Patrick Cockburn has an extremely important piece at the Independent today, in which he takes to task the major organs of the ‘western’ media– including, crucially, today’s Al-Jazeera– for the extremely uncritical and often openly inflammatory use they make of unsubstantiated or highly exaggerated “news reports” coming out of, in particular, Syria and Iran.
- Governments that exclude foreign journalists at times of crisis such as Iran and (until the last week) Syria, create a vacuum of information easily filled by their enemies. These are far better equipped to provide their own version of events than they used to be before the development of mobile phones, satellite television and the internet. State monopolies of information can no longer be maintained. But simply because the opposition to the Syrian and Iranian governments have taken over the news agenda does not mean that what they say is true.
Early last year I met some Iranian stringers for Western publications in Tehran whose press credentials had been temporarily suspended by the authorities. I said this must be frustrating them, but they replied that even if they could file stories – saying nothing much was happening – they would not be believed by their editors. These had been convinced by exile groups, using blogs and carefully selected YouTube footage, that Tehran was visibly seething with discontent. If the local reporters said that this was a gross exaggeration, their employers would suspect that had been intimidated or bought off by Iranian security.
… [T]echnical advances have made it more difficult for governments to hide repression. But these developments have also made the work of the propagandist easier. Of course, people who run newspapers and radio and television stations are not fools. They know the dubious nature of much of the information they are conveying. The political elite in Washington and Europe was divided for and against the US invasion of Iraq, making it easier for individual journalists to dissent. But today there is an overwhelming consensus in the foreign media that the rebels are right and existing governments wrong. For institutions such as the BBC, highly unbalanced coverage becomes acceptable.
Sadly, al-Jazeera, which has done so much to shatter state control of information in the Middle East since it was set up in 1996, has become the uncritical propaganda arm of the Libyan and Syrian rebels.
Then he comes to the nub of why all this is important
- The Syrian opposition needs to give the impression that its insurrection is closer to success than it really is. The Syrian government has failed to crush the protesters, but they, in turn, are a long way from overthrowing it. The exiled leadership wants Western military intervention in its favour as happened in Libya, although conditions are very different.
The purpose of manipulating the media coverage is to persuade the West and its Arab allies that conditions in Syria are approaching the point when they can repeat their success in Libya. Hence the fog of disinformation pumped out through the internet.
I completely agree with Patrick’s analysis on this point. As I agree, too, with As’ad Abou Khalil’s broad view of events in Syria that, though the government is highly repressive and often criminally stupid, in the ranks of the opposition there are also many very anti-democratic and violence-loving elements and others who are working hard to trigger a western intervention in the country. (Hence my judgment that if you want to follow what’s happening in and toward Syria, Asad’s Angry Arab blog is one of the very best, and best-informed, sources to do that.)
In my view, the Syrian opposition consists of a number of elements, some of them extremely contradictory with each other. There is a genuine, in-country network of activists who seek real democratic reform and who’re working for it using mass nonviolent organizing. But there are also all kinds of opportunistic networks piggybacking on that movement, most of them based in or directed from outside the country… Among them are the openly violence-using people of the Free Syria Army. And though some people in the exile-based Syrian National Council claim that the role of the FSA is merely to “station armed people around mass demonstrations in order to protect the demonstrations”, that has never been a tactic endorsed by any genuine nonviolent mass movement. Indeed it is tactic that’s almost guaranteed to escalate the situation and cause far more casualties among the unarmed than if only nonviolent moral suasion/reproach is brought to bear on the regime’s forces.
We should not kid ourselves by imagining that there is no opportunistic exploitation of the Syrian situation underway, being undertaken by a whole range of anti-Damascus forces– some sectarian (as in the case of Qatar or Saudi Arabia; also, quite possibly, Turkey), and some pro-Zionist, or anyway easily exploited by Syria’s longterm opponents in the Zionist movement in Israel and in the ‘west’.
So how do those many western ‘liberals’ who seem to be so deeply invested in supporting the Syrian ‘revolutionaries’ fit into this scheme? To me, this is another key part of the puzzle, along with the enlistment by the ‘revolutionaries’ of so much of the western media, as documented by Patrick Cockburn.
Okay, I understand that the Syrian government has a really lousy human rights record. I have worked long enough (38 years) in and on the affairs of the mashreq to understand that better than probably 95% of the people in the human rights movement who currently present themselves as “experts” on Syria. But is getting out there to advocate a “Libya-style” overthrow of the regime (i.e. with the aid of outside forces) really a good way to bring rights abuses to an end?
