Propaganda war affects coverage of Syrian conflict
Coverage of Syria's civil war has been polarised by competing narratives. Relying as we are on sources like activists and opposition politicians, a more moderate approach ought to have been adopted, but instead news channels like Al-Jazeera Arabic have adopted a decidedly opposition-friendly stance. By KHADIJA PATEL.
The United Nations and Arab League special envoy to Syria, Kofi Annan was reported to be on his way to Qatar on Sunday night after a second round of talks with Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad in Damascus. Annan had hoped to secure Assad’s favour for a national political dialogue between the government and the opposition and also gain unfettered access for humanitarian aid agencies into the restive region of Homs.
Assad is said to have rejected the proposal of any political dialogue as long as "terrorist" groups were trying to destabilise the country. Syrian opposition groups meanwhile dismissed the offer for dialogue so long as the Syrian military continues its offensive in the north of the country. Burhan Ghalioun, the head of the factitious Syrian National Council, labelled the calls for dialogue "naive".
As Annan haggled with Assad and opposition groups, reports indicated Syrian forces had not let up its relentless shelling of the opposition strongholds in Homs. In the north Syrian town of Idlib, fighters from the Free Syrian Army were reported to have been trying to hold back government troops in fierce clashes. Sixteen rebel fighters, seven soldiers and four civilians were killed in the Idlib fighting, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which claimed 15 other people, including three soldiers, had been killed in violence elsewhere. International media coverage of Syria has depended on these reports. The images of death and destruction in Homs has proliferated on social media channels and formed the backbone of mainstream media coverage on Syria. The continued calls for an international intervention in Syria has been built on reports such as these.
Syrian state media however offer a rather divergent take on the situation in the country. The Syrian Arab News Agency (Sana) reported on Sunday, “Two authorities' members (sic) were martyred during a clash with armed terrorist groups which have been committing criminal acts against citizens and vandalizing private and public properties in the neighbourhoods of al-Jarajemeh and al-Sheikh Anbar in Hama. A source in the province told a Sana correspondent that the clash resulted in killing and wounding a number of terrorists, in addition to seizing amounts of machineguns and RPGs launchers.”
Meanwhile in Homs, Sana reports a kidnapping of a member of Assad’s party. “In Homs, an armed terrorist group kidnapped a member of the Baath Arab Socialist Party branch in Homs Mesbah Ahmad Al-Sha'ar and his driver at Al-Ghouta area while they were heading for work.” In Aleppo, Syria’s second largest city, Sana reports on the murder of a boxer, “An informed source told Sana Correspondent that the armed group targeted Boxer Tayfour while he was passing near the courtyard of Aleppo University in his car as they opened fire on him and he was immediately martyred as five bullets entered his head.”
These reports from Syrian state media are ridiculed outside of the country, but within the country, it continues to thrive as the primary means of understanding the world for vast swathes of the Syrian population. Within Syria, the official state line still wields great clout. Addressing Syrians, the Syrian state media seeks to authenticate the legitimacy of Assad’s rule against international efforts to discredit him. Syrian TV has been especially busy exploring the alleged international plot hatched by the likes of Saudi Arabia and Qatar to enforce regime change in Syria.
In addition to the daily street fight for control over Syria in the country’s most restive regions, there is a more insidious battle for ascendancy in the battle of the narrative of the Syrian uprising. As the civil war gathers more momentum on the streets, the daily fight for liberty and life is waged with equal ferocity in the narrative of the uprising. Assad’s media machine fights it out against a veritable army of opposition activists who feed international media outlets with snippets of life in a city under siege, grainy videos and daily reports of casualties. Given the lack of access to Syria to international news organisations, these activists have been crucial to providing an antithesis to the account spun by the state-controlled media.
It has become accepted wisdom to distrust Assad’s version of events but it has also become standard practice to hail the opposition. International media has been too ready and too quick to adopt a “heroes vs. villains” approach to Syria. Coverage of Syria has been polarised by competing narratives. Relying as we are on sources like activists and opposition politicians, a more moderate approach ought to have been adopted, but instead news channels like Al-Jazeera Arabic have adopted a decidedly opposition-friendly stance.
Al Jazeera Arabic's Beirut correspondent, Ali Hashem, resigned on Tuesday after leaked emails revealed his frustrations over the news channel's coverage of Syria. The network’s server had been hacked by the self-styled Syrian Electronic Army, revealing discontent among some of the network’s employees within the Arab news channel over its coverage of Syria.
The major find in the hack was an email exchange between anchorwoman Rula Ibrahim and Hashem. In conversation with her colleague in Beirut, Ibrahim says she had "turned against the revolution" in Syria after realising the protests would "destroy the country and lead to a civil war”. She went on to deride the opposition Free Syrian Army as "a branch of al-Qaeda”.
While Al-Jazeera has remained tight lipped on the breach of its server, the state broadcaster in Syria lauded the revelations in the email as proof of the subversive role foreign proxies were playing in sowing chaos in the country. When Hashem spoke to Daily Maverick on Sunday evening, he blamed his departure from the Qatari-owned network on a politicisation of the news. “We are in the era of a politicisation of media, that’s one of the reasons why I left Al-Jazeera,” he said. “Today the owners want their agenda to be clear on the news diary, they are paying money to make use of their media outlet, I can't impose on them to abide by media ethics, the best thing if you don't like it leave it and so I did.”
