Media fables on the Syrian revolution
This is one occasion when the international media has proved clueless and susceptible to rumour. Poor reporting has hurt the truth
Illustration: Vikram Nongmaithem
FOR MONTHS, while the international media have uncritically published lurid stories of Syrian police and auxiliary forces gunning down protesters demanding democratic reform, Syrians have been trying to tell the world an entirely different story. That it’s not just the Assad regime, but the entire secular, stable and prosperous Syrian state that is under relentless attack. But till very recently, no one was listening. Instead, the one–sided coverage has helped legitimise the imposition of sanctions upon the Assad government just when it needed the help of the rest of the world most urgently.
This disregard for a fundamental tenet of good journalism pains me deeply. I am a Syrian national and have been a correspondent of Al Arabiya for the past two decades. These have been decades of turmoil in my part of the world. I have therefore, perforce, spent most of this time covering wars and insurgencies. I have covered the first Gulf war and the US invasion of Iraq, during which I was embedded with the US troops. I have covered wars in Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Kargil, and the unrest in Kashmir. In all this time I have never knowingly violated the cardinal rule of good journalism, which is to verify my information before airing it – check and countercheck it and do my best not to mislead viewers. To me, therefore, it is all the more distressing to see these principles being treated so casually by so many of my longtime colleagues. There have been honorable exceptions, but these have reported mostly for the print journals. Their carefully crafted conclusions have been overwhelmed by the sound bytes on television and the repeated airing of amateur videos that have conveniently come into the hands of journalists via social networking sites. Today, my country is threatened with turmoil and destruction at a time when it is the last beacon of secularism and modernity in the Arab world.
The attack has been launched by Sunni fundamentalists, generically called Salafis, spearheaded by the banned Muslim Brotherhood, which killed President Anwar Sadat in 1982, and was eradicated within Syria by President Hafez-al-Assad the current president’s father, in 1982. In the past three decades, the Brotherhood has been infiltrated by the protagonists of jihad. For Syria its goal is simple: use the cover of democracy to establish an Islamic state. With this in mind it has hijacked a legitimate demand for the democratisation of the current regime, which Assad himself supports, and turned it into an increasingly violent movement to oust the Baathist State and replace it with a Salafi, fundamentalist state.
The global media have failed to perceive this hidden agenda because they do not watch the local Arabic channels. But those who understand Arabic would do well to tune into two in particular, Al Safa and Wisal, and hear the diatribes of rabble-rousers like Sheikh Adnan Aeraour. YouTube videos show him saying ‘let a hundred thousand die in Aleppo’ if that is necessary to bring in the Kingdom of Allah, and ‘let us feed the meat (of the secularists) to the dogs’. Both these are based in Saudi Arabia and backed by the Saudi religious establishment.
The winds of change that started blowing in Tunisia and Egypt provided the perfect cover for this. The Salafis concluded that in the turmoil that would ensue after the Assad regime was overthrown, they, the largest and cohesive group in the political soup, would emerge supreme. Thus if they could mobilise Syria’s 70 per cent Sunnis on religious lines, democracy would catapult them into power. All they needed was a few deaths, followed by a few funerals. The Syrian police would do the rest. The Salafi strategy is a classic one of fomenting an insurrection by provoking massive and indiscriminate reactions from the state against the people. For this they needed a few deaths at the hands of the police. They got these on Friday, March 18, when three people were killed in Deraa on the Jordan-Syria border.
After the Friday prayers at the Al Omari mosque in Deraa, a demonstration that numbered in the hundreds took to the street shouting slogans against the regime. The slogans were revealing: ‘No Iran, No Hezbollah, We want a Muslim (who) fears Allah’. Exactly the same rallying cry was heard at Jisr al Shugur six weeks later. The Syrian Arab News Agency, SANA, and state television reported that the trouble was started by ‘saboteurs’ who had been dispatched across the Jordan border by the Muslim Brotherhood, which has a strong base in Jordan and had led the protests in that country at the end of January. Jordanian news agencies and television also reported the capture of at least one shipment of arms to Deraa.
But none of this was reported or investigated by the international media. In the week that followed, there were attacks on government offices and on the Baath party headquarters. The police in Deraa knew that outsiders were behind these attacks and were holed up in the Al Omari mosque. Eventually, in an attempt to forestall the next Friday’s demonstration, they entered the mosque after six days. According to foreign media reports this led to six deaths. But these reports did not attempt to investigate the government’s claim concerning the Al Omari mosque.
March 18 set a precedent. After that, for thirteen straight weeks, all major protests have taken place on Fridays, and have begun at or near mosques. Each has seen several deaths. That many of these took place at the hands of the police cannot be denied. But how many? This is the second issue on which, in its eagerness to demonise the Assad regime, the international media have cast aside their values. On the Friday after Deraa, they reported that 23 persons had died in protests across the country. All of them occurred at remote locations on the edges of the country, at Tel Kalakh on the Lebanese border, at Homs, which is also a stone’s throw from Lebanon, at Deir Ezzor, on the Iraqi border, and at Lattakia and Baniyas, close to the Turkish border.
