Arab Media Clash Over Syria (WSJ) WALL STREET JOURNAL) By SAM DAGHER 03/25/12)
WALL STREET JOURNAL
WALL STREET JOURNAL Articles-Index-Top
In Syria´s conflict, one side stridently argues that President Bashar
al-Assad is under siege by agents of Gulf Arab states and the West.
Opposition fighters, they say, are al Qaeda-allied terrorists and
Israeli intelligence operatives. They characterize recent reports of
Assad-regime massacres in the cities of Homs and Idlib as "a
hysterical terrorist media campaign."
As the other side sees it, President Assad is "a monster." His
regime, they say, is out to massacre the country´s Sunni majority.
These polar views define not only the Assad regime and those who
oppose it: They are also the two starkly competing narratives being
broadcast across the region by Arabic-language television news
channels. These dueling accounts of Syria´s conflict are open
proxies, observers say, for the political agendas of their backers.
"All you have is propaganda and counterpropaganda," says Marwan
Kraidy, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania´s Annenberg
School of Communication and an Arab media expert. "The number of
channels is staggering, and the intensity of the sectarian hate and
rhetoric is scary."
Satellite TV remains the most accessible medium for the Arab world´s
masses. In areas where Internet penetration is sparse, news and views
of the broader world come largely from the free stations picked up by
dishes that are ubiquitous on rooftops from Baghdad´s slums to the
remotest village in Morocco.
These stations broadly reinforce a regional narrative that pits Iran,
which sees itself as the leader of the region´s Shiite Muslims and
supports Mr. Assad, against Gulf Arab states led by Saudi Arabia, a
center of Sunni Islam that is fully behind the opposition. The media
battle is galvanizing populations across the region along sectarian
lines and further fueling fears that a local conflict will
metastasize into a regional one.
The region´s two main news channels—Al-Arabiya, which is based in
Dubai and owned by Saudis, and al-Jazeera, which is owned and run out
of Qatar—feature multisided discussions on Syria. But they can also
often project the determination by oil-rich Sunni Gulf Arab states to
cripple Iran and its Shiite allies, analysts say.
Several Salafi channels in tightly controlled Saudi Arabia have
appeared to seize on Syria to escalate their case against Iran and
Shiites in general, analysts add. Salafis are ultraconservative
Sunnis whose interpretations of Islam overlap with those of al Qaeda.
"There will be slaughter and killing in every Arab country if the
Syrian revolution is extinguished," said a news anchor this month on
the Saudi-based Safa channel, adding that "Shiites are worse than
A caption on the screen read: "Sunnis are one blood."
Meanwhile, a range of channels friendly to the regime in Damascus—
including Syrian state TV, Iranian broadcasters and Beiruit-based Al-
Manar TV, owned by the Iranian-backed Lebanese militant group
Hezbollah—have echoed Mr. Assad´s characterization that international
coverage of Syria is a "media onslaught." They say they are battling
an immense conspiracy waged by enemies in the Arab world, Israel and
Anwar-2, an Iranian-funded channel that broadcasts to Iraq´s Shiite
majority, regularly speaks about Saudi Arabia´s "extermination war
against Shiites" and has called on Shiites in the region to mobilize
against the Syrian opposition.
The media battle was evident as the Syrian government mounted 26 days
of attacks against the Baba Amr neighborhood of Homs. Channels
opposed to the Syrian regime—a group that is significantly larger,
and deeper-pocketed, than the pro-Assadchannels—played up news the
Syrian army was closing in for a final assault on Baba Amr. They
reported massacres, rape, aerial bombardment and destruction of homes
and mosques by the regime, not only in Homs but in several other
Syrian hot spots.
Pro-Assad channels played down, or didn´t report, the siege and
bombardment of Baba Amr. But once government soldiers took control of
the neighborhood from opposition fighters, the same channels were let
into the district before relief agencies to broadcast scenes of
devastation and sing the Syrian army´s praises.
"This is what the Gulf-financed crows of death wrought," said an
announcer on Syria´s Addounia, believed to be controlled by Mr.
Assad´s maternal relatives, the Makhloufs. The channel ran nightly
reports about massacres allegedly committed by opposition fighters,
as well as bomb-making factories, arms depots and torture chambers
said to belong to them.
Syria is all but closed to the Western press. Two Western
journalists, who were among a knot of reporters who reported on what
they characterized as a regime offensive that indiscriminately
targeted civilians in Homs, were killed there in an attack that
wounded several others.
As Sunni-backed channels convey agitation, fear-mongering and
a "particular personal vendetta" against the Assad regime, the mirror-
image narratives presented by the pro-Assad channels become all the
more credible, said As´ad AbuKhalil, professor of political science
at California State University, Stanislaus. For these channels, he
said, "the lie doesn´t have to be good."
Syria´s Minister of Information Adnan Mahmoud said last week that
state TV was covering events objectively and described recent
successes in turning public opinion around.
An Al-Arabiya spokesman stressed his channel´s independence, saying
perceptions that its coverage favors Syria´s opposition could be
fueled by the fact that opposition members have made themselves more
available than have regime figures. An al-Jazeera representative
cited the Syrian regime´s boycott of the channel and restrictions on
media operating in the field.
"There is not an editorial policy that chooses one side against
another—the viewer is smart enough," said Mostefa Souag, managing
director of al-Jazeera´s flagship Arabic news channel.
A Saudi TV journalist said that while mainstream Arabic news
channels´ Syria coverage was sensational, it is no match to the pro-
regime channels. But Salafi channels have nonetheless generated
hatred that has in the end served the Syrian regime and its allies in
Iran and Lebanon, by allowing them to rally their own constituencies
in defense, according to Jamal al-Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist who
is launching a TV channel this year funded by a member of what is
seen as a moderate wing of the Saudi ruling family.
"They are part of the war of our Sunni fundamentalists with Shiite
fundamentalists," he said of the Salafi stations. He added: "It
doesn´t help our confrontation with Iran."
In several cases, the TV channels have become platforms for calls for
action, which observers fear will fuel more violence in a region
already rived by it. In addition to years of sectarian strife in
Iraq, there have been episodes of sectarian clashes in Lebanon and
most recently in Bahrain, where the Shiite majority is demonstrating
against a Saudi-backed Sunni monarchy.
Earlier this month, Qatar-based Sunni cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi issued
a series of Syria-related fatwahs, or religious edicts, live on al-
Jazeera, which has at least 35 million viewers across the world. He
said jihad, or holy war, was mandatory there. "Elimination" of those
collaborating with Mr. Assad´s crackdown on the opposition, including
informants, was permissible, he said.
"When we engage in this rhetoric whereby the other side is only good
when dead," said the University of Pennsylvania´s Mr. Kraidy, "we are
setting the region up for a lot of trouble."
—Ali A. Nabhan contributed to this article. (Copyright © Dow Jones &
Company, Inc.) 03/25/12)
Return to Top
MATERIAL REPRODUCED FOR EDUCATIONAL PURPOSES ONLY