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.