Thursday 19 Jul 2018 | 23:11 | SYDNEY
Thursday 19 Jul 2018 | 23:11 | SYDNEY

Be wary of Syria media coverage

20 February 2012 09:33

Vanessa Newby is a PhD candidate at the University of Queensland. Her earlier posts here and here.

I was privileged very recently to meet and discuss Middle Eastern affairs with Anthony Shadid, Middle East correspondent for the New York Times. He was possibly one of the friendliest, most helpful people I have ever met and I was shocked to hear of his death of an asthma attack while reporting undercover in Syria. He was a reporter of the highest quality and he went undercover in Syria to find out what is really going on.

A recent six-week visit to Lebanon revealed to me the utter inadequacy of Western media reporting on Syria. Rumours abound, some more believable than others. Take your pick from the following:

  • Al Qaeda is in Syria and detonated the bombs in Aleppo and Kaffarsoussah, Damascus.
  • Those bombs were in fact detonated by the Assad regime to 'prove' the existence of terrorist groups in Syria.
  • Assad, desperate not to lose all power, will abandon Syria-major and occupy the Syrian and Lebanese Alawite regions to carve out a new small state for himself.
  • Qatar and Saudi Arabia are arming and funding Salafist movements there.
  • Hizbullah is fighting alongside Assad's army.

There may be truth to some of these rumours, and Anthony Shadid was certainly of the opinion that a great many external powers are involved in Syria right now. But I suspect the reason he went there himself is due to the lack of clarity on what is happening in Syria, and the poor state of reporting coming out of Lebanon on the topic.

This in part is due to the fact that many major newspapers fly people in to do a story. They go straight to a 'fixer', the guy who can sort you out with people to interview, do translation, and where necessary, get security clearance to get you into sensitive areas. But fixers are a rare commodity in Lebanon, which means the media are all going to the same fixers, who introduces them to the same people with the same stories.

If you want to interview Free Syrian Army veterans, you head up to Tripoli and for around US$150, you can be introduced to some in the hospitals who will tell you all manner of things about the regime and what they did. But there is no way of corroborating their stories, because if you're lucky you'll get to speak to one or two people. And currently, those who are pro-regime refuse to talk to the media.

In the last few weeks, the media articles on Syria I have read coming out of Lebanon smack of sensationalism, uncorroborated fact and a lack of regional knowledge. What I read is no different to what is being said on the street and cannot be proven accurate.

An article in the Guardian recently by Jonathan Steele highlighted the fact that there is more than one point of view within Syria about the regime, although the recent violence in Homs may be changing opinion. My uncorroborated sources have told me that Aleppo and Damascus are generally pro-regime, while the rest of the country is much less so.

In sum, my recommendation is to be sceptical of anything you read in the Western media on Syria, even from the big-name newspapers.

Whatever the truth about Syria right now, I have no doubt Anthony Shadid would have told it. His death is a great loss to journalism in the Middle East.