Syria: Waging News in Times of War

Published: March 30, 2012 - 17:46 Updated: March 30, 2012 - 17:49

When media is used as a tool to meet foreign policy objectives, truth is often the first casualty

Sanjay Kapoor Delhi

All these months since the protestors spilled over to the streets of Damascus, the endeavour of Syria's Bashar al-Assad regime has been to show that it is still in control of the country. But who would believe a government that still has its media in shackles?

No wonder the regime has found it tough to convey to the world that the scale of opposition it faces within Syria, and the resulting violence, is far less than what is being hysterically reported by Arab TV news channels, BBC and Al Jazeera.

So much so that cynics remained unconvinced even when the regime tried to challenge the narrative of the western and Arab media by inviting journalists from different parts of the world – including India – to see the reality for themselves. Indeed, such was the tyranny of this narrative that a CNN news anchor was once seen giving a short shrift to the channel's own correspondent, who was reporting normal life from Damascus in January this year.

To report on what is really happening in Syria involves trying to see through the thick haze of obfuscation caused by both the government and the opposition media. Many professional journalists have expressed outrage over the manner in which their reports from Syria were rejected for not articulating a point of view that fits in with the
editorial policy of the media outlet they work for.

In fact, Al Jazeera – which owes its reputation to its reportage on the Iraq war from the Arab perspective – has been accused of twisting facts about the Arab Spring. The channel's Arabic news head quit last year over its biased reporting on Bahrain and even Syria. A year later, there have been more resignations. According to Beirut-based newspaper, Al Akhbar, the bureau's managing director, Hassan Shaaban, reportedly resigned in March, "after leaked emails revealed his frustration over the channel's coverage of Syria". The newspaper claims that a report filed by Shaaban – showing armed fighters engaged in a gun battle with the Syrian army in Wadi Khalid – was dropped, and he was accused of being a 'shabeeh' or a lackey of the Syrian regime.

Similarly, there is seething anger among many journalists over the manner in which they have to give legitimacy to dubious London-based sources for news of casualties in Syria. One of these is the Syrian Human Rights Observatory. Most reports of killings in Syria are attributed to this organization, which is funded by some dubious entities.

Truth, as the cliché goes, is a casualty in this pursuit of foreign policy objectives through the media. Some Al Jazeera reporters, quoted in Al Akhbar, claim that Qatar's foreign policy influences much of the reporting on Syria. When people were being butchered in Bahrain, it is alleged that the channel did not give it the importance that it is giving to happenings in Syria.

A US-based media watcher Jillian C York, in a study of the reporting from Syria, shows that newspapers like The New York Times, and channels like CNN and Al Arabiya, base their stories entirely on "unnamed activists", "Syrian opposition activists", and "human rights activists". These are the primary sources in a war which, they claim, has no witnesses.

Nothing can be further from truth. In Syria there are people who speak candidly about the happenings, and many of them are critical of the Assad regime. This reporter heard many voices that disagree with the dominant narrative, and even with the reporting of Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, but they do not like the claustrophobia caused by the security apparatus of the Assad regime either. Strangely, there is no space for such voices in the mainstream media.

Syria presents a serious problem for many journalists who do not want to be instruments in creating an environment for foreign intervention, leading to a repetition of Iraq or Libya. They don't want to be pleading the case of an authoritarian and brutal regime, but, at the same time, they don't want to overlook the forces that comprise the opposition. What they want is the freedom to report the truth. Will the UN mission of Kofi Annan succeed in creating the circumstances that make this freedom possible?

When media is used as a tool to meet foreign policy objectives, truth is often the first casualty

Sanjay Kapoor Delhi

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