Exactly a year after the breakout of the Syrian uprising, Al-Arabiya TV did something extraordinary: it broadcast blow-by-blow details of Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad’s emails that were leaked by opposition hackers. The emails contained sensitive information about the regime’s security plans, the state of the Syrian economy and embarrassing revelations about Asma Al-Assad’s extravagant online shopping sprees. Arab media traditionally avoids stories that involve personal attacks on Arab heads of state, but in this instance Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya broke all the taboos. It was as close as you could get to a declaration of war.
The conflict in Syria has exacerbated the media tussle between two opposing camps in the region: the so-called “moderate” Arab states and the “resistance axis.” On one side, Syrian opposition satellite channels and Gulf-financed news networks are supportive of the uprising; on the other are the Syrian regime’s broadcasters plus those owned or funded by its chief ally, Iran.
For the past 18 months opposing armies of professional journalists and amateur activists have slugged it out across the airwaves and over the Internet, their stories are their slingshots. Traditional and new media have been deployed in this fight, and cyber warfare has been waged by both sides. It is a clash of two mutually irreconcilable narratives.
Martyrology: The Syrian opposition media
A central component of the Syrian opposition’s strategy for victory against Assad was control of the media narrative. Their calculations were informed by lessons learned in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, which suggested that framed correctly, the West would intervene to support a “popular revolution” to overthrow the Syrian dictator—by force if necessary. As a result, what began as a limited demonstration over a local grievance in the southern city of Dara’a quickly developed into a nation-wide anti-Assad protest movement.
For the opposition’s media, the key objective was to win Western and Arab solidarity by ensuring massive coverage of the protest movement on television—and the regime’s brutal attempts to crush it. This was especially important given that foreign journalists based in Syria were not permitted to visit areas where demonstrations were taking place. Those who tried, like Al-Jazeera English’s Dorothy Parvaz, were arrested and deported. Only the regime’s own reporters were allowed to tell the world what was happening, and they were saying that no demonstrations were taking place. The reaction from the opposition was a whirlwind of amateur video on the Internet, proving the opposite.
Having previously headed the Syrian Computer Society, Bashar Al-Assad was acutely aware of the subversive potential of the Internet. Under his reign, Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter were banned along with dozens of opposition and independent news websites. Activists hit back with use of proxy servers and anonymzing software to circumvent online censorship—but in a country where only 17 percent of the population have access to the Internet, satellite television remains the mass communication medium of choice.
Visitors to Syria are struck by the number of satellite dishes on rooftops, and it is through these that Syrians watch uncensored news and comment. If the opposition wanted to convey its message most effectively, it needed pictures to get the satellite television channels interested.
Rather than waiting for the journalists to visit them—which was a near impossibility given the regime’s ban on journalists entering the country—the protesters used social media to reach out to the journalists instead. Twitter and Facebook may have played an important role in the Egyptian revolution, but in Syria the uprising is on YouTube. The visual nature of this video-sharing website lent itself perfectly to delivering stories to satellite news channels like Al-Arabiya or BBC Arabic, which hankered after footage of demonstrations to accompany eyewitness accounts. However, editorial controls meant restrictions on the use of user-generated content, and the networks invariably always qualified the footage with talk about not being able to independently verify authenticity. This spurred the creation of activist news agencies that were essentially groups of amateur, media-savvy young Syrians running YouTube channels under names such as Sham News Network, Flash News Network and Ugarit—to name but a few. Their job was to receive, verify, edit, and contextualize raw film into useable footage that satellite news channels would feel more confident airing.
The way in which the opposition controlled and exploited graphic images of dead or dying civilians proved to be its most effective recruiting sergeant. The massacre at Izra’, near Dara’a, on 22 April 2011 was a defining moment in the Syrian uprising. That evening, images were broadcast on all the major satellite news channels showing an anguished father carrying the body of his son, who had been shot in the head. It was the sort of image designed to induce an instant emotional response from the viewer; it certainly succeeded in convincing many young Syrians to protest in solidarity.
A few weeks later, the body of 13-year old Hamza Al-Khatib, who had been arrested, was returned to his family a swollen and badly bruised corpse. His family said that they were instructed by the mukhabarat (secret police) to remain quiet, but instead they filmed the autopsy and uploaded it onto YouTube. There were other tortured children, like Thamer Al-Shari’, a citizen journalists who had been shot like Rami Al-Sayid, and protest leaders who had their throats cut, like Ibrahim Qashush. Even dead foreign journalists were considered “martyrs of the free media,” the most famous being the Sunday Times correspondent Marie Colvin. More martyrs meant more rousing videos of martyrs and more reasons to challenge Assad’s rule. In their millions, the protesters chanted the now-ubiquitous slogan of the Arab Spring: “The people want the downfall of the regime!”
