Syria’s Propaganda War
By Jess HillApril 12, 2012
As the threat against foreign journalists has increased in Syria, so has the media’s reliance on opposition activists on the ground. But amid the growing fog of war, it’s becoming harder to tell the difference between truth, rumour and spin. Has the nexus between activists and journalists become too close?
It's a common sight in hotels and cafes across Antakya, a small city near the Turkish-Syrian border: a journalist interviewing someone who has fled from Syria.
Many have witnessed horrifying violence. Some have been imprisoned, some tortured. Others say they've seen Iranians patrolling alongside Syrian soldiers. As a journalist, you're forced to rely mostly on gut instinct to discern what is true, because very little of it can be proven.
A reporter may detect a fabrication in someone's testimony and ditch that source completely. Others may discard the quotes that sound suspicious and use the rest. Too often, journalists will report something that is obviously an unsubstantiated rumour because it's a compelling story and they're on deadline. However scrupulous the reporter, the common caveat — "this has not been verified independently" — absolves us from taking full responsibility.
Every time I report on Syria (from outside; I have not reported from inside the country), I'm always nervous that what I write later will turn out to be untrue. This uncertainty has weighed heavily on my mind for several months, and I've discussed it with several correspondents. Almost all of them agree: it's becoming harder to know who and what to believe.
This is largely because reporters are forbidden from entering Syria's conflict zones; those who enter illegally are considered 'terrorists' by the Syrian government. After returning from the besieged city of Homs earlier this year, Martin Chulov, a Middle East correspondent for The Guardian, said it was more dangerous than reporting from Iraq or Libya. Since last January, more than 10 journalists have been killed, and there's strong evidence to suggest that in several cases — most notably that of veteran war correspondent Marie Colvin and photographer Remi Ochlik — the Syrian regime targeted them specifically because they were journalists.
Given this extraordinary situation, news organisations have been forced to rely on Syrian activists to provide the lion's share of their coverage. One journalist told me recently that about 75 per cent of news from inside Syria comes directly from activists, 10 to 15 per cent from Syrian state media, and a small percentage from 'normal people' when, on the rare occasion the news team can find someone willing to speak.
As he rightly pointed out, where else would they get it? Without activists, the media would hardly access footage from Syria's conflict zones.
Activists have worked under extreme conditions, often at extraordinary risk, to record the uprising in excruciating detail. Naturally, many in the media have valorised them for going where few journalists would dare, and for "getting the information out".
But it's not the information — it's some information. Syrian activists are not journalists — they're activists. They're risking their lives to get their story out, and many pursue a specific agenda: to convince the international community to intervene and arm the opposition. As one well-known activist, Omar Shakir, recently admitted to NPR's Kelly McEvers, "Sometimes you to have to hide some news."
Even journalists prepared to risk being shot at or shelled to report on the conflict first-hand, must rely on activists. To get across the border and into a besieged city, journalists must be smuggled in by the opposition and live with them in hiding.
"You're totally dependent on the people you are with," says Nir Rosen, an American journalist who has reported extensively from Syria. "They're taking you around, feeding and sheltering you. You're stuck with the same groups of activists and fighters, who are obviously impressing you with their courage in a desperate situation. In this situation, it's very difficult to investigate anything."
It also can be difficult to verify what you're hearing. Rosen cites an example. "A TV reporter was with an armed group in Homs. I knew this group, they were mostly civilians who'd volunteered, not defectors," says Rosen. "But they told her they were all defectors, because the opposition feels like if they admit there are armed groups, they're justifying the regime's narrative. If they call them defectors, it somehow gives them more legitimacy."
For non-Arabic speakers, says Rosen, it's even harder to report independently. "Unless you're BBC or something, you can't bring your translator with you to Syria. So you really are totally dependent on the translator the activists provide you with, which is really problematic when it comes to telling the truth accurately."
And it's not like journalists can just pop over to a pro-regime neighbourhood to get their perspective. "If you're an Al Jazeera correspondent going into a pro-regime neighbourhood, they're going to lynch you," says Rosen. "And if you're from a publication that's clearly pro-regime, and you go into opposition neighbourhoods, they're not going to wait too long before they set you on fire either."
Naturally, opposition activists are extremely reluctant to acknowledge anything that the Assad regime can use to justify its atrocities. The net effect of this, however, is that it's rare to see footage or eyewitness testimony about incidents unfavourable to the opposition — especially concerning individual armed opposition groups known collectively as the Free Syrian Army.
