The shameful Arab silence on Syria

Many publicists have excitedly described the liberating promise of Arab satellite stations. However, the stations’ utterly inadequate coverage of the current upheaval in Syria, particularly the Syrian regime’s ruthless suppression of peaceful demonstrations, belies that optimistic view. Their failing can be measured in human lives.

Why have the major satellite stations, Al-Jazeera but also Al-Arabiya, been so profoundly reluctant to highlight the Syrian protests? Why have stations like Al-Hurra and the BBC Arabic channel been so much more imaginative, thorough, and professional in pursuing the story? By way of an answer you might hear that the Syrian authorities control journalists very tightly; that there is no independent footage to broadcast; that those opposed to the regime risk arrest when they are interviewed; and so on. Perhaps, but that’s not convincing.

Take last Friday, when Syrian protesters had called for a “day of the martyrs,” in honor of those gunned down by the Syrian security forces in Deraa and elsewhere. The demonstrations were to begin after noon prayers, at around 1:30 p.m. Yet for two good hours, both Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya relegated the Syria story to a brief and distant third in their broadcasts, focusing instead on Yemen and Libya. And when the day was over and the bodies had been counted, Syria was still not a priority. Al-Jazeera’s nightly news satisfied itself with showing telephone videos from the protests, with little commentary.

Since then things have only gotten worse. It has become a rule of thumb for the stations that when they speak to someone opposed to the Syrian regime, invariably off camera, they must also talk to a pro-regime propagandist, usually some member of Parliament or a political analyst. In journalistic terms, hearing both sides of a story is reasonable. Yet how little that rule was applied in Egypt by the same stations during the movement against Hosni Mubarak. And if the Syrian authorities are imposing that stations contact their devotees, interviewers should at least make this known to viewers.

In his speech last week before the Syrian Parliament, Bashar Assad bluntly accused the Arab satellite stations of inciting the rallies against his regime. But what the Syrian president was really doing was sending a message to the leaders of Saudi Arabia and Qatar principally, informing them that if they really wanted him to stay in office, they were better off keeping a lid on their satellite journalists. That warning, or threat, appears to have had an impact. Despite purported disagreements within Al-Jazeera (and, I suspect, similar debates at Al-Arabiya) over how to handle Syria, what is going on in the country continues to be treated with troubling reserve.

Nothing prevents these stations from borrowing much more from social media to strengthen their anemic reporting. Twitter is an invaluable resource for keeping pace with the hourly specifics of the Syrian revolt. Facebook is even more essential for the protesters themselves, as they plan their next move. Not surprisingly, quite a few Syrians posting on the site have expressed outrage with the way the satellite stations, Al-Jazeera in particular, have ignored their plight.

Showing telephone videos of people marching, or being shot at, is useful. However, without a context, without an informed explanation of what is going on and what viewers are seeing; without playing these videos on air to Syrian officials and demanding that they explain the murder of unarmed civilians expressing themselves peacefully, the power of media is stunted. One gets a nagging sense that the coverage on Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya is an outcome of political compromises, but also, in Al-Jazeera’s case, of the station’s ideological agenda.

To toss Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya into the same basket is entirely justified here, because both Saudi Arabia and Qatar share a desire to avert a breakdown in Syria, fearing that chaos might ensue. Their views are echoed by a majority of Gulf states, whose leaders have called Assad lately to express their backing. Nor is there any quarrel with this in Washington, where the Obama administration has been baldly two-faced – praising itself for preventing human rights abuses by the Gadhafi regime in Libya while offering only pro forma criticism of the shocking number of deaths in Syria.

The hypocrisy of Al-Jazeera, the most popular Arab satellite station, is especially worthy of mention. In Egypt, Libya or Yemen, for instance, the station devotes, or has devoted, long segments allowing viewers to call in and express disapproval of their leaders alongside their high hopes for the success of the revolution. In Syria, nothing.

The reality is that the political allegiances and the self-image of Al-Jazeera make this thorny. Syria is part of the “resistance axis,” and the downfall of its regime would only harm Hezbollah and Hamas. The same lack of enthusiasm characterized the station’s coverage of Lebanon’s Independence Intifada against Syria in 2005. It is easy to undermine Ali Abdullah Saleh, Moammar Gadhafi, and Hosni Mubarak, each of whom in his own way is or was a renegade to the Arabs. But to go after Bashar Assad means reversing years of Al-Jazeera coverage sympathetic to the Syrian leader. Rather conveniently, refusing to do so dovetails with the consensus in the Arab political leadership.

So the Syrians find themselves largely abandoned today, their struggle not enjoying the customary Al-Jazeera treatment – high in emotion and electric in the slogans of mobilization. The televised Arab narrative of liberty has not quite avoided Syria, but nor has it integrated the Syrians’ cause. As the Arab stations weigh what to do next, they may still hope that the Syrian story will disappear soon, and their duplicity with it. Shame on them.

Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR and author of “The Ghosts of Martyrs Square: An Eyewitness Account of Lebanon’s Life Struggle” (Simon & Schuster), listed as one of the 10 notable books of 2010 by the Wall Street Journal.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on April 07, 2011, on page 7.




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