Notes From the Margins…

In the garden of good and evil: the media and Syria

  • March 16, 2012
  • by

Objective analysis of the brutal conflict in Syria has been generally conspicuous by its absence over the last 12 months, where the mainstream media has generally  followed the narratives propagated by their governments with all the independence and perspicacity of  trained seals.

One of the few exceptions is the political analyst and blogger Sharmine Narwani.  An associate of St. Anthony’s College at Oxford University, Narwani has been a remorseless and forensic critic of the inadequacies in western media coverage of Syria, and she has penned a typically stinging indictment  on her blog, entitled ‘Dear Western journalist‘, which laments the failure of so many reporters to do their job properly.  In it Narwani asks her colleagues:

what explains your inability to ask the most elementary of questions when you do write your Syria stories every day, anyway, from outside? You know, questions that go something like this: “How do you know how many people died today? How do you know their names? Who verified this? Where did the explosion take place? How do you know who was responsible for the explosion? Why do you support Bashar al Assad? Why do you not support the militarization of the conflict? Why do you not support the internationalization of the conflict? Why do you not support sanctions against Syria? Who kidnapped your father? Who shot your uncle? Who killed your child? Who was the sniper?”

She goes on to point out that

None of us have ever heard a major western journalist ask any of those questions. They are questions that 1) ask for evidence, 2) are addressed to a pro-regime Syrian and 3) are asked of domestic opposition figures.

Narwani’s outrage is entirely justified.  Despite the abundant evidence of media manipulation, spinning, distortion and deception during the ‘9/11 wars’ of the last decade, western journalists appear to have collectively abandoned their analytical or critical faculties when it comes to Syria, to a degree that is really quite staggering.

The BBC has been particularly bad: its coverage consists almost entirely of the kind of Fergal Keanian heart-tugging/atrocity stories that I heard the other day from…Fergal Keane,  without any attempt to weigh up the sources of these reports or whether they might be true .

I am not an apologist for the Assad regime and I am not trying to argue that these atrocities were all invented (though some of them certainly have been), but given that many of them come via opposition sources such as the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, there should be room for a degree of scepticism and fact-checking at the very least.

Obviously, it is not possible to verify all sources in the midst of an armed conflict, but Narwani has done some fact-checking of her own, and shown what can be done when the will is present.   But for the most part this willingness has not been present.  Most journalists simply take it for granted that the regime is always lying and the opposition is always telling the truth.   Nor is there any reference to the fact that the opposition in Syria – or at least some sections of it – is an armed opposition, which has also carried out killings, kidnappings, and bombings of its own.

At times the refusal to admit this is quite incredible.  In all the coverage of the siege of Homs, for example, I cannot recall a single reference to the fact that there were armed fighters in the city.  Even reporters who were actually there presented a scenario in which the Syrian armed forces appeared to be killing civilians for the sake of it.

Paul Conroy, the wounded photographer who was evacuated from the city, described the siege as a ‘systematic slaughter‘ and insisted that ‘ this is not a war, it’s a massacre’.  This begs the question of why the Syrian army would need to besiege and bombard a city for three weeks if there were not armed fighters inside the city who were actively resisting them.

Once again, I am not trying to justify the brutality of the regime’s response. But the fact that Conroy and his colleagues (at least the ones that I saw and heard), chose not to mention the armed opposition in the city or the weapons and tactics it was using is really astounding.

But then again, it isn’t.   Because, as Narwani eloquently points out, western reporters, like their governments,  appear to have taken sides in Syria without even knowing what side they are on.

They have, for the most part, accepted a fairytale version of the Syrian conflict in which a) an utterly evil dictator is slaughtering a peaceful and unarmed opposition that represents the ‘Syrian people’ in its entirety, b) crimes and atrocities are only committed by one side and c) the interests of the ‘international community’ in Syria are entirely driven by a humanitarian desire to ‘stop the violence.’

To say that this narrative does not fully encapsulate the complexities of the conflict would be an understatement.   It isn’t surprising that governments whose essential goal in Syria is regime change should be peddling this version of the conflict.  But the fact that so many journalists and media outlets are uncritically and unquestioningly peddling the same mythologies, is a depressing reminder that press freedom and the absence of censorship is not always synonymous with independent thought or even basic journalist standards.



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  1. Ken MacLeod

    16th Mar 2012 - 11:41 am

    I found this post, and this blog, via Sharmine Narwani’s tweet about it.

    Well impressed – I wrote an enthusiastic review of your terrorism book a few years ago.

    • Matt

      16th Mar 2012 - 10:46 pm

      Thanks Ken. Nice to hear from you. And of course I remember your review of Infernal. How could I not? It was one of the best, and one of the most thoughtful that it received.

  2. @PaulMSeligman

    16th Mar 2012 - 5:07 pm

    No question that Syria has not been a place to live if you don’t support the government, any more than its one time fellow Ba’athist state Iraq was. And no question that like Iraq, there are strong sectarian divisions, which largely coincide with the Shia-Sunni split. Plus a few other minorities. Which makes any change tricky and means that other regional players (strongly Shiite Iran, strongly Sunni Saudi Arabia, Qatar etc) are all meddling in the outcome by supporting one side or another..

    I have noticed that almost whenever we are shown video of Syrian opposition fighters or demonstrators, their cry is ‘Allahu Akbar’. Can’t recall any journalists exploring that.

