The lunchtime news on Syrian state television: A young man confesses on camera that he is a member of a radical Islamic group, and that he has organised demonstrations against the regime to cause trouble. This official version of events is repeated by the country's state and private media.
But it's difficult to say what's really happening in the cities of Latakia, Daraa and Baniyas. Independent reporting is almost impossible. Foreign media such as Al Jazeera or BBC, base their coverage on videos shot by demonstrators or local residents and conduct telephone interviews with people on the ground.
On the ground in Syria, Al Jazeera's offices have been shut, it's journalists are threatened and one web journalist, Dorothy Parvaz, is being detained since her arrival at Damascus airport. So while increasing numbers of Syrians are taking to the streets in protest at the Ba'ath regime, the rulers are responding with detentions and blanket censorship.
The Syrian President Bashar al-Assad accuses the Arab satellite channels and Western media of fabricating stories and spreading lies. While most news channels talk about 'peaceful demonstrators', Syrian State Television calls the organisers of the protests 'infiltrators' and 'radicals'.
Fabricated news or independent reporting?
For Syrian media, the 'false reports' propagated by foreign media have become a favorite subject – and maybe the only one related to the protests that can be covered without facing censorship. On Syrian radio, presenters call on listeners to voice their opinion about the 'foreign conspiracy' against Syria. In between popsongs, the audience regularly hears why videos by citizen journalists must be 'fake'.
In the streets, huge posters warn of a future of „fitna“ (meaning a mixture of turmoil and discord) and ask Syrians to be law-abiding and not to abuse their freedoms. The Syrian government is using some prominent faces to lead its campaign: One is the Syrian actor Duraid Lahham, another the former Al Jazeera bureau chief in Lebanon Ghassan Ben Jeddo, who resigned from Al Jazeera recently in protest of its Syria and Bahrain coverage.
Ben Jeddo was known to be a staunch supporter of the Syrian regime, in praise of its backing for the Muqawama, the resistence, against Israel. Ben Jeddo's portrait now features on a poster together with a Syrian flag, quoting him as saying: „The Truth is like the sun, it cannot be hidden“. While Ben Jeddo's decision to quit Al Jazeera is being instrumentalised by the Syrian regime, it also raises questions about the way Arab news channels cover the protests in the region.
Bahrain is a case in point: Neither Al Jazeera nor Al Arabiya give it as much airtime as they give to the development in Yemen or previously Egypt. And even protests in Syria have not triggered intense news coverage in the first couple of weeks – it was only when the coverage became more critical of the government that Ghassan Ben Jeddo handed in his resignation.
"We have to work undercover"
While this media war is going on above their heads, some journalists and bloggers in Syria and abroad still try to keep up their independent work. According to Saad Kiwan from the Centre for Media and Cultural Freedom in Beirut "Skeyes", this has become harder than ever: "Everything in this country is viewed in terms of state security. We realise this when we're trying to carry out our own research there. It means that our staff gathering information on arrests or court proceedings against journalists or human rights activists have to work undercover."
Saad Kiwan estimates that there are around 300 journalists, bloggers and writers currently in detention. Among them two young bloggers who have been jailed in mid-April and a human rights activist who was arrested after being interviewed by Al Jazeera.
One of those who could face arrest any time is Mazen Darwish. He is not allowed to leave the country and is regularly interrogated by the Syrian intelligence service. Darwish is head of the "Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression" in Damascus, an organisation committed to monitoring the conduct of Syrian media and publishing reports despite state persecution.
A journalistic minefield
"The first problem confronting every journalist in Syria is the gathering of information," reports Darwish. "There's no law in Syria guaranteeing the media the right to do this. On the contrary, all authorities harbour a particular animosity towards journalists. The second problem is taboos. It feels as if you're walking on a minefield.” The issues that cannot be touched upon range from the policies of the regime, human rights and democracy, to the prevailing corruption in the country.
Mazen Darwish is calling for the abolition of restrictive laws impeding the work of the media in Syria: "The decision on whether to issue a licence to new newspapers, television or radio stations rests solely with the government," says Darwish. "There's also no time limit set on its deliberations. I know people who've been waiting four or five years for a response to their application. And if this is then rejected, the government is not obliged to justify its decision."
This practice prevents the establishment of independent media outlets in Syria, says Darwish. Private media outlets have been set up in the meantime, but in terms of content, there is little to distinguish them from official organs. After all, the stories that the media are allowed to cover depend on the political situation in the country – and on how confident the regime is feeling.
Khalil Suwailih, editor of the arts and culture section of the state newspaper Tishrin, recently wrote a column about the Arab Spring and the social media. He did not make any direct reference to the situation in Syria. But reading between the lines, his view is clear:
"I am my primary censor, there is an inner watchdog inside me. And although I already have so many years of experience, often I can't say where the boundaries really lie. Some days I'm weary of the whole cat-and-mouse game, then I think, I'm a journalist, not a slave, and I'll write whatever I like!"