Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Syrian Revolution: Media Siege

My photo album from the Syrian Revolution is here (don’t get too excited.)

When it comes to news, living in Syria is like living inside a black hole. You can see everything going on outside of Syria with perfect clarity. Inside Syria, you have no idea what's happening.

Before the revolution started, foreign journalists in Syria actively censored themselves to avoid being deported by the government. I once came across this line in a New York Times story about Syria: “The basic ‘red lines’ are well known: no criticism of the president and his family or the security services, no touching delicate issues like Syria’s Kurdish minority or the Alawites, a religious minority to which Mr. Assad belongs. Foreign journalists who violate these rules are regularly banned from the country (a fact that constrains coverage of Syria in this and other newspapers).”

When the revolution started, this effect was only intensified. We were never denied access to foreign media. All news websites (except for Israeli websites) were available on the internet, all the satellite news channels came through just fine, and I could openly buy Newsweek, TIME and the New York Times on the street. Foreign media, however, had no access to Syria. Nearly all foreign journalists were ejected from the country. They were forced, like me and every Syrian citizen, to get their information from their friends, from the state-controlled press, and from YouTube videos uploaded by the opposition.

A poster on Qamareyah St in the Old City, outlining the Conspiracy.

Very rapidly, the state press constructed an internally consistent, alternative narrative of the “events” in Syria. The country, it claimed, had been infiltrated by armed gangs who were taking advantage of peaceful protests and sowing violence, chaos and sectarianism. They had been armed and trained by Israel, the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Saad Hariri’s Future Movement in Lebanon. They were murdering peaceful protesters and blaming it on the government, attacking government buildings, killing soldiers and police, attacking innocent travelers on the roads at night. Citizens of Deraa, Baniyas, Homs, Lattakia, etc. were begging – just begging – the army to come in and restore order. The government provided evidence for their narrative in the form of televised confessions from “arms smugglers” working for Saad Hariri and individuals who claimed to have been paid by Saudi Arabia to make fake videos of riots, and interviews with “eyewitnesses,” who spent most of their interview time chanting the president’s praises.

The most vigorous promotion of this narrative came from a “private” news channel called Ad-Dounia. Ad-Dounia would devote whole news programs to discrediting YouTube videos from the opposition. Of course, who is to stop government agents from uploading fake videos themselves for their clients in the press to systematically disprove? Kind of a 21st century straw-man argument. I am almost certain this was the case with one video I saw, where a flag-draped “protester” turns to the camera and says, “Ok, start filming” seconds before she is tackled by a supposed Syrian security agent. “Obviously, this was staged!” the news anchor informed us. Yes, obviously – why would these conspirators upload such a poorly-edited video onto YouTube? Hasn’t Saad Hariri ever heard of Windows Movie Maker?

My most fervently nationalist Syrian friends would hold up Ad-Dounia as proof of media independence in Syria. How can you possibly be so naïve? I would wonder – as they often did about me, when I told them that the CIA and Mossad couldn’t possibly be behind every bad event in the Middle East.

As you might guess, I never accepted the Syrian government’s narrative, because 1) it came from the Syrian government, 2) I couldn’t believe that in a country with an omnipresent secret police presence, such a vast conspiracy could be coordinated by foreign powers, and 3) after Egypt and Tunisia, and considering Syria’s 20% unemployment rate, unbelievable corruption and minority dictatorship, a foreign conspiracy was not needed to explain the country’s unrest. Yet it was extremely difficult to convince anyone who had bought into one narrative to accept the other. My conversations with my Syrian friend “Emmanuel” would go like this:

“Don’t believe the BBC; they lie!”

“Why would they lie? They’re an independent news organization. Why would they try to hurt the Syrian government?”

“Because they are a tool of the Western governments, and Syria is the only anti-Western Arab country! Besides, we know they’ve been lying!”


“Didn’t you see that report on Ad-Dounia?”

“Yes, but Emmanuel, why do you believe the state press?”

“It’s not the state press, it’s private!”

“(Sigh). Fine, but even if the BBC reported an inaccuracy, you can’t really blame them, because your government is keeping them out of Syria, and preventing them from verifying anything!”

“I’m glad the government kicked them out! They are liars and saboteurs!”

In the end, we each had to choose which narrative to believe, to presuppose it, and then use it as a lens to examine everything else we heard. I chose to believe that the Syrian government was full of it, because it fit my political worldview. Emmanuel chose to believe his government, because as a minority, he saw the government as a source of protection, and badly wanted Syria to stay stable and peaceful.

Emmanuel was right about one thing: the BBC and Al-Jazeera got at least some things wrong. About four weeks into the protests, I went to visit a friend working in Hesseke, a town in northeastern Syria. That Friday afternoon, April 1, we walked all around the town (it wasn’t very big). We ate lunch, saw all the parks, and walked to some of the archeological sites. It a typical lazy day of prayer in Syria. Not many people were out. Traffic was light. We chatted and joked with some of the locals and soldiers we met on the street. Then we went back to his flat to cook dinner. When we got there, I got a frantic phone call from “Sadiiq” another Syrian friend of mine. “Joel, are you all right, man?” he asked.

“Yes, Sadiiq, I’m fine.”

“But there are huge protests in Hesseke! It’s on the BBC!”

“No…there’s nothing. We were just outside. We walked around the whole town!”

Later, my friend and I talked to one of his English-speaking friends, who told us that it was rumored that fifty men had gathered for about fifteen minutes outside the main mosque in Hesseke after prayers. This was reported as a “major protest” in the international media.

There were many events that neither narrative could adequately account for. State TV ran footage from the funerals of soldiers murdered by the “terrorists” (complete with music from The Lord of the Rings playing in the background). Were these funerals faked, and the soldiers merely invented? Were they shot by the government for refusing to fire on civilians, as the opposition claimed? Were there genuinely armed gangs inside the country with the power to attack the Syrian army? Who was attacking cars on the road from Beirut to Aleppo at night? The government, trying to sow instability and create a justification for its own crackdown? The pro-government mafia, known as the Shabiha, unleashed at last? Terrorists, trying to start sectarian troubles? No matter what you believe, you sound awfully paranoid.

A more recent example: The Syrian government claims that last weekend, 120 of their soldiers were killed by armed gangs in the northwestern town of Jisr al-Shughour. What happened there? An army mutiny? A government-directed purge, which is now being attributed to these seemingly omnipresent "armed gangs"? An attack by armed Islamists? A foreign attack? Desperate, enraged Syrian civilians striking back at the government at long last? At this point, I have no problem believing any of these scenarios.

In cases like these, reaching the truth isn't merely a matter of disbelieving the Syrian government. Once we throw out the official version, there's no way to answer the question, "What happened?" We are adrift in an ocean of ignorance, without landmarks or bearings. It's the ultimate existential crisis.

Now that refugees have begun flooding out of Syria into Lebanon and Turkey and sharing their stories, we have another stream of information to draw upon. But anyone following the events in Syria has to be aware that, until and unless the Assad regime falls, the reality of events inside Syria must remain a mystery - not only to us, but to the Syrian people. The Assad regime has successfully deprived its opponents of a common reality to operate in. Considering that these opponents may soon be the new power brokers of Syria, that's a pretty terrifying thought.

Check out this page at the Syrian Arab News Agency's website for a glimpse into the regime's alternate reality: The Reality of Events.

1 comment:

  1. This stuff makes my head spin. And in makes me angry. The act of the Syrian government kicking out all foreign media is the number one reason, in my mind, that everything they say should be considered a lie until proven otherwise.