    That said, whether there has been recent armed opposition in Homs and other cities or not, siege and bombardment of civilian areas is horrific, and the initial demonstrators a year ago and subsequently appear to have been entirely peaceful and unarmed. And the Syrian Ba’athist dynasty has plenty of form on human rights abuses – the 1982 massacre in Hama, in which tens of thousands died – being an obvious example, the well documented abductions, and widespread use of torture and summary execution (before the present resistance) all being well documented.

    • Matt

      16th Mar 2012 - 10:57 pm

      As I said Paul, I’m not an apologist for Assad. And even if there is an armed opposition it doesn’t justify the actions that have been taken to suppress it, any more than the presence of armed fighters justified the hammering of Fallujah. But as Sharmine Narwani and others have shown, the crimes have not been on one side only, and some of the atrocities replayed in the western media (and by Arab media outlets with a similar regime change agenda have been of the ‘kuwait babies in incubators’ variety.

      Change in Syria may be tricky, but it is also necessary (in my opinion). Nevertheless, if complete implosion/carnage/disintegration on the Lebanon/Iraq/Libya model is to be avoided, foreign actors need to STAY OUT, because they are like to do more harm than good, and have in fact already done so.

  3. omen

    21st Mar 2012 - 2:09 pm

    you fault western media when you should be faulting the regime. media would be able to get a clearer picture if assad hadn’t banned reporters from entering the country.

    that’s a neat trick: the regime bars media, then turns around, acts the victim, and faults media for “biased” coverage!

    you have to ask yourself if the regime has nothing to hide, why would they purge the country of reporters?

    sharmine narwani quotes a mouthpiece of the regime claiming the syrian army is not applying an excessive use of force i.e no artillery barrages.

    anybody looking at the pile of rubble homs has been reduced to would know this is baldfaced lie.

    • Matt

      21st Mar 2012 - 2:35 pm

      As I’ve said on various occasions to others approaching this issue from a somewhat different perspective, I am NOT an apologist for Assad, and I don’t doubt that the regime has attempted its own forms of manipulation and deceit.

      That said a) the regime has not banned reporters from entering the country. I’ve heard reports (with a very anti-Assad tone naturally) from mainstream journalists such as the BBC’s Jeremy Bowen from inside. Nir Rosen has also reported from inside Syria, as has Sharmine Narwani herself. Of course there are those ( you may well be one of them) who would dismiss such reporters as ‘collaborators’ because their analysis doesn’t support the good versus evil narrative in the MSM, but frankly that is bollocks.

      The Syrian regime has tried to prevent access to ‘restricted areas’ as many governments do when carrying out military operation (which doesn’t make it right in my opinion). The regime may well be lying when it says that it isn’t using ‘excessive force’ (as most governments, including the US and Israel have done in similar situations), but the source that doesn’t mean that the source that Narwani quotes is a ‘mouthpiece of the regime’.

      She doesn’t identify ‘Ziad’ in this way at all, but you merely draw that conclusion for reasons best known to yourself.

      So I hold to my analysis, namely. that the Western media’s coverage of the conflict has been generally shallow, one-sided and quite misleading. You don’t have to agree with that, but I don’t accept your critique of my critique.

      And by the way, Homs is not a heap of rubble, not in the footage that I’ve seen (from the MSM, not ‘mouthpieces of the regime’). PARTS of the city have clearly taken a hammering, but your melodramatic imagery suggests that this is not enough for you.

      • omen

        21st Mar 2012 - 4:40 pm

        nir rosen left before russia and china plunked down their UN veto, giving the regime the green light to take their gloves off.

  4. omen

    21st Mar 2012 - 2:33 pm

    This begs the question of why the Syrian army would need to besiege and bombard a city for three weeks if there were not armed fighters inside the city who were actively resisting them.

    is acting in self defense a crime? the regime has been waging collective punishment from the start, going back to the very beginning when a group of kids spray-painted anti-regime graffiti on the walls in darra.

    where the kids”terrorists”? is there a childrens’ al qaeda brigade i don’t know about? most of the people the regime has killed have been unarmed civilians.

    • Matt

      21st Mar 2012 - 2:51 pm

      No acting in self-defence is not a crime. I never said it was. Nor did I say that these fighters were ‘terrorists’. My question was why the MSM didn’t choose to mention the fact that they were armed and that this is why a military assault was underway.

      Human Rights Watch have finally reported what many more objective and honest observers have been saying for many months, and accused opposition groups of numerous abuses that include ‘kidnapping, detention, and torture of security force members, government supporters, and people identified as members of pro-government militias, called shabeeha. Human Rights Watch has also received reports of executions by armed opposition groups of security force members and civilians.’

      Are you going to accuse HRW of being a ‘mouthpiece of the regime’ as well? And when it comes to manipulation, what about the allegations from Stratfor – hardly a friend of Assad’s – that ‘most of the opposition’s more serious claims have turned out to be grossly exaggerated or simply untrue, thereby revealing more about the opposition’s weaknesses than the level of instability inside the Syrian regime.’

      As for the presence of al Qaeda/Salafist groups amongst the opposition, well I admit that the ‘al Qaeda’ label is too often used by governments to delegitimize and demonize their opponents, and Assad & Co may well be playing the same game. But the ‘al Qaeda in Syria’ narrative isn’t only coming from them:

      • omen

        21st Mar 2012 - 4:43 pm

        al jazeera english reported, even prior to this HRW finding, that some of the armed rebels went after members of the security force.

        • Matt

          21st Mar 2012 - 6:45 pm

          It’s not simply a question of members of the security forces, is it?

      • omen

        21st Mar 2012 - 4:47 pm

        nir rosen reported The Salafi ideology just hasn’t been as important in Syria.

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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