Images from Syria taken by amateur cameramen, often on mobile phones, were always carefully vetted by the activist news agencies to fit a specific narrative. This was that the country was undergoing a peaceful, non-sectarian, all-Syrian revolution that aimed to bring about the end of a bloody dictatorship and usher in an era of “freedom and dignity.” This narrative has hardly ever changed. What freedom and dignity meant in practical political terms, and what effect they would have on existing socio-economic structures, was neither asked nor made clear. The opposition’s narrative was successful inasmuch as it won over Arab and international solidarity, but as the conflict enters a civil war phase, the extent to which it remains factually correct is open to question.
Resistance versus moderation: Arab reporting on Syria
The key battleground in the media war remains, predictably, satellite television. At the start of the uprising, the Syrian opposition had two dedicated satellite channels: Barada and Orient. Meanwhile, the regime had its own state-run broadcaster, and could rely on privately-owned Addounia to toe the official line, as it can with a number of Iranian-funded channels. The rank of opposition satellite channels has since swelled to nine, and it includes religious-leaning channels, such as Shada Al-Houriya (which hosts firebrand preacher Adnan Arour), to local channels that focus on revolutionary activity in a specific region of Syria, such as Aleppo Today or Deir Ezzour TV. For the opposition, the two most significant recruits of all were the pan-Arab Al-Arabiya and Al-Jazeera news networks, by far the most-viewed news networks in the Arab world.
The decisions by the governments of Saudi Arabia and Qatar to utilize their media assets to hasten Assad’s demise represent the most significant development in the media war between regime and opposition. For Al-Arabiya, the turning point came in August 2011 when the channel broadcast the content of a message by King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, which condemned Assad’s “killing machine” and called on the Syrian leadership to “see sense before it was too late.” This immediately reflected upon Al-Arabiya’s coverage of the Syrian uprising, which up until that point had been broadly sympathetic to the opposition but stopped well short of endorsement. The channel’s subsequent championing of the Syrian uprising certainly raised the morale of the opposition, but it the Arab political legitimacy bestowed upon its struggle through television endorsement that became the opposition’s real prize.
Joining the fray, the two pan-Arab heavyweights clashed head-on with their “resistance axis.” Unintended consequences became inevitable. Al-Arabiya was able to survive and thrive unscathed, mainly because its top management includes liberal Saudi journalist Abdulrahman Al-Rashid, for whom the Assad and Khamenei regimes are a political and ideological anathema. His views, found often in his column in Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper, fit in well with the foreign policy thinking of the Saudi establishment, of which he is a member and perhaps most eloquent advocate. Turning against Syria and Iran so violently did not cut against the grain of what Al-Arabiya was made of.
For Al-Jazeera, however, the impact of the sudden change of editorial direction was more keenly felt. The channel’s reputation was partly established because many “pro-resistance” journalists filled the higher echelons of its management, and who used the channel to voice a populist anti-Americanism that echoes in the Arab World—and most particularly in Damascus and Tehran. Their positions became untenable when Qatar moved off the fence on Syria and joined Saudi Arabia and the West in a hostile alliance against Assad.
This led to a number of high-profile resignations from the channel, the most prominent of which was that of its Beirut bureau chief, Ghassan Ben Jeddou. He went on to establish Lebanon-based Al-Mayadeen TV, a satellite news channel that serves as a valuable addition to the Syrian–Iranian media front. It launched in June 2012 and claims to offer a brand of journalism “committed to nationalist, pan-Arab and humanitarian issues within the template of professional journalistic objectivity.” It is one of the very few channels whose reporters are embedded with Assad’s forces. It recently came under criticism from opposition activists who accused it of passing information about Free Syrian Army (FSA) positions to the Syrian army in Aleppo.
In the war between satellite channels, you can only fight if you remain on air. The decision taken in early September by Arabsat and Nilesat to suspend their broadcasts of Syrian state TV in compliance with an Arab League directive is a blow for the Syrian regime’s media effort. Although state TV in Syria can still be viewed terrestrially, this decision will impact on its reach and prestige. But while there are legal ways to get a broadcaster shut down, Al-Jazeera has fallen victim of an illegal method favored by the Islamic Republic: jamming. In January 2012, Reuters reported that the frequency used by Al-Jazeera was being jammed from two positions in Iran, leading the Doha–based channel to change its frequency for Arabsat viewers. (Al-Arabiya and a host of Syrian opposition channels have come under systematic jamming attacks from Iranian sources for years.)
