Oct 1 2012

Skepticism Essential in Syria Reporting

Real atrocities, dubious sources

Syria's Flag--Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/Freedom House

Syria’s Flag–Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/Freedom House

As I.F. Stone taught us, all governments are liars, and the Syrian government is a particularly good example, refusing to acknowledge the legitimacy of a homegrown opposition and denying the overwhelming evidence (CBS News, 2/4/12) that it has shelled civilian neighborhoods (Human Rights Watch, 2/9/12).By nearly all accounts, the Syrian government is responsible for a lion’s share of the killing in that nation’s civil war. It has also been accused of purposely killing journalists (Reporters Without Borders, 5/7/12).

Because the Syrian government allows journalists almost no independent access, and perhaps in part because of the pro-opposition sympathies of much of the U.S. press, corporate journalism relies almost entirely on opposition sources, and on those calling for outside military aid for the rebels.

But according to Human Rights Watch (3/20/12), the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and other armed opposition groups are also connected to civilian deaths, torture, disappearances, summary execution of captured combatants (BBC, 8/1/12) and recruitment of child soldiers.

And they, too, lie. According to independent journalist David Enders, who traveled with the FSA in May and and June for a series of reports for McClatchy (CounterSpin, 7/13/12) , FSA officials told him they, in Enders’ words, “embellish and lie”–because the government does, they say.

Rebels have been accused of staging scenes for journalists and for Internet videos, including presenting as civilian massacres what were actually firefights between combatants.

The FSA has also been accused of trying to set up journalists to be killed and their deaths used for anti-government propaganda, as Alex Thomson of British television’s Channel 4 (6/8/12) said happened to him and his team. (Thomson reported that human rights lawyer Nawaf al Thani said he’d been set up in a similar manner during his tour of Syria with the Arab League Observer mission earlier this year.)

War zones are forbidding settings for reporters even without credible charges that both sides have staged and/or scripted fraudulent scenes and stories; in Syria, fair and accurate reporting becomes all the more difficult.

On July 12, U.S. media reported, based on opposition claims, that government forces had massacred 200 or more civilians in the village of Tremseh (CNN, 7/12/12). Days later, after UN observers entered Tremseh, the story changed. In a Page 1 story citing the UN’s findings, the New York Times (7/15/12) reported that what had initially been deemed a massacre, based on claims by “local Syrian activists,” now looked like a bloody battle between combatants.

As AFP (7/13/12) reported, the number of dead, lower than initially reported, was closer to 100, dozens of whom were rebel combatants.

Agnès-Mariam de Le Croix is the mother superior at a Melkite Catholic monastery near Homs that has become a refuge for religious minorities. She has been urging Western journalists to take a harder look at some of the armed rebel factions, largely Sunni Muslims, whom she says are carrying out ethnic cleansing against Alawi, Shia and Christian minorities (SkyNews, 6/14/12).

Those who don’t go along with the rebels are also targets, according to Agnès-Mariam, who says she personally witnessed FSA forces executing an uncooperative Sunni merchant and then staging the murder scene for journalists, who were told the man had been executed by government forces (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 6/13/12; translated by Moon of Alabama, 6/15/12).

Agnès-Mariam has been denounced (Irish Times, 8/18/12) as a Syrian government apologist, though the only evidence offered is that some of her criticisms of the armed opposition jibe with some government claims. Moreover, if she is a supporter of the Assad regime, she has a funny way of showing it, telling the U.S. Catholic (8/15/12): “My appeal is for the civilian population. This is not the way to bring freedom or democracy to a country which has been under a yoke of totalitarianism for 50 years.”

On a recent visit to Ireland, Agnès-Mariam (Irish Times, 8/13/12) described Western news reports from Syria as “forged, with only one side emphasized,” and similarly called the UN’s reports on Syria “one-sided and not worthy of that organization.”

After quickly declaring a May 25 mass killing in the Syrian municipality of Houla to be the work of pro-government forces, the U.S. press has largely passed over other emerging, and sometimes conflicting, accounts of the bloody events (FAIR Blog6/14/12).

The respected German journalist Rainer Hermann of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (6/7/12; partially translated at NRO, 6/9/12) blamed armed opposition forces for the killings, citing sources in the unarmed (i.e., non-FSA) anti-government opposition–sources from Houla he did not name, but whom he said he’d known for a long time. Corporate media, unsurprisingly, ignored a story that challenged what they’d reported virtually as fact.

Hermann’s conclusions themselves haven’t gone unchallenged. On July 23, the German magazine Der Spiegel ran a story backed by in-depth video testimony of several residents of Houla, all of whom placed responsibility for the killings on pro-government forces.