This frustrates Abdulwahab Tahhan, 24, a translator I worked with for a week on the Turkish-Syrian border. Like most Syrian refugees in Turkey, Abdul is Sunni Muslim. He volunteers at a school for Syrian refugees, and he says Syrians coming across the border have told him of atrocities committed by the Free Syrian Army. Two such accounts made the blood drop out of my legs. Abdul did not see these incidents first-hand so I won't publish them here, but they did square with a recent Human Rights Watch report which documents instances of kidnapping, torture, abduction and executions carried out by armed opposition groups in Syria.
"Nobody would ever tell a journalist these things, because they don't help the cause," he says. "As a Syrian, I don't want people to see the ugly face of things either. But we're talking about arming these guys. Who are the Free Syrian Army? What do we even know about them?"
Rosen says that although an armed opposition began to emerge last April, Syrian activists were still denying it five months later. "In September, when my first articles came out about the armed opposition, the Syrian Human Rights Observatory sent a letter to Al Jazeera saying I made it all up, and that I was a total stooge," he says. "But I can't blame them: they're fighting an information operations campaign, just like any army would, and truth is not their agenda. It's our job to distinguish between truth and fiction."
Rania Abouzeid, TIME magazine's Middle East correspondent, agrees. "Our job as journalists is to sift through sources and disregard people who aren't credible," she says. "I've had some real arguments with people, and I've just told them flat out, 'I don't believe you, it's not true, prove it — don't exaggerate. You don't need to exaggerate.' And that was from very early on in the conflict.
"But I think it's unfair to say there's some big propaganda war being waged by activists," she continues. "I think many of them are doing incredible work. They weren't trained as journalists; beyond that, they lived in a country where fear was pervasive. Syria was a very difficult place to operate before this, and for these people to break through that barrier of fear and bring these videos to us takes immense bravery."
That opposition activists are enormously courageous is beyond question. "But some activists are exaggerating or lying, and some 'witnesses' aren't even inside Syria," says Rosen. "Activists have told me this — they're uncomfortable with it, but in the end they have the goal of persuading the international community to intervene. They're motivated by a sense of desperation, because the horrors in Syria are bad enough — there's really no reason to invent anything."
Take for example a recent documentary, shot by a videographer known as "Mani" in Homs and broadcast on Britain's Channel 4. Mani embedded with a group of activists in January and February this year as parts of Homs, then a rebel stronghold, were bombed into the ground by the Syrian army. One scene shows the activists filming from a rooftop. After one of the activists, "Tellawi", bemoans their distance from the frontlines, a colleague suggests lighting a tyre on fire to imitate smoke caused by a mortar strike. The video dispatch is filmed, complete with on-the-scene smoke rising up behind.
When The Daily Beast's Mike Giglio contacted the activists for an explanation, Tellawi replied, "I set the tyre on fire because there was a violent shelling on Baba Amr district and we couldn't reach it. We are being killed with cold blood by the occupying Assad regime. This is the idea that came to my mind to show the world about the shelling as the sky of Homs was covered with smoke."
It's the activist's equivalent to the flak-jacketed foreign correspondent crouching behind a car for effect, when the danger is distant. Some might argue this is all part of the theatre of television, and while it's certainly not ethical it doesn't change the fact that bombs are falling, people are being shot nearby. But how many burning tyres does it take before journalists presume all smoke on screen comes from a burning tyre?
Here we are in the realm of Jean Baudrillard's The Gulf War Did Not Happen, where information as it appears in the media not only is superior to reality but is reality. The real casualty in all of this becomes the very real suffering that such a process ends up subordinating.
One chilly evening in Antakya, I was introduced to a group of young Syrian men who'd recently crossed the border. The three men, all in their early 20s, said they had been working in a media centre in the former rebel stronghold of Idlib and that they'd fled into Turkey when Syrian soldiers recaptured the city last month.
They wanted dinner, so we did the interview at a fluorescent grease joint nearby. As we walked, Hazem, 21, who could speak some English, pointed to a camera slung over his colleague's shoulder. "That's the camera we used to shoot the videos," he said, adding that they'd worked with "many foreign journalists" from networks such as Al Jazeera and the BBC.
They had another young man with them: Omar, 19, said he'd recently deserted from the Syrian army's 4th division. An elite, fearsome brigade, the notorious 4th armoured division is comprised predominantly of Alawites (the co-religionists of Syria's ruling family) and commanded by the President's brother, Maher al-Assad.
But Omar isn't Alawite — he's Sunni Muslim — and it seemed highly unlikely that this timid 19-year-old was a member of the 4th division. When I challenged Omar on it, Hazem interjected. "Only the officers are Alawite. Most of the soldiers are Sunni."
There's precious little data on the 4th division, but I was sure this wasn't true. Why might they lie? In propaganda terms, defectors from this division are more valuable than regular soldiers. Perhaps Omar had defected, and they were just embellishing on this point?
