Item number five on UN Envoy Kofi Annan’s 6-point plan for Syria is the following:
“(5) Ensure freedom of movement throughout the country for journalists and a non-discriminatory visa policy for them.”
At a delicate moment in the hard-fought Syrian conflict that could potentially destabilize the entire Middle East, the United Nations believes getting more journalists into Syria is one of the six most urgent actions to consider?
Why? Are foreign reporters trained in special “observer” skills – with unique truth-detecting abilities bubble-wrapped in bullet and mortar-proof goop? And what will they see that Syrians – who know Syria best – cannot observe for themselves?
What the UN is really demanding – let’s be honest here – is for the Syrian government to open up the country to “Western” journalists. Yet, in all the conflicts covered in recent years, I cannot recall one that has been more badly covered by the mainstream western media than this Syrian crisis.
Almost to a person, western journalists are blaming their substandard coverage on the fact that they have been denied entry into Syria. And also – to a person – they seem to think that the world needs them there to understand what is going on inside the country.
Paul Conroy, the Sunday Times freelance cameraman who was injured by an explosive in Homs in February, tells the BBC’s Hard Talk that Syrians need their events verified by people like himself and his now-deceased colleague, war correspondent Marie Colvin, in order to be believed:
“It is a sad state of affairs that it does need people to go in…and actually be Western and be official journalists to make it real in the public eye.”
Is that like a Western-journalist-verification-stamp of some sort? Does it come with a guarantee – for accuracy in reporting?
Because, right now, I honestly cannot think of a group of people less capable of verifying things in Syria than western journalists. And it is not because they aren’t physically there or can’t string together more than two words in Arabic. It is largely because they feast at the trough of their own governments’ narratives on All Things. Western journalists are heady with a sense of righteousness leached from the oxymoronic “western values” shoved down our collective throats. Those same western values that demand “accountability” and “transparency” from all nations – while offering cover for western governments to hack their way through Muslim and Arab bodies in endless “national security” wars.
Do tell… Which major mainstream western media outlet has ever fundamentally questioned their government’s narratives on these wars? Which major western journalist risked career for truth on affairs related to the Middle East? Give me the name of that brave western network reporter who disrupts press conferences regularly with inconvenient questions on weapons sales to Gulf dictatorships – and has his bosses go to the wall to ensure he remains in the White House press pool. Show me the western reporter at the Washington Post, New York Times, CNN, BBC, France 24 who has made a career of doggedly questioning Israel’s disproportionate use of force against civilian populations – a journalist who sticks a microphone under Sarkozy, Obama or Cameron’s nose and bellows: “What fucking Peace Process are you chaps banging on about?”
No? Not one? Come on!
“No Syrian Visa” is just a convenient excuse for the lazy and sloppy reporting of western media in this Syrian conflict. It is a handy sound bite these days – one that quite deliberately ignores the Arab League Monitor’s January 2012 Report that 147 foreign and Arab media organizations were operating in Syria during their month-long observations.
“No Syrian Visa” tries hard to distract from the reality that most western journalists never actually go out to the front lines of conflict when filing their stories. Increasingly, reporters are sent out in organized pools by host governments – or in the case of recent US-initiated wars in the Middle East – by the invading armies.
“No Syrian Visa” selectively forgets that entering US-foe Syria as a journalist today is no more difficult than waltzing into US-ally Saudi Arabia – or US-ally Bahrain, when Formula One cars are not racing there.
And “No Syrian Visa” will blush hard when recalling that there was no similar collective western media outrage when the government of Israel declared “No Gaza Entry” as it pounded Palestinian populations in 2008-9.
Glossy Journalists Seek Content Not Facts
No. The problem with western reporters is that they are past their due date – remnants of an industry we once believed brandished standards of objectivity we never actually witnessed.
They are news-as-entertainment professionals – packaging glossy corporate content for maximum distribution and big bucks. The goal is not objective reportage. Their targets are quantifiable and highlighted in a business plan somewhere. Success is based on a simple formula: stay within parameters “understandable” to a wide audience that devours sound bites and familiar storylines on the hour, every hour. Like trained seals whose every desire, instinct and buying pattern has been measured by corporate media’s marketing department for the consumption of its advertisers, the audience demands satisfaction – and western media delivers it.
With the exception of a few proud holdouts, western media has made a beeline for the sexy story in Syria – which is essentially the fairytale of the “Arab Spring” with a little twist: Bad regime, good activists – but kick out this dictator and it’s a three-for-one, with Iran and Hezbollah tossed in as a bonus.
There are only three guiding rules for most western journalists inside or outside of Syria: 1) only quote anti-regime populations, 2) do not seek out independent domestic opposition figures, 3) evidence is unimportant, as long as you loosely “source” it:
They head straight for the Syrian activist, the anti-regime demonstration, the man with the gun in a “hot spot.” These are one side of the Syrian story, for sure. But you will not find mainstream western journalism broadcasting a pro-regime rally of tens of thousands, the national flag painted on the faces of Assad supporters – young and old – waving posters of their president. Pro-regime Syrians, a majority of whom voted in a national referendum in February to adopt constitutional reforms, are never interviewed by these reporters.
You will not find western journalists side-stepping the NATO-friendly Syrian National Council (SNC) “opposition” to interview the dozens of domestic Syrian opposition figures – most who have spent years in regime prisons – but who also unanimously reject the militarization and internationalization of the conflict; i.e., “non-Syrians butt out.”
