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Middle East coverage is full of lies

It has not been a banner week for media coverage of the Arab world. Blame it on journalists unfamiliar with their subject matter, the demands of an ever-quicker news cycle, or simply salacious stories that were "too good to check" -- a number of stories that have made it into major media outlets recently are simply not true, or omit essential details of the tale.

First, and most infamously, we have the "farewell sex" episode. The story, which was reported in al-Arabiya and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Huffington Post, goes like this:  Islamists in the Egyptian parliament were contemplating a bill that would allow husbands to have sex with their wives for six hours after death. The only problem? As the Christian Science Monitor's Dan Murphy writes, the story is "utter hooey." The rumor was initially advanced in an opinion piece by a partisan of deposed President Hosni Mubarak's regime, and caught fire in the international media from there - without anyone doing a basic fact-check.

While the "farewell sex" report is simply gross, the next story on the docket is the stuff of nightmares. The "buried alive" video reportedly shows soldiers loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime burying an opponent of the regime in a pit of dirt. The soldiers taunt the buried activist, telling him to say "there is no God but Bashar." Britain's Daily Mail and the Israeli outlet Ynet called it the "most horrific video" yet to emerge from the Syrian uprising -- a high bar.

This case is more difficult than the "farewell sex" story -- however, there do seem to be significant concerns about the video's authenticity. As this fact-check on Storyful  explains, the video was originally posted on the Facebook page of a group that coordinated anti-Assad activism in southern Syria. However, the video was removed from the page yesterday, soon after it began to attract scrutiny. Other concerns, which have also been raised by an editor at the BBC, relate to the clarity of the audio. It's important to point out that nobody can conclusively prove that the video is fake -- but there are more than enough red flags here to hold off on publishing it

If "farewell sex" and "buried alive" stories are examples of journalistic malpractice, the third example is more of a misdemeanor. The Washington Post reported yesterday that Vogue's infamous profile of Syrian First Lady Asma al-Assad had been scrubbed from its website. That's true, as far as it goes, but it's also old news -- the profile was scrubbed from Vogue's site roughly a year ago, shortly after Assad's brutal crackdown on protesters began. You'd also think that the Post would want to give credit to journalists like The Atlantic's Max Fisher, who covered this story months ago.

But fear not, journalists of the world. Two Lebanese comedians are currently on trial in what has been dubbed "the case of the Superman underpants." It all began in December 2009, when Edmund Hedded revealed a few square inches of his boxers during a stand-up comedy show at a bar in Lebanon. That was enough for him to be arrested and charged under an act in the penal code that condemns "frivolity" -- a crime that, if fully enforced, would condemn a significant portion of the population of Beirut to jail. Incredibly enough, this story actually appears to be true.

KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images

Passport

Inside Boxun, China's media muckraker

Last week, U.S. web hosting company Name.com received an email ordering them to stop unregister the domain of Boxun, a Chinese news portal run out of North Carolina. Boxun, which has the same retro, link-heavy feel as Craigslist or Drudge Report, serves as a clearinghouse of the rumor and intrigue circulating the web about Chinese elite politics. "We have our sources," says Watson Meng, a Duke University graduate from China who founded the website in 2000 and still runs it, supervising the editing and posting of an average of more than ten articles daily.

Since former police chief Wang Lijun fled to a U.S. Consulate in Chengdu in February, precipitating the downfall of Politburo rising star Bo Xilai and China's biggest political scandal in decades, Meng's site has published and reposted stories about Bo's wife's links to the Tiananmen square massacre, a text message Bo's brother apparently sent last week that said Bo Xilai's case had been "settled," and reports that the Bo case has finally given President Hu Jintao control over the military. "We got the eavesdropping story weeks ago," he said, referring to recent reports that Bo had spied on other leaders. Many of Boxun's stories appear to be true; others feature what could best be called speculation supported by anonymous sources. Still, it's been an exceptional three months for the website, which has seen its traffic increase by 160 percent.

A source familiar with the matter forwarded me the original English-language email Name.com received: "Hello, due to a domain name of your platform: "boxun.com", serious damage to the interests of my company, now we hope you stop any services for this domain immediately...Please pay attention, we would began to attack in a few hours except satisfying our conditions. Please treasure your own commercial interests, if for any loss caused to you, please forgive!!!" [ellipsis mine, spelling and grammar same as in the original.]  

After the email, Meng says Name.com was hit by a ferocious denial-of-service attack of "ten gigabytes" a second and Boxun found a new server. Name.com did not respond to a request for comment, and Meng didn't say where the email was sent from.

By his counting, Meng's website has been attacked dozens of times. Last January, with the Arab Spring gaining steam in the Middle East, Meng posted calls for a "Jasmine Revolution" in China from an anonymous group. Pro-Communist Party groups "were pretty hardcore about this," he said. "They put my family's names online. That was the first time that happened." Meng grew up in a small county in rural Hebei province in the 1960s and 1970s, where his parents still live. During the Cultural Revolution, many urban youth were sent to villages across China. I asked if that was the case with him and he replied, "nope, we were always peasants." His father was a local functionary on the county's science committee; his mother was a farmer. His family on the whole is supportive of his actions and he's not worried about them. "The Cultural Revolution has already passed," he said. "There are not too many illegal things people can do to my family."

Meng thinks this web attack was specifically ordered by Zhou Yongkang, the ninth ranking member of the Politburo Standing Committee and ideological ally of Bo. Meng describes him as a "very strong person who runs the PSB, state security, or, well, don't know if he runs anything anymore," though he thinks Zhou will keep his position until the next Party Congress this fall. In earlier Boxun posts, Meng has speculated that Bo and Zhou had been working together to overthrow Xi Jinping. "We believe Wang Lijun already told the U.S. Consulate that Bo Xilai had a plot to stop Xi Jinping's rise" he said, citing "reliable sources."

Since Chinese official news outlets usually function as mouthpieces of the Communist Party, rather than trustworthy providers of fact or clearly sourced opinion, Chinese readers are comparatively more trusting of Weibo (microblogs), rumors, and sites like Boxun. Wang is currently looking into a 2002 crash of a flight from Beijing to Dalian, in which more than 100 people died. He thinks Bo orchestrated the crash to kill the wife of a political rival, who was carrying evidence that could have been harmful for the former powerbroker. "He's done so many things to cover up this or cover up that," Wang said. He declined to elaborate on what proof he has for his latest claim and the scenario seems somewhat farfetched, but, like all of Boxun's stories, it falls within the realm of possibility.  

MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images