Cult of the soldier-hero: Assad’s counter-attack
In an interview with a Russian broadcaster in May, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad admitted that his regime was losing the media war but said “the reality is what really matters” and not “the illusions” created by the media. Illusions, however, are the Syrian state-controlled media’s expertise. Keenly aware that NATO airpower is the ultimate arbiter of Arab civil wars, Assad’s media strategy focused primarily on projecting staying power. He figured that if he could convince enough of his own people and key Western countries that he was unlikely to be dislodged as easily as some of his less fortunate colleagues, he could weather the storm.
While the regime’s tactical messages changed depending on the particular phase of the conflict, the broad strokes of the regime’s message has remained constant throughout. Assad’s media adviser, Buthaina Sha’ban, set the general tone five days after the first major protests erupted, when she declared in a press conference that Syria was under attack by a “seditious sectarian conspiracy.” The notion that hostile external forces were animating internal players to destabilize and destroy the country under the guise of democratic slogans remains at the core of the regime’s grand media narrative.
From the outset, the regime’s media campaign suffered from a crippling credibility gap. Its failure to report on massive demonstrations happening across the country—and its attempts to besmirch the reputations of perfectly law-abiding demonstrators—earned it the contempt of many of its own viewers. Its repeated attempts to bolster its narrative with undercover recordings or TV confessions, often featuring pictures of confiscated weapons, drugs, and wads of foreign banknotes, not only made little impact on the constituencies that were set on bringing down Assad, but radicalised others that had been neutral. Efforts by pro-regime broadcasters to highlight inaccurate reporting by “strife channels,” such as the daily “media dishonesty” segment on Addounia TV that exposes enemy disinformation, did not stop Syrians switching over to the other side. A popular chant at protests was, “The Syrian media is a liar!”
The regime may have lost the battle of accurate reporting, but its narrative was still very much alive. It also had one major advantage over the opposition in that its media machine was centrally-controlled from an office in the presidential palace. A noticeable shift in the regime’s media strategy came about following the siege of Baba Amr in February 2012. By this time, the army had been committed to a nation-wide campaign aimed at achieving total military victory against an increasingly armed and belligerent opposition. As the level of violence escalated, and the regime’s hopes of placating the masses through limited reforms were dashed, the regime’s media switched to an all-out counter-offensive with the armed forces as its spearhead.
Assad figured that if he could no longer command the respect and loyalty of ordinary citizens, the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) might. Having been the beneficiary of massive defense budgets and the source of important patronage networks, the Syrian Army was both the most powerful institution in Syria and Assad’s last line of defense. What stood between him and a fate like Qadhafi’s was the commitment of the humble grunt. It was imperative that the regime’s media campaign focus on rallying Syrians—not around Assad per se, but around the Syrian army of which he is commander-in-chief. It is a subtle difference that could prove decisive in solidifying Assad’s core support among religious minorities and the salaried urban middle classes, many of whom view the rise of the rebel Free Syrian Army as the harbinger of their decline.
State broadcasting is now full of vociferous, pro-army propaganda. It aims to portray the soldier as a committed and selfless defender of Syrian values and civilization against hordes of brainwashed “armed terrorist gangs” funded and trained by foreign enemies. Songs are broadcast that extol the virtues of the fighting man, and TV advertisements are aired encouraging recruitment into the various branches of the armed forces. In what has become a staple diet of news bulletins, young female reporters in flak jackets embed with the Syrian army and file daily reports from the front lines highlighting the army’s victories and sacrifices. A typical report includes an interview with “defenders of the homeland,” who invariably say that their morale could not be higher and that they were committed to defeating the terrorists wherever they may be. They also tend to include interviews with local civilians who declare their gratitude to the army for having evicted “terrorists” from their neighborhood and for having brought back “safety and security.” Often these reports include a human interest story, such as one about a citizen in a Damascus suburb who had been robbed by insurgents only for his money to be recovered by the army, or a soldier who had requested he be sent back to the front line, not perturbed by the fact that he had lost his left arm in an FSA ambush. In such reports, house-to-house searches are conducted with the utmost respect, and would often conclude with scenes of jubilant residents shouting, “God Save the Army,” or with images of children handing out sweets and cups of tea to the soldier-heroes.
The cult of the soldier-hero is expressed in less restrained terms online. While the regime has been outperformed on that front largely due to the opposition’s army of Internet activists, there are a number of YouTube channels updated daily by regime supporters whose primary purpose these days is to glorify the SAA. “SyriaTube” is one these, in which you will find images of dead FSA fighters accompanied by text commentary that reads, “The Syrian Arab Army’s jackboot seal has been stamped on this terrorist’s neck.” Another video shows a column of Syrian army tanks and vehicles that snaked for miles to the soundtrack of Requiem for a Dream, entitled “Aleppo: We are coming.” It is an unbridled expression of fascistic militarism, and it is the stuff that Bashar Al-Assad is using to build his illusion of power and permanency.