In Syria, all institutions suffer a crippling weakness and the press is no exception. This is clear from the confused manner by which media dealt with the outbreak of protests which first started in the locality of Dara.
As a journalist, I know that the Syrian media is working under tight state control, especially at times of economic or foreign policy crisis. But the question now is, what is it like for members of the media to cover a crisis of a prime security order which is hitting a police state?
As expected, the regime came up with a security plan to address the political unrest instead of a social and economic approach to ease the tension. According to the plan, the media is a key propaganda tool that justifies and legitimises the security clampdown to be undertaken.
A media campaign titled “Conspiracy and Sectarian Strife” was, therefore, launched by the media advisor to the president, Butheina Shaaban, during her first press conference on the ongoing crisis.
“A plot of sectarian strife targeting Syria”, Butheina said. President Bashar Al Assad would seize on the catch word “strife” and use it several times in the future.
That’s how the genie of media was released out of its bottle. It adopted a curious approach which does not deny the existence of protests but justifies crackdown on them as well as the killing of “infiltrators”, “conspirators’ and “gunmen.”
The media does not give the accurate figures of dead civilians, focusing attention instead on casualties in the military and police who they say are killed by armed gangs’ fire.
State media on the offensive
Official media was forced to go on the offensive when the security solution failed and the legendary popular resistance proved to be unbreakable. It was also outsmarted by the media performance of anti-regime activists.
Becoming bullish in its new stance, state media was trapped in denying news of the protests broadcasted by foreign networks which they dubbed “Strife Channels”, a term that fuels sectarian sentiments and justifies the “conspiracy theory” promoted by the regime.
The military participated through its electronic websites in this campaign, fabricating video clips and posting them online. It also ran statements of false eyewitnesses that were blown out of proportion. The aim of these posts is to allow state media to use them and expose their fake nature, delegitimizing all the online content about the political unrest. Such was the case with the young girl from Homos, Zeineb Alhisni and the reports on babies dying at Hamah hospital.
'I resigned over the media’s Immoral coverage'
Several generations of Syrians, including mine, have for long entertained hopes of revolution in spite of their frustrations. These hopes became clearer when children of Dara expressed them in a simple caption on the walls of one of the schools. The caption read: “People want to topple the regime”. It was for the first time in their modern history that Syrians were faced with one of two choices, to be with or against the revolution.
As someone who grew up in a fear-inducing environment, I found myself, in the context of the killing and siege of Dara and its countryside as well as the brutal repression in Duma, Baniass and Allzqah, in a position where as a journalist I have to be a false witness and a gun in the hands of a media institution that has gone on the rampage.
One single scene that will remain indelible in my memory put an end to my inner conflict and doubts. It was when I saw women and children from Baida locality facing army tanks a day after a video had been posted of police and thugs humiliating people of Baida and treading over them. The video was repeatedly ran by international media. Upon seeing this display of courage, I issued a statement in which I said I backed peaceful revolution. I also withdrew from Syrian journalists syndicate over their immoral coverage of the vents.
Fleeing for my life
Though it eased my conscience, my decision to go to be open about my position from the revolution increased my fear of retaliatory measures by the regime, especially that the military has launched a website titled “Trying Traitor Iyad Issa”.
During my interrogation, security officials used to tell me that I have to choose between two scenarios: either to back track on my decision on the ground that what was going on was not a revolution but a movement of orthodox militias or to die at the hand of the street which was convinced of my “unpatriotic” position.
As revoking my decision to back the revolution was not an option for me and faced with the appalling conditions of detention, I made up my mind to flee the country for my life and to maintain my position. I left for Beirut on August 5 2011 instead of going to police station to resume interrogation as I was requested to do by phone.
In its coverage of the revolution, the Syrian media in its print, broadcast and online forms, was remarkable in its extremist call for the army to crackdown on the protests. Private media outlets in particular were responsible for organising defamation campaigns targeting number of Arab personalities and states, and accusing them of conspiring against Syria. They carried out these campaigns on behalf of official media which could not do them because they spoke for the regime and reflected its policies.
Dunia TV, which is owned by businessmen, spearheaded media warfare against protesters and the positions of the international community. It featured anti-revolution artists as well as other guest who openly called for killing protesters.
Ads Institution, which reports to Information ministry and controls advertisement market, pays huge expenses and allowances to these guests.
Anti-government news faces repression
Right from the start of unrest, the regime decided to give its own media a free hand, reporting as they please and taking the pictures that suit their policies. The regime reinforced this trend by barring Arab and world media from accessing the country as Al Jazeera bureau in Damascus was first put under siege by thugs and regime supporters, only to be shut down later following the resignation of its chief.
Al Jazeera English journalist, Dorothy Parvaz, was arrested by security forces at Damascus airport, while other journalists like Jordan Times' Shamila and Tailor Lack went missing on their way to Syria.
Just as the Syrian authorities treated foreign journalists with intolerance, it also used a policy of arrest, torture and arbitrary disappearance against journalists and bloggers who dared to cover news or take pictures that are contrary to the regime's narrative of the events. The same treatment was also reserved to journalists who supported the revolution.
This policy lead to repeated arrest of many young journalists like Amer Matar, Assem Hamshu, Rudi Uthman, Umar Al-Asaad, Hanadi Zahlutt and Malik Nashwani, to name just a few.
Bloggers and journalists working in official media also were not spared arrest. The regime detained Lina Ibrahim and Mohammed Gamal Tahann who work at state owned Tashreen newspaper as well as blogger Razan Gazawi, among others.
Journalist groups hop on the bandwagon
It didn't come as a surprise when Syrian journalists' syndicates condoned the regime's policy of arrest and torture against journalists. Like other professional unions, it was set up to cheer and support the regime when necessary and not to oppose it.
It never occurred to anyone to decry statements by the chair of the journalists union, Murad, and his deputy, Mustafa Mughdad, when they attacked, on television, the protesters and justified the killing of people demanding freedom.
News, by any means possible
In spite of these appalling conditions, activists were able to find their way through thanks to the potential that modern telecommunication technology put at their disposal. Activists filled in the vacuum left by the absence of professional journalists, challenging the regime with thousands of reporters and eyewitnesses who came into being overnight. In this context, cellular phones and personal computers became mobile news agencies, taking shots and posting them to Twitter and YouTube.
Activists set up webpages for all districts in Syria, calling them "coordination networks". These networks disseminated real-time video clips, shots and news related to each district. With time, Thuraya satellite phones together with laptops enabled live broadcasting to special web sites and to satellite channels like Aljazeera Mubasheer.
It only makes sense that the regime in Syria has lost media war because it deals with the 21st century with a mindset suitable to the eighties of the previous century.
Interview compiled by.