No it is not! Wars and civil conflicts everywhere and always involve a mass-scale assault on the rights of civilian residents of the war-zones, with the most vulnerable residents being the ones whose rights (including the right to life) get abused the worst.
That is everywhere and always the case. No exceptions. That is why I am always really dismayed and upset when I see rights activists who claim to understand what they are talking about taking actions that escalate the tensions toward outright civil conflict and war… Remember that in the case of most rights activists who live in comfortable, secure western countries: These people have never had direct experience of living in a war zone. They are bombarded (by the military-industrial complex) with arguments that modern warfare can be a “precision”, “surgical” business… and most recently, in Libya, we saw the emergence of the keffiyah-ed warrior racing through the sand as a figure of popular heroism and adulation. (Lawrence of Arabia, anyone?).
I have lived in a war zone. I lived in Lebanon from 1974 through 1981. In six of those years the country was plagued by civil war. I lived within Lebanese society, being married to a Lebanese citizen. I was not a “visiting fireman”, as many western journos were– parachuting in to stay a few days or weeks in a relatively comfortable hotel from time to time. Everyone involved in fighting the Lebanese civil war, from all the multiple “sides” that were engaged in it, was convinced of the justice of his (or sometimes her) cause. Each one was fighting what he knew to be a “just” war… But the war and its associated atrocities ground on and on and on.
Another thing the western rights activists too often forget: Mass-scale atrocities– as opposed to a rampage by a lone, psychotic gunman– are nearly always, or always, committed only in the context of an ongoing civil conflict or war. Conflicts provide the heightened degree of threat and the dehumanization of the opponent that are essential ingredients in the organized commission of atrocities. They also, in the past, provided plenty of the “fog of war” in which those acts can be shrouded.
Thus, if you want to avoid the commission of atrocities: avoid war! Do everything you can to explore and enlarge the space for de-escalation and the negotiated resolution of grievances!
It is true that modern communications technology makes the shrouding of atrocities much harder (though not impossible) to achieve. That is, obviously, a very good thing! But this same technology also enables the fighting parties of all sides to do much more than they could previously, to frame and disseminate their own “stories” of what’s happening… Rights activists in other countries need to be very aware that this is not only a possibility– it is actually happening. And in the case of Syria, in particular, these reports are being used to whip up western (and worldwide) support for a ‘western’-led military campaign aimed at bringing forced regime change to Syria.
Colonialists have, throughout history, always tried to cloak their campaigns of military intervention, domination, and control in the lingo of “rights”, “progress”, and liberalism. Even the Belgians and their supporters, when they entered Congo in the late 1800s to initiate an era of control that was marked throughout by mass killings, mass enslavement, and outright genocide that within 23 years took the lives of some ten million persons indigenous to the area… did so in the name of a campaign sold tothe European publics as being one aimed at “liberating” the people of Congo from other (in truth, much less maleficent) Arab slave-traders.
We liberals need to be very careful indeed that we do not have our admirable sentiments of human solidarity abused by today’s architects of ‘western’ colonial invasion, control, and domination.
The situation that Syria’s people are living through today is extremely difficult. There are no easy answers. Both the regime and the opposition have demonstrated their resilience, and neither looks as though it is about to “win” the current contest any time soon. Given the degree of tension that now exists in Syrian society (due to the actions of the regime, of some portions of the opposition, and of several outside actors), it is hard to see how to simply ramp those tensions down and open up the space for the inter-Syrian dialogue and reform process that the people of Syria so desperately need…
But what kind of future do those of us who are westerners or other kinds of non-Syrians want to see for our friends in Syria? A future like that of today’s Libya– or even, heaven forfend, another “result” of western military action: today’s Iraq? Or would we want them to follow a negotiated-transition path like that taken by the people of South Africa, 1990-94… or the negotiated-transition path that the people of Myanmar/Burma now seem to be taking? Few of those western liberals and rights activists who are baying for “no-fly zones” or other forms of foreign military intervention seem to have ever thought about this question, so convinced are they of their own righteousness and the infallibility of their own judgments, however scantily informed these judgments may be in an era of instant You-Tube uploads of videos of, as Patrick Cockburn noted, often extremely sketchy provenance or representativity.