Coverage of Syria: Truth as Victim
By: Serene Assir
Published Friday, November 11, 2011
Not only is it dangerous to report on Syria for fear of regime retaliation as the latest tally and stories of affected journalists show. The regime-imposed media blackout has become a fait accompli and means that stories by all parties are harder to verify.
Syrian-Palestinian student and blogger Leila (not her real name) was living in Damascus when the Arab revolt began. She now lives away from Syria, after spending two weeks in detention in Branch 235, more commonly known as the “Palestine Branch” of the Syrian intelligence service. Charged with conspiring against national security and accused of being an Israeli collaborator, Leila was detained when she visited an area of Damascus where anti-regime demonstrations had been held.
“I wasn’t doing anything, I was picked up randomly,” Leila said.
What the Syrian intelligence service used to incriminate Leila was material found on her laptop. “I was charged on the basis of accessing websites that told a story that was different from the regime’s,” Leila said, adding that the sites included both anti-regime activists’ Twitter accounts and news sources such as Al Jazeera. “In Syria, just reading the other side of the story is an offence,” she added.
“Acknowledging that there’s more than one side of the story is enough to get you and your family in trouble,” said Leila. “Syrian media outlets all tell pretty much the same story. Independent journalists are too afraid to work, and state-affiliated outlets all refer to the past six months’ events as a foreign plot.”
The Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM) published a series of reports in October corroborating Leila’s analysis, describing the Syrian authorities’ acts against media freedoms as the result of a “formal declaration of war” on the media.
“The Syrian authorities continuously attempt to crush the fourth estate (news media),” the report says. The SCM documented 109 cases of violations against journalists, bloggers and intellectuals, 79 of which took place in Damascus, according to the organization.
“People just can’t do their jobs,” says Mohamed Abdel-Dayem, Middle East and North Africa program coordinator at the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). “The government media strategy is to obfuscate and mislead the population by instituting a media blackout.” For more than seven months now, both local and foreign journalists have suffered this strategy’s consequences, he added.
“Local reporters have been picked up in ones, twos and handfuls. Foreign journalists have been gradually kicked out,” Abdel-Dayem said. “While the government is bent on telling the Syrian population and the world that the unrest is a product of international sabotage, it is cracking down on the very same people who could be telling that story. Instead, even journalists working on non-political issues are being disappeared.”
In stark contrast with international and online coverage of Syria, state news agency SANA runs reports on Eid al-Adha celebrations in the country, as well as a special section titled “The Reality of Events.” There appears to be no mention of demonstrations. Instead, SANA runs reports on the authorities’ counter-terrorism efforts.
One report dated November 9 tells of the authorities’ interception of a bomb plot in Homs, western Syria. An analysis on the same website, titled “Syria is strong and able to block all Western provocations and any country’s attempts to intervene in our affairs,” refers to ongoing unrest as a foreign, US-driven ploy.
“Everything that is happening in the region is a result of Western and US fabrication, and their goal is to interfere in the internal affairs of the region while creating chaos, instability, and the collapse of politics and the economy,” the analysis reads. “This opens the way for Israeli and American hegemony over the whole region.”
Inside Syria, it appears that many people believe the state’s version of events. “There are enough stories about a foreign plot in the media for most people to believe it,” Syrian-Palestinian blogger Leila said. “Even just saying that you watch Al-Jazeera has become a provocation.”
While in detention, her interrogator told her that the Syrian regime was not merely defending the country, but also the Palestinian cause. As such – in a bizarre and brutal twist of fate considering Leila’s long-standing defense of Palestine – her accessing information on websites that countered the Syrian regime line was proof of collaboration with Israel.
The gulf between the numerous versions of events in Syria has not only fueled much public debate, but also triggered the question of what is really happening in the country. One such controversy emerged when a blog named Gay Girl in Damascus, whose supposed author was allegedly arrested for participating in demonstrations, was proven a hoax. The actual author behind the blog, as it turns out, was a man based in Scotland.
A grimmer example of misinformation is the case of Zainab al-Hosni, who was believed to have been killed, decapitated and skinned. After rights watchdogs Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch both issued statements condemning what had apparently been a death in Syrian police custody, al-Hosni came forward and said on television that she had in fact disappeared because she ran away from her abusive home. To Abdel-Dayem of the CPJ, “the fact remains that someone was tortured and skinned, but we have no way of finding out in what circumstances that happened.”
It may well be that reality has become so layered and distorted in Syria that a system of information control has embedded itself into the daily lives of journalists struggling to get balanced stories out. In detention for five days, journalist Sean McAllister of UK Channel 4 says “on the surface, daily life seemed normal. Once in detention, I think I accidentally stumbled upon the real regime.”
“In Damascus, it was business as usual while I was there. In Homs, I saw massive protests. In detention, I heard prisoners screaming like animals being killed, as they were being tortured,” said McAllister.
“I asked my interrogator about this, and he said the authorities were acting in accordance with international law. He seemed quite convinced of his discourse. While he questioned me, it was as though he couldn’t hear the torture victims howling for their lives. I spent most of my time trying to figure out whether they believed what they were saying.”
Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF) published on October 27 a list of names of journalists, bloggers and other online activists who have been arrested over recent months. The organisation then updated its list on November 3. The work of organizations that advocate for the protection of the right to freedom of expression and information has been made all the more difficult, however, because of the difficulty in accessing accurate, verifiable information on the circumstances in which journalists have had their rights infringed on.
“Plenty of information is coming out from Syria, but the difficulty we find is in verifying the information,” said Soazig Dollet, head of RSF’s Middle East and North Africa desk. Because of the state’s strict control of traditional media in the country, “social media has become our main source of information. However, the question of who is sending out this information remains unanswered.”
With few reporters on the ground, “the media has been turned into a tool,” said Dollet. “And it isn’t just the journalists who tell a different story from the regime who are exposed to danger: it’s also their sources, and their families who may well face retaliation.”
Detained, Kidnapped or Disappeared
On October 27, the Paris-based freedom of expression watchdog Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF) published a list of bloggers and journalists who are believed to have been detained in Syria. The organisation then updated its list on November 3, adding new names.
“Since then, we have had no updates on the people we listed,” said Soazig Dollet, head of RSF’s Middle East and North Africa desk. “We have received notification of more names, but we need to verify their credibility. As far as we know, none of the people we listed have been released.”
On the list are pro and anti-regime journalists, as well as people without an overt political agenda at all. “We are especially concerned for the fate of stringers working with foreign journalists, as anyone sending information outside Syria is at risk of detention or torture,” said Dollet.
Unlike in Yemen, where six journalists have been killed since the start of unrest there, no journalists or bloggers have been assassinated in Syria in recent months. “Arrest and kidnapping are the method of repression in Syria,” Dollet added.
Among the people named on the list are Malak al-Shanawany, who RSF says was detained for the third time on September 22. Also on the list is Amer Matar, who has worked for Lebanese daily An-Nahar as well as the London-based Al-Hayat.
Click here to view RSF’s full list.
RSF’s fear that detainees may face torture is based on knowledge of dangerous precedents. “We cannot disclose their identities, but we know of cases of journalists and bloggers who have suffered ill-treatment, at the very least,” said Dollet. “One person had his nails pulled out while in detention.”
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights defines freedom of expression under Article 19 as follows: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights also guarantees this right, as well as the right to a fair trial. Syria signed this covenant on 21 April 1969.