For reports from these places, the international media therefore decided to rely on whatever was being put up on internet sites. Al Jazeera even announced it had set up a special team to ‘trawl social networking sites’ in order to obtain information about what was happening in Syria. With no independent verification of these postings, the media should at least have sought or published the official claim about what had happened. But it did no such thing, possibly arguing that Syria had been a closed society for so long that it had only itself to blame.
UNABLE TO verify the reports and videos appearing on the internet, the media fell back upon the reports being filed by human rights organisations. But these have been, if anything, even less circumspect. Between March 18 and March 24, according to media reports nine persons were killed in Deraa. But Amnesty International reported that that 55 persons were killed. How did 9 become 55? Amnesty did not feel it necessary to explain. The media’s inability to cross-check the information it was receiving made it a sitting duck for the Salafis, and other propagandists.
The first is the case of the ‘Gay Girl in Damascus’. Since February 19, internet users had been enthralled by the frank blogs of Amina Abdallah Sarraf, a 35-year-old Lesbian who talked freely about her lesbianism and its relationship with Islam. Then one day, her blog reported that she had been seen being pushed into a police car and had disappeared. The international outcry made the US start a fullscale investigation. This unearthed no trace of her or her family. But by then the Guardian of London had published a full story on her kidnapping and her web photo. It was only then that it found out that the picture was of a London-based Croatian girl, Jelena Lecic. Shortly after, the gay girl unveiled herself. She turned out to be a he, Thomas Macmaster, American and living, of all places, in Edinburgh.
Macmaster started his blog, perhaps not coincidentally, only four days after activists issued their first call to assemble before the Syrian parliament. Several of Macmaster’s blogs also reveal a deep involvement with Islam. In one of them he claims repeatedly that (s)he is a Sunni Muslim and a believer after a personal experience of the divine. Was the Gay Girl blog or the story of the kidnapping story designed to push the world closer to war on Syria?
Then, on May 8, Sunday, French Channel 2 apologised for airing photos supplied to it by Reuters, alleged to be of the Syrian uprising, but which were taken in Lebanon in 2008. Other papers and television stations also used the photos. But the experience with Reuters made no dent in the notions of the international media. As the violence spread around the periphery of Syria, the government continued to claim that the Friday bloodletting was being triggered by gunmen, often equipped with sniper rifles, who were picking off members of the police and the protesters to spark large-scale violence. But, barring a few exceptions, the media did not consider investigating these claims.
This finally changed on Friday June 3 at a town called Jisr-al-Shugur, with a population of around 50,000, a few kilometres from the Turkish border. Following several clashes and fatalities, the Syrian government ordered a military operation to restore order in the city. The military moved in on June 4, but two days later Syrian state television reported that heavily armed groups of unknown gunmen had begun to attack security forces in the town. According to these reports, they first ambushed a group of policemen who were responding to calls from local residents that unknown gunmen were terrorising them, and killed 20 of them. Later they attacked a police command centre and overran it killing another 82 members of the security forces. The gunmen also attacked and blew up a post office that was guarded by the police which left another eight policemen dead. In all, 120 security forces troops were reported killed during the day.
What the media chose to report however was entirely different. BBC, CNN and Al Jazeera reported that refugees and activists said the chaos erupted as government forces and police mutinied and joined the local population. The Economist swallowed this in its entirety: “An accurate version of what happened there is hard to confirm, because independent reporters are banned from Syria and the state media have plumbed the depths of mendacity. Usually, however, they flag up an event and give an indication, sometimes unintentionally, of its magnitude. Then they set about rearranging the facts. In the case of Jisr al-Shughour, they at first said that 20 members of the security forces had been killed in an ambush ‘by armed gangs’ and then, within an hour, raised the figure to 120, declaring that ‘decisive’ action would be taken as part of the state’s duty to protect its citizens. Probably the death toll has indeed been high. But who killed who remains unclear.
Theories abound. Residents say people have been fighting back after helicopters and tanks killed at least 40 civilians during the weekend. Tanks have been massing menacingly around the city. But well-informed Syrians surmise that the number of dead servicemen was exaggerated in an effort to make ordinary people rally to the regime and that most of the victims were killed in clashes between the police and the army or within some security-force units after their members tried to defect or to mutiny — the last two possibilities being the ones that must really scare Assad. When the Syrian army finally recaptured Jisr –al – Shugur on June 12 it discovered a mass grave containing 12 army personnel shot at pointblank range.
Waiel Awwad is a South Asia bureau chief Al Arabiya based in Dubai