and more importantly the stories that the storyteller wants to tell, have also changed. Does this really come as a shock to you? One must conclude that you put the Huff Post on too high a pedestal if you hope that it is immune to these human frailties.

From reading your columns over the past couple of years, I do also have a rather subjective comment to make that may go some little way towards explaining the increasing frequency with which your articles are rejected, and that is an observation that the tone of your commentary has changed. While the devil is always in the detail (and more often than not your detail is very incisive, well supported, fair and original) the overall picture is beginning to sound increasingly one sided.

There's absolutely nothing wrong with having a pro-Iranian slant, or indeed a seemingly pro-Assad slant. It is your opinion and you have every right to express it. The problem becomes that you will turn off some readers in doing so, particularly as we receive more and more reports in the western world about refugees fleeing as a result of atrocities being committed in Syria (a sense of unease that is independent of which players are guilty of perpetrating them). With regard to my perhaps provocative pro-Assad label, it's not that I am pinning this hard and fast on you. Again, the detail in your articles doesn't lead me to believe that you are strongly in support of his government and policies, but there's something almost intangible about the overall tone of them that does. If that's not your intention, you ought to be mindful of it.

Similarly, your piece on the assassination hoax, while painting a very plausible picture, is worded in such a strong way as to be almost implying fact, that I can kind of relate to the editor's comments that it's skirting a bit too close to the realms of conspiracy theory. Again, it's not the subject matter, or even the underlying opinion, but rather the overall tone.

I don't believe that keeping all of your readers on board is your primary concern, nor should it be, but your palatability to your editors is undoubtedly affected by their own emotional responses (particularly when their wage cheques are being signed off by people that are telling them to change their own emotional responses!).

You have a voice, you have a mind, and you have a pretty loud platform. You're in the game. Don't forget how to play it.

VoodooRay you have written a very measured well argued response. I think you are quite right to say that it's more about Nawarni's tone more than anything else. I too have noticed it and if you read her tweets and blogs they are not only smug and condescending but quite frankly very one-sided in support it seems of the Assad regime. She seems to pride herself on "challenging the mainstream narrative" of events in Syria, but when it comes to challenging the "Assad Regime's narrative" there is a deafening silence. When the journalists were killed in Homs, or when the civilians were being shelled relentlessly, not to mention the extra-judicial killings of citizens in Bab Amr, or when the ICRC are still not allowed into Bab Amr, we don't hear a peep out of her. Not a tweet. She's happy to blog relentlessly about "questioning media narratives" but seems to swallow blindly the line of Syrian State TV which quite frankly has been shown to be fraudulent. Yes some of the western & arabic media is obviously biased in favour of the opposition - this is completely wrong.

Talk about censorship! Your moderators completely left off the second half of my response! Hmmm interesting!

Sure, pro-Saudi/Zionist/NATO propaganda is SO under-represented in USA media, thus EVERY voice against it should be called stupid names and silenced. It is NOT a game. It is business, and, as any big business it is a dirty and bloody one.

So you make it perfectly clear that the game is rigged.

And please do tell how one is to compete in a rigged game?

Or did I forget that if you are a loser you need to swap sides of that trade just like HP did when AOL gave em $ to quit their game?

So if the story/narrative changed how much would it take for you to realize how the game changed and for you to 'play the game' the right way?

Pardon me but you clearly are just a tool in this game no?

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