As’ad AbuKhalil, Professor of political science at California State University, writing in his blog The Angry Arab News Service, is certain the slant of Al-Jazeera’s reporting on Syria is an extension of Qatari foreign policy. “I am not surprised of the leak at all: I am in contact from people inside Al-Jazeera who are disgusted by the propaganda work of the network in the last few months,” he says. “ The network has been so bad that the law of diminishing returns apply here: the network has gone too far in its propaganda work that I can't see any effectiveness in what they do. I know how those things work and they know that I know,” he insists. “The footage that are (sic) being shown show staging of events of calling a civilian an ‘officer’ in the Syrian army, of faking injuries and feeding statements to people before airtime, etc. Al-Jazeera seems to be writing its own professional obituary,” he continues ominously. “I don't know how it can really resurrect itself again. It is mortally wounded. I know that there are people in the network who are pained about what is happening but royal orders are royal orders in the network and no one dare to disobey. I am told that orders came down to the effect that no half-position would be tolerated and that categorical adoption of the Qatari foreign policy on Syria is a job requirement.”
Hashem however points out that Al-Jazeera has been as culpable as any other news organisation in the Persian Gulf for employing a virulently anti-Assad stance in the way they’ve reported the story. “As a matter of fact the Arab media is divided in way that even this affects the audience who are dealing with media outlets as if they are parties,” he said. “Politics is dominating the business and on both sides of the landscape you can't really depend on one channel to get your full news digest, it is as if the audience are doing the journalists' homework by going for their two sources by themselves watching the two sides to get one piece of news,” he says of the role of social media in the coverage of Syria. “It's not the issue of who is saying lies and who is accurate, today’s media organisations are giving their part of the story that serves the agenda of their financier, so it's clear that part of the truth is exposed while the other part is buried.”
In a region robbed of the right to free speech, the kind of open debate that inspired the success of the Al-Jazeera Arabic news channel revolutionised the way Arab people interacted with the daily political spectacle. It was little wonder then that Al-Jazeera was banned by so many of the region’s dictatorial regimes. And while the network is still vastly popular, the way in which the Syrian uprising is being handled raises uncomfortable questions about the network’s perceived objectivity while retaining Qatari government funding. “I believe all the credibility investment during the past two decades went in vain, the elite are once again dealing with Arab news channels they why they used to do with Arab state media, and are depending on western media to know what's going on,” Hashem says. “It’s not strange that BBC Arabic channel gained an additional 10 to 15-million viewers during the last year at the same time that leading Arab channels lost the same amount or more in several countries (in the region).”
Shoruk Khaddour, a 23-year-old Syrian student, studying journalism at Brunel University in West London, has travelled to Syria twice since the uprising against Al-Assad began a year ago. She believes the uprising that began in the vein of the “Arab Spring” protests that took the region by storm was hijacked by a fringe opposition group who the international media has failed to adequately scrutinise. “The media omits and lies about the numbers and who exactly has been killed by whom,” she told Daily Maverick.
“During my time in Syria, both last summer and recently, I found certain areas to be much safer than what was being reported on the news. And also found that some news wasn't being reported at all. I have family in Homs but because of the dangers of being killed not by the army but by the armed terrorists, I could not enter the city and visit them,” she said. “We passed Tal Kalakh, a supposed problem area but it was quiet and peaceful and nothing was happening. Upon my return to Damascus on my last days we saw soldiers on the outskirts of Homs preparing to defend the citizens of the city from the shootings of the armed terrorists. ?Shootings into minority neighbourhoods happen on a daily basis and I have had relatives shot and kidnapped by these ‘peaceful freedom fighters’.”
Jillian C. York, Director of International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, writing in her personal blog, is careful to stress that criticism of coverage of Syria does not necessarily denote support for Assad. “I have known and talked about the horrors of the regime since long before March 2011. But while even 1,000 civilian deaths are far too many, these numbers matter when they’re being used to justify intervention,” she says. “The media’s almost total reliance upon activists – not simply citizens, but self-described activists – is therefore problematic. And yet, criticizing that fact has become even more problematic. York bemoans the lack of a more objective slant in international reportage on Syria. “At the moment, you have what is essentially a divide between journalists, commentators, and media bureaus that are very clearly pushing the opposition line and those that appear to be shilling for the regime. And there’s no middle ground – there’s almost no one condemning the regime, for example, whilst simultaneously questioning the dominant opposition narrative. Those who dare search for truth are immediately labelled as being on one side or the other,” she says.
We know well that truth is the first casualty of war but in the accounts of what must certainly now pass for a civil war in Syria, international media coverage – English and Arabic and certainly not confined to the Al-Jazeera network – has failed to scrutinise the anti-Assad narrative emanating from Syria. Lest we forget, this is an all-out propaganda war where both sides have been ready to forego the truth to win the right to tell the story the way they see it. DM
- Blame, Responsibility, and How We Talk About Syria in The Atlantic.
- Al Jazeera reporter resigns over "biased" Syria coverage in Al-Akhbar.
Photo: Smoke rises from the Jab Al-Jandli district of Homs. REUTERS.