Syria's media war
As the battle in Syria rages on, the media has become a weapon to fight for, writes Andrew Bossone
The media war for Syria mimics the battles raging across it. Recent attacks on state media highlight how controlling the flow of information is a critical part of the Syrian uprising.
A bomb struck the TV and radio building in Damascus on Monday, and rebels briefly took over the state TV building of Aleppo on Saturday, both of which were reported by state and international media. State television host Mohamed Al-Said was also killed on Saturday, following his abduction in June. Although Al-Said was a regime mouthpiece, his death shows cracks in the government's control over the media as well as an opposition with its own agenda.
"The Baath Party tried to own everything, even journalism," said Mohamad Ali, a Syrian journalist, by phone in north Syria. "I have a lot of problems mostly with the activists because they treat the media like the Baath Party: they don't want anyone to expose their mistakes."
Another state television host, Ola Abbas, defected from the regime in mid-July. She said she was conflicted about state television manipulating the deaths of Syrians with fabricated stories. Although she had a prominent career and is an Alawi like the president, she could no longer take sides.
"Even though soldiers might be killed because they refused to fire on protesters, the state media would say they were the victims of terrorists," she said.
"When talking about people who die in Syria, I don't have a problem if they are called martyrs, but why not call the other side martyrs as well?" said Abbas, from a hotel room in Beirut before flying to France.
The latest attacks on state media follow other assaults, such as a bombing of the Al-Ikhbariah news channel in the Damascus countryside in late June, not to mention the regime's violent crackdowns on expression. As the scale of combat increases, fights for state media buildings will likely continue as both sides battle over territory and propaganda. If history serves lessons then the government won't cede state media easily, though. Hafez Al-Assad built a tight media apparatus after he came to power in 1971, following more than a dozen coup d'états starting in 1949 that always utilised state radio for political communiqués.
According to Abbas, the media in Syria today is directed by several security branches: the political section of the secret service, the information section in the Palace of the Republic and a special security section dedicated exclusively to information in the uprising.
"We never saw the higher-ups, the people who were the bosses," Abbas said. "Why would they come to the station? They would call the managers on the phone. The managers didn't have any influence; they just executed orders. They would call on the phone, and say to criticise the Gulf countries, or to thank China and Russia."
Videos and social media by the opposition have been instrumental in rallying local and international support, but rebels will need to take over state media to put an end to the regime's projection of authority. Control over state media sends a powerful message to the Syrian population about the credibility of the regime.
"[The regime] fears that a host or anchor would defect more than someone in the military because one year ago they were saying one thing, and the next they're saying something different," said Abbas. "Everyone knows their lies and remembers the faces of hosts."
Similarly, Egyptians still recognise former state TV host Shahira Amin for defecting early in the revolution because it had a powerful effect on challenging former president Hosni Mubarak.
"When I quit and was interviewed by some of the foreign media, I confirmed what had already been said that state TV was a government mouthpiece and a propaganda tool of the regime," said Amin. "I totally believe that defections by public figures are of great importance because they are usually trusted by the public and can greatly influence public opinion."
Syria's destiny is not only in the hands of the Syrian public or the government. The events today of the ancient gateway between Asia and Europe have many players inside and out, each with their own interests. Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabia cover non-stop pro-revolution news as their patrons Qatar and Saudi Arabia are arming the rebels. The Syrian government has the support of allies such as Iran and Hizbullah, which uses Al-Manar and Al-Mayadeen satellite channels in Lebanon in favour of the regime.
"You need someone to honestly tell what is happening," Ali said. "You must send journalists [to Syria] who care about the future. This is what journalists have to do, to care about the future and to tell the truth."
The US is also exerting much influence over Syria's future. In terms of media, the State Department says it has provided opposition activists with communications support, but the exact nature of the assistance -- and who provides it -- is unknown. A recent leak that President Barack Obama has given the CIA the green light to provide arms to the Free Syrian Army suggests the US will use any means necessary to quicken Al-Assad's downfall and to legitimise the Western-backed Syrian National Council to lead a transition of power.
With so many sides involved in Syria, it's no wonder that many journalists question stories of the uprising. Even if journalists are somehow complicit in a larger agenda on the international stage, they still have an obligation to accurately portray events. If they don't, Syria's story could continue to be dominated by a manipulation of the truth that has reigned for decades.
"Of course the media has to change," Abbas said. "The media only reflects reality. When we have a civil, democratic society then we will have a free media."