And most importantly, you will never find mainstream western journalism seeking out “evidence” to support the false narratives of their governments. Who is included in the daily death count reported around the world? Who has killed thousands of Syrian soldiers? Who is killing children in Syria? Who is killing journalists in Syria? Who stands to gain from these deaths? Who stands to gain from this video footage or still photo emailed to my desktop? How do I know that plume of smoke was caused by a regime mortar? Who is the sniper? Why do so many Syrians still support Bashar al-Assad?
The “Big Lie” is a propaganda technique used liberally by western governments in the Middle East. The Big Lie refers to “the repeated articulation of a complex of events that justify subsequent action. The descriptions of these events have elements of truth, and the Big Lie generalizations merge and eventually supplant the public’s accurate perception of the underlying events.”
Using Big Lie techniques in the Middle East are particularly easy because western media is so happily complicit in propagating one-dimensional stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims. These assumptions are programmed so deeply, that even after months of watching on our TV screens disparate populations of all backgrounds and political convictions rally to reshape their governing systems…we still see regional events only through the prism of a one-size-fits-all Arab Spring.
The US Military’s Special Forces Unconventional Warfare manual describes ways to overthrow a government outside of a conventional combat format. In a section headlined “Will of the Population,” the manual explains ways to overcome popular support for the existing national government and alter natural hostility to foreign intervention:
“Information activities that increase dissatisfaction with the hostile regime or occupier and portray the resistance as a viable alternative are important components of the resistance effort. These activities can increase support for the resistance through persuasive messages that generate sympathy among populations.”
The manual expounds on this in another area: “The USG (US Government) begins to shape the target environment as far in advance as possible. The shaping effort may include operations to increase the legitimacy of U.S. operations and the resistance movement, building internal and external support for the movement, and setting conditions for the introduction of U.S. forces. …The population of a recently occupied country may already be psychologically ready to accept U.S. sponsorship, particularly if the country was a U.S. ally before its occupation. In other cases, psychological preparation may require a protracted period before yielding any favorable results.”
The Syrian crisis is not about reforms any longer – it has become a geopolitical battle for influence in the Middle East, with NATO, the GCC and BRIC nations taking sides. Western media fails to address this larger picture, so glaringly obvious to people in the region. Instead it focuses almost entirely on the “David vs Goliath” or “good vs evil” themes that appeal to a broad audience of dumbed-down media consumers. These populations in turn become perception “leaders” when they back foreign military adventures in opinion polls broadcast back to us by – you guessed it – western media. And in that neat trick, your western government checks off a tick-box called “citizen approval.”
But Syrians have approved no such thing. More than a year after the first anti-government protests – which have never grown into the hundreds of thousands and millions experienced elsewhere in the region – Syrians have not ejected their leader, nor is there any evidence that the majority of Syrians wish to do so. The constitutional referendum in February, which a small majority of Syrians approved in an excellent turnout, should have been some indication for the media that popular sentiment is not necessarily reflected in an unverifiable cellphone image.
The daily casualty statistics coming out of Syria are deliberately misrepresented as regime “kills,” satellite photos of alleged regime shelling contradict the dominant narratives, activists faking events begs the question “why would they need to falsify evidence if the regime is so brutal?” But western media hears and sees nothing that doesn’t suit their formulaic narrative.
There is no better example of how mentally embedded western media has become with the Syrian “opposition” (itself a very broad and mixed bag), than a recent incident with CNN in Homs. Correspondent Arwa Damon and her non-Arab crew were tipped off about a potential pipeline explosion, so they pre-positioned their camera in a window frame facing the exact location of the anticipated bombing. When the pipeline explodes some time later, Damon and her crew look exultant – almost drunk on their success. Scoop? Try complicity in an act of terrorism. Can you imagine them doing this if the target was an American installation in Iraq or a NATO depot in Afghanistan? They would never live it down.
A year after the first small protests in Syria, the Syrian government stands strong, bolstered by its many constituencies, and spared the mass defections experienced by other Arab leaders. It appears that propaganda is not enough to shake the foundations of all Arab states. Now is the time for western media to ask why they got it so wrong. And some are indeed questioning their information, sources and assumptions.
There are western journalists who are doing a more than creditable job of writing about Syria from outside the country – the Independent’s Patrick Cockburn and The Guardian’s Seamus Milne come to mind. Please feel free to list other responsible, professional western journalists in the comments section below – I am sure we all want to celebrate their courage and increase their page views.
As for the others, their arrogance and cowardice is dangerous. False narratives have emboldened Syrians and other regional actors to act incautiously, angrily, even euphorically, when they might have benefited from nuance and calculation. People have died in the spinning of this conflict.
It is clearly time to challenge the dated concept that mainstream western media is impartial, objective or professional in their coverage of Mideast affairs. But we shouldn’t just bemoan this injustice in yet another stream of impotent essays and editorials. We must drag this industry of disinformation into the public arena, and make them accountable throughout the region by acting to affect ratings and readership.
Kofi Annan needs to immediately drop item number 5 on his Syria plan. While freedom of speech is important to uphold – even more so in times of strife – today, mainstream western journalism is nothing more than another face of the “external intervention” he so gravely warns against. Toss those western journos out of Syria unless they can demonstrate independent, objective, responsible reporting of this conflict. False narratives are costing Arab and Muslim lives. And media “combatants” need not apply to practice their craft in this region any longer.
This article was first published on Al Akhbar English on April 21, 2012