Great piece Analyzing the media coverage of Syria
Over the last forty years, the Assad regime has mastered the method of burying our stories almost as well as burying our people. Our cities, like their residents, carry the scars of brutality, hiding decades of bloody secrets within their thick stone walls. One city in particular, Hama, lives with a twenty-nine-year-old secret, its 1982 massacre. It’s not really a secret, rather classified as a taboo subject never to be discussed in voices louder than whispers behind closed doors. Syrians didn’t even call it a massacre, they vaguely referred to it as al-ahdath, the events, as if there were an unspoken deal between the murderous regime and the people. We thought all these years if we never mentioned Hama again, the crimes would never be repeated, and the rest of us would be safe. We were wrong. The dark February month, when tens of thousands of Syrians were slaughtered (the real number will never be known) and thousands more were imprisoned, was destined to be swept under the regime’s dirty rug, and Hama, was destined to be forgotten forever. But after March 15th, the deal of silence was breached, as the crimes of the father were repeated by the son, and the blood of Hama’s past mixed with its present, its stories emerging from the repressed collective memory to join the new painful chapters written every day.
Twenty-nine years later, the tactics have changed but the intention is the same: bury the story with the people and cover the evidence in a fog of misinformation and confusion. The Syrian revolution’s media war has become almost as fierce as the battles on the streets. From satellite channels, social media platforms, and international newspapers, there is a PR war to be won by both sides. The regime’s strict ban on independent journalists entering the country has created two kinds of stories, undercover reports by journalists who dare to slip into the country for a few days through the Turkish or Lebanese borders, like Anthony Shadid, or reports by the privileged few who enter with the regime’s consent, like Hala Gorani, and are escorted by minders to “protect” them from mysterious “armed gangs,” and obviously, the truth.
These stories do not help strengthen the narrative that the regime wants to sell its supporters and the world. In the last few months, Bashar al-Assad seemed to realize that no news from his side is not necessarily good news. Perhaps in an effort to generate a more favorable narrative, a selective few have been granted access to Syria. These journalists, like Robert Fisk, Andrew Gilligan, and Nir Rosen, are vaguely not escorted, but not undercover. Their articles are branded as “exclusive,” “unique,” with unlimited access to “all sides,” commissioned to expose a radically different side of the revolution than what currently floods the regional and international media outlets which have been based on the steady stream of daily videos and eye-witness accounts.
Although these journalists vary in background and expertise, their accounts are similarly framed: focusing on the brewing, deadly sectarianism; proving the existence of an armed opposition; equalizing the regime’s force with the people’s dissent; while casting the protesters’ narrative in a cloud of doubt. Fisk’s recent reportage reads as if he were speaking directly from the presidential palace, or humble, unguarded, “largeish suburban bungalow,” if you are to believe Gilligan. And surprisingly, Nir Rosen’s recent series for Al Jazeera English seems to suffer from the same regime-tainted myopia.
Rosen spent seven weeks this summer in Syria, touring Daraa, Damascus, Homs, Latakia, Hama and Aleppo, speaking as he says, “to all sides.” But from the first article entitled, “The revolution will be weaponized,” it is clear how heavily one-sided this series was designed to be. His focus on the deep, historical grievances of the Alawite (but not Sunni) sect and his endless comparisons of Syria to Iraq casts a distinct air of doom and hopelessness over every piece.
Inspired by Rosen’s “A Tale of Two Villages,” in which he compares an Alawite village to a Sunni one, I would like to tell you two tales of al-Rastan. This small town, with a significant population of military families, located between Hama and Homs, has become the geographic and revolutionary heart of Syria. According to Rosen, al-Rastan is the headquarters of the “armed opposition.” But French journalist Sofia Amara, who visited the town around the same time as Rosen, witnessed another side to the same story.
Amara visited Syria undercover, for eleven days in early August, traveling to Zabadani, Damascus, Hama, Homs, and al-Rastan. When I met her, she spoke with guarded hesitation, even in the safety of her Paris apartment, although her fifty-two minute documentary film, Syria: Inside the Repression, exposes her name and face to the world. She is still afraid. For weeks after her safe return from Syria, Amara slept with hands formed into tight fists, thumbs protected, a habit she picked up from the locals. They sleep with their fingernails digging into their palms, because they fear of having their fingernails ripped out because of their dissent. Maybe the fear stems from the stories of the Daraa children, maybe from older prison stories, or maybe because it is the only form of torture that you imagine you can protect yourself from, even while you sleep.