Avaaz actors with body bags smeared with blood outside the UN Security Council building in New York in January
Avaaz actors wearing masks of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (R) and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin dump body bags smeared with blood outside the UN Security Council building in New York, January 2012. Known mostly for its international Internet campaigns and online petitions, global activist group Avaaz has taken on a more direct role with its support for the uprising in Syria. © Timothy A. Clary - AFP/File
Avaaz actors with body bags smeared with blood outside the UN Security Council building in New York in January
Billie Jeanne Brownlee
Last updated: August 15, 2012

Media and the Syrian revolution – a war of truths and lies

Can we trust the information coming out of Syria? And how are the rebels fighting state control of the media sphere? To be sure, the war over Syria is played out on many levels; from the streets of Aleppo to YouTube and the news business.

Syria is now at a point of no return. After 17 months of uprising, the revolution has reached the streets of Aleppo and the capital Damascus, Assad’s den. The large avenues that connect the major cities of the country to the outskirts of Damascus turn into wide roads that enter the city and slowly dissipate into narrow paths of the intricate maze of the old city. The revolution has flared up like a virus in a body, notching every city and now moving to its heart, for the final battle to be fought. Damascus, the most ancient inhabited city on earth wakes up to the revolutionary cry, putting an end to the defamation of being silent and unconcerned with the war for freedom that has been fought in the rest of country by young men and women.

The Syrian revolution will definitely leave the country and its people with a more demanding task, that of sowing up the wounds of a war which has left behind thousands of lives, seeking for justice but also for a true and accountable reconstruction of the events. No burial of memory is allowed. This war, unlike any other of the Arab Spring, is draining in length of time, which makes it very difficult to keep up with the actual development of the events. In fact, with the expulsion of foreign journalists, the Syrian revolution has been relying on two major contesting sources of information: the State’s news agency SANA and the news released by activists and rebels fighting for the fall of the regime. A war of lives but also of truths and lies, which are sometimes difficult to distinguish.

The Syrian state media has never had a good reputation in terms of truthfulness and reliability, but has rather been ranked among those countries considered “not free” and “not democratic” by international organizations active in the field of freedom of expression. In fact, since the seizure of power of the Ba’ath party, Syrian media became a tool charged with singing the regime’s praises. Independency, accuracy, impartiality, watchdog role, pillars for correct and functioning journalism, are characteristics unknown to the Syrian reality.

A light breeze seemed to inaugurate a new phase for Syrian journalism at the time of Bashar's succession to power in 2000, during what came to be known as the Damascus Spring, a name later attributed to the Syrian version of the Arab Spring of 2011. At that time, Bashar embodied the desire for change and reform towards democracy. Several months later it became clear that what Bashar intended for reform and modernisation was a mere technique of maquillage. As a Syrian journalist once said in reference to changes being brought by the new political entourage: “nothing has changed since Bashar succeeded his father. The latter had closed Syrians into a bottle and left the bottle in his son’s hands whose only concern is to shake the bottle up and down.” Independent newspapers, magazines and TV channels were theoretically allowed by a new decree law (n.50), but apart from some short and isolated episode, they still recycled the same old waffle.

Assad made another attempt to play the card of reforms once the Arab Spring spread into his country. The media was one of the “blessed” fields. However this time the Syrian revolution has clearly shown to be tone deaf to the promise of reform. The new media law (n. 108) issued on August 28, 2011 is once again the work of a good double faced rhetoric, which establishes that the media is free, independent and based on international human rights declarations, with the clause of respecting the Constitution and the country's laws. This clause is very well thought out if we consider that the country's law prohibits publishing any information that may harm national unity and security. In short, precious little or nothing has been introduced in terms of new perspectives being offered, of a critical attitude being assumed towards the government, or of more rights being granted to journalists. The lot masked with the establishment of the National Media Council in November 2011 and the issue of new "independent" newspapers like Sham and al-Minbar al-hurr and magazines like Arwiqat al-mahakem and al-Kamal.

