Syria’s Electronic Warriors Hit Al Jazeera
By: Wissam Kanaan
Published Friday, February 24, 2012
Emails said to reveal dismay among Al-Jazeera staff over its “biased and unprofessional” coverage of Syria have been leaked by pro-Assad hackers.
Damascus – On Wednesday, the entire staff of the Al Jazeera network allegedly received an email instructing them to change their computer and email passwords.
Earlier in the week, the network’s server had been hacked by the self-styled Syrian Electronic Army, and some of its secrets were released to the media.
The major find to be made public was an email exchange between anchorwoman Rula Ibrahim and Beirut-based reporter Ali Hashem. The emails seemed to indicate widespread disaffection within the channel, especially over its coverage of the crisis in Syria.
Ibrahim wrote to her colleague saying that she had "turned against the revolution" in Syria after realizing that the protests would "destroy the country and lead to a civil war.” She went on to deride the opposition Free Syrian Army, which she described as "a branch of al-Qaeda."
Ibrahim also complained about the attitudes of various colleagues at the channel’s Doha headquarters, saying some of them “have refused to greet me ever since the outbreak of events in Syria because they hold a grudge against my sect.”
Hashem responded sympathetically, saying he had opted to sit on the fence after sending the channel footage of armed men clashing with the army which he had witnessed while reporting from northeastern Lebanon. He said that after he submitted the video, he was told to return to Beirut on the grounds that he was exhausted.
In her response, Ibrahim once again protested that she had “been utterly humiliated. They wiped the floor with me because I embarrassed Zuheir Salem, spokesperson for Syria’s Muslim Brothers. As a result, I was prevented from doing any Syrian interviews, and threatened with [a] transfer to the night shift on the pretext that I was making the channel imbalanced.”
Ibrahim also spoke of how Syrian activists invited onto Al Jazeera use terms of sectarian incitement on air, “which Syrians understand very well.”
Hashem wondered in response where the channel’s head of news, Ibrahim Hilal, stood in all this. Ibrahim answered that he was “stuck between a rock and a hard place: the agenda and professionalism..."
This conversation was broadcast in full on the state Syrian News Channel, which also interviewed the hackers who broke through Al Jazeera's information system.
However, the scoop did not attract the attention that had been hoped for. Like other official Syrian media, the channel is not widely watched and has suffered a loss of viewer confidence.
Thus the report was barely noticed, and Al Jazeera itself completely disregarded it.
Sources in the channel confirmed that the administration had taken no action over the incident, not even approaching Hashem or Ibrahim about it. The sources said it was generally assumed that the pro-regime hackers had accomplices inside the channel, as they would not have otherwise been able to get round its system’s sophisticated security measures.
The same sources said some Al Jazeera staffers were relieved that the email exchange had been leaked, "because it exposed the station's biased and unprofessional coverage Syria.”
They also confirmed an allegation Ibrahim had reportedly made in one of her emails: That Ahmad Ibrahim, who is in charge of the channel’s Syria coverage, is the brother of Anas al-Abdeh, a leading member of the opposition Syrian National Council. He allegedly stopped using his family name to avoid drawing attention to the connection.
The sources said that among the issues concerning Al Jazeera journalists was pressure to start employing the term “martyr” when referring to slain Syrian opposition supporters, but not regime loyalists or members of the security forces.
They said two camps had emerged within the newsroom: one, headed by Hilal, wanting professional coverage of the coverage, and another “who believe they are part of this war and do not hesitate to show that on air.”
The sources said that as part of this rivalry, Facebook groups had appeared which were devoted to targeting Al Jazeera journalists "who are guilty of trying to be objective."
For example, a fierce campaign was launched on social media websites demanding the sacking of Lebanese anchorman Hasan Jammoul. He had challenged an opposition activist to explain in an interview why the shelling of the city Homs was focused on Baba Amr and not other neighborhoods.
Neither Ibrahim, Hashem, or Hilal were available for comment when contacted by Al-Akhbar.
Yet the media-electronic war between the two camps seems set to escalate. Syrian President Bashar Assad himself has praised the Syrian Electronic Army, both in his recent speech at Damascus University and in meetings with popular delegations.
In addition to hacking into Al Jazeera’s emails, the group got into the channel’s breaking news subscription service – and circulated a false story to subscribers that the Emir of Qatar had died of a stroke. This was supposedly a response to the earlier hacking of the messaging service of the pro-regime Syrian al-Dunya channel.
Following the Army’s latest “victory,” ethical standards and the violation of journalists’ privacy seem to be far from anyone’s considerations. It seems this war will spare no one.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.