This is a propaganda war, a diplomat in Damascus told the BBC’s Paul Danahar, “you can’t take anyone at face value now”.
From the beginning of this uprising reporters have feared that the regime was targetting journalists — they were set up as legitimate targets as soon as the government accused some of being part of the international conspiracy against Syria. The regime arrested and threatened journalists from Al Jazeera, which it believes is supporting the uprising. Before its Damascus bureau was shut, there were regular pro-regime demonstrations outside and staff faced regular harassment in attempts to silence them. Syrian authorities barred members of the station from entering the city of Daraa, where the uprising began on 15 March last year. Officials also pressured Syrian employees of the station to quit, and told journalists that they could not appear on air or communicate with Al-Jazeera’s headquarters in Qatar.
Earlier this month, Alex Thomson, chief correspondent at the UK’s Channel 4 News, accused four fighters (two armed) of forcing his convoy into onto a blocked road in the middle of “no-man’s land” near the city of Al-Qasyr, where the regime was shooting. He speculated that the FSA wanted to land Assad with an international diplomatic incident, similar to that which followed the killing of Marie Colvin in Homs. Thomson’s team had a lucky escape.
The day after Thomson made his accusation, a Qatari member of the now disbanded Arab League monitoring mission, Nawaf Al Thani, accused the FSA of leading him into a trap to be killed in the city Zabadani, which is close to the Syrian-Lebanon border. That day, Al Thani was travelling with CNN reporter Nic Robertson who also reported on the incident, but didn’t blame the FSA.
Despite Al Thani’s support for the British reporter’s claims, some revolutionary activists were outraged, accusing Thompson of exaggerating the story for career gain. As the chorus of anger grew, Thompson stood by his story, saying that he merely reports reality.
Of course, the Assadists are milking this for all it’s worth. Iran’s Arabic-language state broadcaster Al-Alam (and its sister station Press TV) ran Thompson’s accusations, although I can’t quite remember them discussing his reporting of the graphic Houla massacre, where he suggested that the government had been lying.
Both the revolutionaries and the Assadists are reporting half-truths, often picking and choosing the stories or accusations favourable to their version of events. That is understandable. What is unforgivable is the way that some broadcasters and publishers have bought the opposition or regime line wholesale and uncritically.
“There’s almost no one condemning the regime, for example, whilst simultaneously questioning the dominant opposition narrative,” complains Jillian C York. “Those who dare search for truth are immediately labelled as being on one side or the other.”
That search for the truth has been hampered by the Syrian government’s refusal to allow international journalists into the country during most of the uprising. Reporters were forced to choose between YouTube videos uploaded by activists, or the regime’s increasingly ludicrous propaganda. The revolutionaries’ strategy was far more sophisticated, immediate and effective. A senior Western official told the BBC World News Editor that their tactics were “brilliant,” if sometimes misleading.
But is that surprising? The revolutionaries have an agenda. Citizen journalists are not supplying the international media with footage to further their own careers – they are doing it to tell the world about the horrors taking place on their doorstep. When they use mobile phones to film demonstrations, they put themselves in the firing line – they are active participants in the revolution, not outsiders looking in.
With an official ban on journalist visas in place, handfuls of brave reporters have managed to sneak across the border to report on the massacres that the government did not want them to see. The revolutionaries are often desperate for a voice, and have escorted journalists into the country and protected them once they were in the war zone, often at considerable risk to themselves.
Journalists — reporters sneaking across the border, and brave citizen journalists living under siege — are at the heart of this story. They are Bashar Al-Assad’s greatest fear. His father crushed the uprising in Hama in 1982 because the world was not watching. Back then, news of the killing of at least 10,000 people did not reach the outside world for weeks.
This time, things are very different, and it is the reason that Syrians are being threatened with death for simply daring to tell the world what is happening.
The regime knows it can still outgun its opponents on the battlefield. But on screen, it has already lost the war.
Sakhr Al-Makhadhi is a British-Arab journalist who has lived and worked in Damascus. sakhr.co.uk