Syrian TV channels and newspapers have been backing the regime's moves since the start of the uprising, with tones which often reach ridiculous levels when presenting the events under the light of a war against terrorists like al-Qaida as well as Israel and the US, a war that the regime is fighting to protect its people. Populist and nationalist videos are going on air showing the Syrian army fighting to protect its people from the enemy, with images that seem to have been extracted from American war movies and with gripping music playing in the background. This stubborn and partisan support of the regime by the state media has caused many journalists to quit, tired of feeding people with lies, but it has also provoked attacks on different news agencies, like the bloody one at the Al-Ikhbariya al-Suriya TV last month. This new TV station, despite not belonging, in theory, to the state-run Radio and Television Corporation, is considered to have become a major propaganda mouthpiece for the Syrian government.

But the Syrian revolution is not just that. It is also the YouTube revolution, a revolution fighting to free its country but also to gain a voice and make people aware of what is happening inside the country. Every war has found a more congenial and truthful way of expression, CNN was the case for the Gulf War I; Al Jazeera for the Gulf War II; Twitter became the voice and means of coordination for the Iranian Green Movement; Facebook for the Egyptian revolution and YouTube is what Syrians have been using to document their fight.

The choice of YouTube is not driven by market reasons, fashion or prestige, rather by its independency and more than that by its reliability in terms of protecting people's identity. This is extremely relevant if dealing with a country like Syria, which has been fighting every form of dissent for the past forty years. This fight has often assumed the form of a witch-hunt, incriminating innocent people, torturing others and often killing them. Therefore, with a war which is truly unfolding into its borders, Syrian activists have become more cautious, choosing ways to express themselves that at the same time can safeguard their own identity. The number of videos on YouTube is enormous, rising every minute and acting as a sort of brief news hour. They generally start with announcing the date and place of the video and then leaving the watcher to interpret the events on his or her own. The Arabic language, rarely being used to explain the images, does not obstruct the understanding as these images speak a universal language. Bloodcurdling scenes are often telegraphed, although they usually appear as effects, hardly ever the crimes themselves.

But YouTube is not the only means of expression of the Syrian revolution, other outcrops of the Internet like blogs, Facebook, Twitter and Skype are helping in the coordination of the revolt but also in keeping a window open to the world which is witnessing the violence through headphones and computer screens. And for all those who do not access the Internet, activists have been distributing a newspaper, named Hurriat (freedoms), published weekly since last August. The newspaper is printed in homes and distributed or better left in front of the doors of all sorts of neighbourhoods, mostly pro-governmental areas. The risk of being caught is very high but the aim is more important, that of offering an alternative to the mainstream, state-controlled media. Many who still do not have an idea of the revolution, may at least be curious and start thinking differently.

This is the Syrian revolution, staging anti-regime and pro-regime forces and their opposite campaigns of information. Outside Syria, as well, the revolution has been transformed into an information war, with eastern and western countries fighting to portray their version of the war, protecting national interests and concealing inconvenient truths. No one is safe from criticism, neither enemies nor allies of the Syrian regime. Well-established Assad allies like the Shia Hezbollah in Lebanon have kept their mouths shut about the uprising, notwithstanding the financial support received in years by the Syrian regime, maybe not to risk the signing of new accords with a political turnover.

Then we have Qatar and Saudi Arabia, US allies, who are funding and arming Syrian rebels, while slowly imposing their presence in the region. It is hard to imagine a sincere interest in ousting a dictator for the sake of freedom and democracy by countries that are among the most perilous and deeply rooted dictatorships of the Arab world and who have been hosting the Tunisian dictator Ben Ali since the fall of his regime. These two countries, other than supporting the revolution with arms, are also funding an information war through two of the most internationally known TV stations of the region, Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiyya, with the effect of orientating public opinion. And then there is the US, which accuses Russia, China and Iran of backing the regime, while signing secret accords in support of the rebels, as the news agency Reuters has recently shown. After all, Wikileaks cables had previously disclosed news of $6 million been funnelled to Syrian opposition groups since 2006.

At this point it is clear that the Syrian revolution is being fought on two levels: one is on the ground, between brothers and sisters of the same country: a battle of the flesh, transmitted on TV screens; the other is being fought on the tables of foreign powers, who are funding and betting on the victory of one of the two sides: a battle of interests, occurring behind the cameras. Meanwhile international TV stations report on the daily increase of violence and deaths inside the country and the fear of it spilling over into a civil war.

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