In his recent article in Foreign Policy magazine, Sultan al-Qassemi criticized the Arabic-language news channels Al-Arabiya and Al-Jazeera for their biased coverage of the Syrian conflict. Yet the inaccuracies which are present in al-Qassemi’s numerous analytical examples deserve to be scrutinized.
The first point al-Qassemi highlights is the channels’ choice to broadcast amateur footage, either sent in by rebel fighters or taken from the internet. He claims that this practice violates professional standards. However, al-Qassemi is well aware that there are throngs of journalists who are seeking to gain entry into Syrian territory in order to broadcast from there, but they are not allowed. The Baathist regime forbids them entry into Syria, in order to commit massacres against innocent people under the guise of silence and obfuscation.
Despite government restrictions, there are indeed some journalists who have managed to enter Syria via smuggling. Some have been targeted by the regime and killed for uncovering the truth surrounding the massacres and other atrocities carried out by the Shabiha and security forces. It is the members of the Shabiha themselves who film images of murder and torture and disseminate them in an effort to spread terror among civilians.
The footage captured by rebel fighters typically consists of images and video clips which, in all simplicity, cannot be fictitious or manipulated. It is true that people may sometimes distort facts and deliberately seek to deceive, yet the crimes taking place in Syria cannot be fabricated, or even distorted, because a massacre such as that which took place in Hula cannot be conjured out of thin air. The true suspect in all of this is the al-Assad regime, long known for its oppressive and bloody nature.
Elaborating on the subject of amateur footage, al-Qassemi compares the Arab channels’ footage broadcasted from Syria to that of CNN and its “iReport” programme, which is dedicated to amateur content. But can the footage of the killing and mutilation of children (Hamza Al-Khatib, for example) be compared to the output of CNN’s “iReport”, which is more likely to appeal to those interested in video clips of amateur mountain climbing and biking? This only serves to reflect the naïve confusion of the writer surrounding the whole issue. It must not be forgotten that most of the world’s media covered the Iranian revolution in 2009 largely relying on video clips filmed by Iranian activists. It was through this medium that the true nature of the crisis was revealed. CNN actually engages in this practice in a large number of its programmes, including “Global Public Square” hosted by Fareed Zakaria, yet the writer mocks the American station for allowing amateur footage to play at part in its broadcasting output.
Al-Qassemi then claims that Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya are taking advantage of the difficulties encountered in field coverage, and using them as a pretext to rely entirely on the amateur footage which chimes with their points of view. This is also untrue. Regardless of whether you agree or disagree with them, it is widely known that Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya lost many journalists in Iraq during the worst bombings that followed the American invasion in 2003, which lasted for several years. The office where Al-Arabiya operated was completely destroyed. I do not believe that these two stations or other media outlets are looking for excuses; instead I hold the regime entirely responsible for preventing them from broadcasting on the ground. The regime knows what kind of crimes it has committed in the past, and continues to commit today, and it does not want them to be seen on screens across the Arab world.
Despite the fact that Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya are forbidden entry into Syrian territory (the opposite is true of the pro-regime stations which cover events there), they have hosted a number of regime spokesmen across a number of programmes, and have given them a platform from which to express their version of events. Because of this, al-Qassemi’s assertion that there is a bias towards one side over the other is simply not true. He also refers to the infiltration of extremist groups among the ranks of the rebels, claiming that this has been completely ignored by the Arab stations in question, but this is also untrue. For example, Asharq Al-Awsat, also mentioned by the writer for its “dishonest” coverage, has published many reports and articles dealing with this issue. As everybody knows, the infiltration of extremists has occurred because of the worrying escalation in the number of killings, and the crippling failure of the international community to show solidary with the Syrian people.
One article on the subject, written by Mshari al-Zaydi, was published in Asharq al-Awsat with the foreboding title “Will there be a “jihad” in Syria?” Al-Zaydi wrote that “the revolution in Syria started out as a free and patriotic movement, away from any sectarian tendencies. Indeed, one of the revolution’s most popular early slogan’s was “the Syrian people are one.” The FSA’s [Free Syrian Army’s] battalions were named after patriotic Syrian symbols such as Sultan al-Atrash and Saleh al-Ali – the former belonging to the Druze sect and the latter being an Alawite. However, as al-Assad’s excessive killings and international weakness – or rather conspiracies – continued, the people found their backs against the wall and had no choice but to defend themselves using all means available, including waging war in the name of religion.”
Al-Qassemi also referred to Al-Arabiya’s portrayal of cleric Adnan al-Arour as a symbol of the Syrian Revolution, despite his calls for Sunnis to, as the writer put it, “mince [the Alawites] in meat grinders and feed their flesh to the dogs.” I have found just one example on “Al-Arabiya.net” where Al-Arour’s ‘symbolism’ is mentioned, but there are no interviews with the man himself, let alone any form of promotion of him. Any media outlet would not be content with one article only if it really intended to convert an individual into a symbol. Furthermore, many other individuals linked with the Syrian revolution have had their names traded through Arab news agencies – among them Al-Arabiya. One such name is the intellectual Burhan Ghalyoun, a man known for his nationalism and tolerance. Why, then, did al-Qassemi not point out that Burhan has also been portrayed as a symbol of the revolution? The answer is clear: the example of Adnan al-Arour perfectly suits the scene which the writer has created in his article, and he chooses to ignore Ghalyoun because he disproves the message he is conveying. This is not a convincing argument.
When we consider what al-Qassemi has presented us with, we have to remember that these suggestions come in the context of the rousing rhetoric that preceded the youth-led revolutions, and which were promoted via social networking sites. It is true that this piece seeks to say something new; but it is often inaccurate and merely succeeds in arousing public emotion. Articles such as this are spread because of the ease and emotional lure that radical journalistic writing enjoys on websites such as Twitter. Such rhetoric is accepted in Western media outlets, which strive to appeal to the tastes of their Western consumers. For example, Foreign Policy, a magazine known for its level-headedness and in-depth analysis, is beginning to produce an output of articles that have no well-researched or scientific basis. This is damaging for its reputation.
Of course, no Arab media channel can be considered entirely neutral, especially when subjected to strict censorship laws and working among conditions where killing and intimidation is encouraged. However, Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya’s coverage, which al-Qassemi has criticized, certainly represents the truth on the ground. We are dealing with a brutal regime that is shedding the innocent blood of many people both inside and outside Syria. Whatever motives or narrow interests al-Qassemi has, it will no doubt be a good thing for the world to rid itself of this bloody regime once and for all.