The testimony is compelling, if not entirely conclusive, considering reporting conditions and the many conflicting accounts. Supporters of the armed rebels often dismiss Hermann as the lone journalist challenging the view that pro-government forces are the Houla culprits. But he’s not even the only German journalist, as John Rosenthal writes in Asia Times (7/24/12). Rosenthal points to two prominent German journalists who have questioned the dominant line, Bild‘s Jurgen Todenhofer (7/9/12) and Alfred Hackensberger of the major German newspaper Die Welt (6/24/12). Rosenthal writes that Hackensberger

noted that Taldo, the sub-district of Houla where the massacre occurred, has been under rebel control since December 2011 and is in an open plain, making it unlikely that “hundreds of soldiers and Assad supporters” could have entered the village to commit the massacre…. Hackensberger visited Houla to conduct investigations for his report.He also interviewed an alleged eyewitness–identified simply by the pseudonym “Jibril”–at the Saint James Monastery in Qara, Syria. In contrast to an earlier report in the FAZ, which had claimed that the victims were largely Shi’ites and Alawis, Jibril told Hackensberger that all of the victims were Sunnis “like everybody here.” By his account, they were killed for refusing to support the rebellion. Jibril added that “a lot of people in Houla know what really happened,” but would not say so out of fear for their lives. “Whoever says something,” he explained, “can only repeat the rebels’ version. Anything else is certain death.”

There are also indications that Western media have rushed to find fault with the admittedly brutal Syrian government. In one well-known instance in May, the BBC ran a photo purporting to show Houla’s dead lined up in rows. As the BBC acknowledged in a May 29 editors note, the photo, “sourced from activists in Syria,” was taken in Iraq in 2003.

Early stories reported that a large number of Houla’s victims, including many women and children, had had their throats slashed. This is now disputed by sources cited by the BBC’s World News editor, Jon Williams, in a blog post (6/7/12) that seemed to back away from the BBC‘s earlier certainty about government culpability in the killings. Saying “it’s not clear who ordered the killings—or why,” Williams reported:

In the aftermath of the massacre at Houla last month, initial reports said some of the 49 children and 34 women killed had their throats cut. In Damascus, Western officials told me the subsequent investigation revealed none of those found dead had been killed in such a brutal manner.
In addition, the latest United Nations report, published on August 15, which mentions the means of death of many of the Houla victims–and ascribes their deaths to the government–fails to note slit throats.But charges of manipulation aren’t limited to Houla. Earlier this year, CNN regularly made reportorial use of pro-intervention Syrian activist Danny Abdul Dayem who, as CNN reporter Ian Lee described (2/13/12), had become “the voice of Homs, detailing one regime atrocity after another.” Dayem became more scarce on CNN after he was reportedly caught during a pre-air CNN video feed directing off-camera associates to simulate a firefight once his live spot began. The purported fakery of this strong advocate of foreign intervention was the subject of a subsequent interview by Anderson Cooper (AC 360, 3/15/12; Hurriyet Daily News, 3/9/12).

Of the conflicting reports coming out of Houla, there is no doubt that Spiegel‘s video interviews are the most powerful, putting faceless print accounts like Hermann’s and Hackensberger’s at a disadvantage. But the print stories leave nagging questions. For instance, Hermann’s reporting not only named many of the dead, it reported the names of groups and the leaders of the groups that his sources said did the killing (FAZ, 6/13/12, translated at Moon of Alabama, 6/15/12).

Even in the UN’s latest report (8/15/12), suggesting Syrian government blame, the details of how the report was conducted and its language underline the uncertainty of the situation. The report acknowledges that its investigators were denied access to Houla and that its first hand accounts are all based on depositions from people who had fled the country (Lede, 8/15/12). And while news reports widely portrayed the UN accusations as conclusive, the report’s own conclusion suggests less certainty: “There are reasonable grounds to believe that the perpetrators of the crime, at both the Abdulrazzak and Al-Sayed family locations, were government forces and Shabiha members.”

Following the earliest reports blaming the Syrian government, a New York Times editorial (5/29/12) acknowledged that “there is some uncertainty about what happened” in Houla, but nevertheless made clear its preferred scenario:

Syrian officials blamed “terrorists” for the attacks. We assign far more credibility to villagers who told United Nations monitors that “shabiha,” or government thugs associated with Mr. Assad’s Alawite sect, committed at least some of the killings by shooting people–including entire families–at close range.
It was just such speculation that led more than a dozen countries to expel Syrian diplomats following the Houla killings (New York Times, 6/5/12) and heartened those calling for further internationalization of Syria’s civil war. At the beginning of the summer, the New York Times (6/21/12) reported that the CIA, operating from a secret base in southern Turkey, was helping to direct the flow of arms to favored rebel groups. Two months later, Reuters (8/1/12) reported that President Barack Obama had signed a secret directive that would provide additional communications and intelligence aid to the rebels. Meanwhile, all evidence points to escalating violence in Syria.Considering the climate of fear and the rampant mythmaking, and particularly with a wider war at stake in Syria, putting aside skepticism and granting credibility according to political preferences could result in far worse than just dubious journalism.