As the interview continued, it became clear that Hazem was in charge, regularly interrupting the two others before Abdul had a chance to translate their answers. At one point, I asked the group whether they would welcome foreign jihadis who see the Syrian uprising as an Islamic revolution. A boyish looking activist in a baseball cap and running outfit, who asked to be called "Majid Shami", started answering. But as Abdul went to translate, Hazem shot his arm in the air and clicked his fingers, shaking another finger at Abdul. "I have a different viewpoint than he does," the young activist said sheepishly.
I insisted he be allowed to speak. Hazem relented. "Sure they're welcome," he continued, "because when we started we just asked for NATO. But they didn't help. So Osama, Zawahiri [Ayman al Zawahiri, now leader of al Qaeda], if they're going to help, they're more than welcome." Hazem interjected. "I don't think al Qaeda exists." Abdul muttered, "Remind me to explain this later."
Afterwards, Abdul said he'd been told not to translate certain statements, one of which referred to armed opposition groups in Idlib that hold captured Syrian soldiers for ransom.
"They think they're doing the right thing," he said. "But it's your job to show the truth, no matter how ugly. People must know the truth."
FROM A SMALL APARTMENT IN CAIRO, Rami Jarrah connects Syrian activists to the world's media. A Syrian national who grew up in London, Jarrah is the founder and director of the Activists News Association (ANA), a group that posts news on Facebook and Twitter, and sifts through the avalanche of videos — up to 1,000 per day — from activists inside Syria.
Jarrah, formerly known only by his pseudonym "Alexander Page", fled Damascus in October when his real identity became known to Syrian police. With his wife and newborn daughter, he travelled to Cairo, where they've been living ever since.
I've been speaking to Rami Jarrah since he was in Damascus and found him to be candid about problems within the activist community.
When I told him I was concerned some Syrian activists were lying, he said, "I worry about this too, because they tend to lie to us."
The problem with activists in places like Homs, says Jarrah, is that they're desperate. "The way the media team in Homs was working was, 'We need an intervention. How do we get an intervention? We have to show them that it's unbelievable.' They didn't go over the top, but they did compromise."
I ask if he thinks reporters have over-relied on activists? "Definitely," says Jarrah. "A lot of reporters have just found it easier. They enjoy how easy it is to get a story together. Obviously there are journalists who really want to get the truth, and they'll really work hard. But others really rely on activists a lot."
One particularly pervasive story, repeated by some activists, refugees and members of the Syrian National Council, is that Iranian soldiers are brought in to support the Syrian army. Amongst the thousands of videos shot by activists in Syria, there's been no clear evidence indicating Iranians are fighting in Syria.
Last January, however, the Free Syrian Army captured seven Iranians, five of whom they claimed were Iranian soldiers killing civilians — including women and children — with Syrian forces in Homs. In a video shot by the "Farouk Brigade", the five Iranian men show their ID cards and passports to the camera.
The Syrian National Council stated the capture confirmed the Iranian government, a close ally of the Assad regime, is backing the crackdown.
But Al Jazeera has reported that the five identities shown in the video match the names of five missing Iranian engineers reported as having been kidnapped last year, allegedly on their way to work at a power plant in Homs. The men also closely resemble the engineers in a photograph taken several months previous.
At this stage, it's impossible to gauge exactly what the truth is. But Rami Jarrah, who does believe Iranians have some official presence in Syria, is dubious. "Let me tell you what activists talk about between ourselves: We don't believe that there are armed Iranian soldiers."
Jarrah says he works with 350 people inside Syria, who provide the Activists News Association with videos and information. But with all this rumour, confusion and disinformation, how can he ever be sure that his sources are giving him genuine information?
"We don't work with anyone unless we're 100 per cent sure. If we discover that someone has been lying, we don't ever use them again," he answers. When it comes to verifying a story, Jarrah says he has "four or five people in each area that don't know each other. We also have (media) committees in each area that we're in contact with. But I won't ever get something from just one committee in one area. Unless I can get confirmation from two or three guys, I won't confirm it."
Even the most serious fabrications from the opposition are incomparable to what Rosen calls the "in-your-face silliness" of Syrian state media. Nevertheless, Jarrah says it's critical that activists be completely honest.
"I agree that there's nothing that matches what [Assad] does, but our revolution is about democracy, freedom and truth," he says.
But the longer journalists are kept out of Syria, the more elusive that truth will become. In the short term at least, journalists have little choice but to continue to rely on activists for much of their information. The challenge for the media, however, is to go beyond the heroes versus villains narrative that's developed over the past year, and to interrogate some harder truths.
Why, after a year of horrific violence, do significant number of Syrians still support the regime, or at least the status quo? Why, after so long, have there still been no major defections from the government? And who are the armed opposition groups known as the Free Syrian Army?
It's not easy to investigate any of these issues. But it's essential that we try.