Doha, Qatar - An exclusive story published on Al Jazeera's website has been criticised for being inaccurate and disingenuous after it detailed US government funds earmarked for opponents of deposed Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi.
Emad Mekay's "Exclusive: US bankrolled anti-Morsi activists” published Wednesday created a firestorm of controversy, with supporters praising its investigative reportage, while critics denounced it as irresponsible journalism.
Regardless of what side readers fall on, Mekay's story has skyrocketed online as one of the most viewed on Aljazeera.com since publication, especially on social media with more than 17,000 Facebook Likes, 3,700 Tweets, and 820 comments - and counting.
We are raising questions as to whether those payments violated Egyptian law and the US regulations and contributed to the unrest in Egypt.
Based on US government documents obtained by the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley, Mekay's story describes how US funds were given to some organisations led by Egyptian politicians and political activists, who had called for the ouster of Morsi's democratically elected government before last week's military coup did just that.
The article suggests it may have been illegal in both Egypt and the United States for funds to be disbursed to political operators, particularly those involved in subversive activities targeting democratically elected governments.
"We are raising questions as to whether those payments violated Egyptian law and the US regulations and contributed to the unrest in Egypt,” Mekay told Al Jazeera.
But some commentators have described the article as poor, misleading journalism.
"Al Jazeera English's publication of a frankly brain dead feature article purporting to show US support for anti-Morsi political forces is sheer conspiracy theory and very bad, unbalanced journalism,” wrote Juan Cole, a history professor at the University of Michigan, on his blog Informed Consent.
"All the piece shows is that the US State Department program in ‘democracy assistance' granted small amounts of funding to … Suprise! democracy activists in Egypt.”
National Endowment for Democracy
One of the quasi-US government organisations involved in promoting democracy abroad and highlighted in the story is the National Endowment for Democracy. It issued a statement that challenged some of the story's facts, adding "Al Jazeera's readers deserve better.”
"Emad Mekay makes a number of allegations about the assistance program of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) in Egypt, asserting that our funding was used to conduct partisan political activity and even to foment violence. The facts are otherwise,” NED said.
|US money was allegedly paid to some opposed to Morsi [EPA]
"Mekay cites recent inflammatory remarks made by an individual associated with NED funding which ended long ago. The NED supported this group's project to inform Egyptian citizens of their legal rights. The NED categorically rejects violence and incitement and would terminate funding to any grantee that engaged in such activity.”
The individual cited above is a former Egyptian policeman, Colonel Omar Afifi Soliman, who now lives in exile near Washington, DC. Soliman posted violent instructions to his 83,000 Facebook followers, calling on them to target Morsi's government.
Soliman told Mekay he still receives money from the National Endowment for Democracy.
NED also challenged the story on its description of Esraa Abdel-Fattah, a female activist belonging to the Al-Dostor Party. NED said the story inaccurately translated a Tweet sent by Abdel-Fattah to "lay siege to mosques and drag from pulpits all Muslim preachers”.
It instead quoted a public statement by Abdel-Fattah encouraging nonviolence. "I stand against those planning to surround mosques or abuse them in anyway, and I encourage Egyptian youth to change the tactics of their work and not to perform any act that would make any degree of encroachment on places of worship.”
The National Endowment for Democracy also highlighted its efforts: "NED has worked for nearly two decades to support a broad range of civil society groups within Egypt that seek to protect human rights, promote independent media, provide civic education, fight corruption, promote dialogue about the compatibility of Islam and democracy, increase the participation of women in civic life, and strengthen independent associations.”
The Project on Middle East Democracy's Stephen McInerney, who was quoted in Mekay's article, told Al Jazeera's Inside Story it was "rather absurd”.
|Posters of President Barack Obama held at a protest [EPA]
"I think this an extremely irresponsible, extremely misleading report. I think he ignored at lot of context that he was given by myself and by others that he spoke to in putting this article together.”
Mekay quoted McInerney in the article estimating Egypt received about $25m in 2012 in US funding for democracy promotion. McInerney said the story was "false on several levels”.
"First, none of these funds provided by the US government - either directly or indirectly - are given to individuals. They're given to organisations … The majority of the $25m that he quoted me on actually goes to the Egyptian government … that included ministries controlled by president Morsi and his government and the Muslim Brotherhood.”
McInerney also took the article to task for failing to mention $200m in US funding for the Egyptian government while Morsi was in power.
"It's absurd to suggest that the United States government had some sort of conspiracy to overthrow or to oust president Morsi, when the United States government was supporting the government of president Morsi and the Egyptian military,” said McInerney.
Egyptian democracy activist, journalist, and publisher Hisham Kassem was equally critical.
"Almost once a year Emad Mekay comes up with a similar article. He seems to be obsessed with the idea that the United States is financing political activism in Egypt,” Kassem said.
Some observers have suggested the story could be used to incite violence among Egyptian factions and against US authorities in the country. But Kassem said that was unlikely to happen.
"I don't think it will generate more unrest,” Kassem said, but he added, "the sooner there is … less fraudulent journalism that is basically stirring up the situation, the better for everybody.”
McInerney's The Project on Middle East Democracy received $380,500 in 2012 from the National Endowment for Democracy. Kassem is on the steering committee of NED's affiliated World Democracy Movement.
Defending the story
Lowell Bergman is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, former correspondent with The New York Times, and now the director of the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley. He defended Mekay's article.
The story speaks for itself. No one disputes that the payments were made to dissidents and political activists.
"The story speaks for itself,” Bergman told Al Jazeera in an email. "No one disputes that the payments were made to dissidents and political activists. And there does not seem to be any dispute about their advocating the overthrow of the government, including the use of force or violence.
“We look forward to the release of additional documentation, as well as a determination as to whether these grants constituted a violation of US government guidelines, regulations or laws.”
Some Al Jazeera readers also praised Mekay's work. "Such investigative reporting, alas, is rarely if ever present in US press,” said John McEnaney from the United States. "This is a good piece. Factual in content. I hope you can keep up your efforts to print the facts, not illusions.”
Mohammad Arif from the US said: "I was so upset with Al Jazeera reporting last few months that I almost thought that Al Jazeera is also receiving dollars. After reading this report I'm relaxed. Thank you very much. I'm back with Al Jazeera. Keep on doing good journalism.”
Mekay said regardless of how his story is interpreted, its main point is irrefutable: anti-Morsi activists received US funds.
"Did those people ask for Morsi's ouster? Yes. Did they receive funding over several years from the US? Yes. Do we have documents and videos to back that up? Yes,” said Mekay.