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Misreporting and the propaganda war in Syria

"You can’t take anyone at face value."

"We all have sympathies with the rebels – we all want the regime to fall,” says Rainer Hermann, Middle East correspondent for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Maybe that’s why his report from Syria has just been dismissed.

On 7 June, Hermann published accusations that the May massacres in Houla – where, the UN said, 108 people were killed, including 34 women and 49 children – were not the work of pro-regime militias as widely reported.

“These kind of simplistic explanations that are coming in every day through the media outlets of [the opposition group] the Free Syrian Army, I find less and less credible – nobody is on the ground to see it,” he told me. Rather, he suggested in his report, the killings had been carried out by forces allied to the Free Syrian Army. The claim was rejected in a media statement apparently issued by Houla residents, but the dispute forces us to question our acceptance of a black-and-white narrative. We see an uprising in Syria in which pro-democracy protesters are crushed and killed by President Bashar al-Assad’s autocracy – but what happens with stories that complicate the view?

Hindered by a ban on journalists entering the country (though some have since been granted visas), foreign media have relied on activists and “citizen journalists” on the inside. This, combined with sympathy for the protesters and horror at the death tolls, has skewed coverage of the conflict.

“We’ve taken sides,” says Alex Thomson, chief correspondent for Channel 4 News, who visited Houla this month. While in Syria, he believes, he and his film crew were deliberately directed into a firing zone by the Free Syrian Army. “Dead journos are bad for [the regime in] Damascus,” he later blogged. “I’d be the first to say the regime is an odious police state,” Thomson told me, “but that does not excuse wilful myopia when discussing the tactics that rebels are using.”

Don’t criticise

With the opposition becoming more militarised, deaths among the Syrian military and supporters of the regime are increasing. Several reporters also suggest that the rising lawlessness is being used as cover for revenge and religiously motivated killings. Some speak of a media monopoly by armed opposition groups that want western intervention, pushing aside non-armed groups that prefer the west to stay out.

Thomson says that reporting on Syria “needs to grow up a bit. Everyone in a war is telling lies – that is a useful point to start from.” Internal dynamics aside, Syria is host to a proxy war between the west and its Gulf allies against Assad-supporting Iran – with Russia also staking its claim. In this context, it is fair to assume that there is, as one diplomat told the BBC, a “propaganda war” where “you can’t take anyone at face value”.

The use of activist information that is often difficult to verify has created its own momentum. “We look like lumbering beasts because, while we try to check this stuff, others are tweeting it to tens and thousands,” says one Middle East correspondent.

According to a Syrian opposition journalist, even if events are being distorted, that is not necessarily done in bad faith. “Nobody gives out a script – it’s just instinct,” he says of the overriding need to expose the brutality of Assad’s regime. Even though he thinks that false claims are routinely made and he has questions about Free Syrian Army tactics, this UK-based journalist won’t air them publicly. “You can’t criticise the opposition at the same time that Bashar al-Assad is killing people – it’s too much.”

The problem stems partly from conflating activism with reporting, suggests Armand Hurault, of the London-based Syrian Voices, a project that offers media training to Syrian journalists. “People have no experience of independent journalism,” he says. “They may not even realise what’s problematic in this blurring.”

But disagreements within the opposition over how events are reported could grow worse. “One of the challenges of a democratic transition is how willing the next government will be to be criticised by an independent press,” Hurault says. If opposition groups can’t deal with critical media now, what would they do in power?

The Syrian journalist, however, argues that media manipulation is counterproductive. “We have to be honest with each other, to stop lying and being hypocrites,” he says. “One of the reasons the revolution is dragging on is that everyone is creating make-believe narratives.”

This article first appeared in the 25 June 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Europe’s most dangerous leader