Syria's Media War

From the streets of Syria, a British student reports on the propaganda campaign waged by the government to convince people that all is OK and that the West is to blame—and it's working.

05.18.11 8:46 PM ET

From the streets of Syria, a British student reports on the propaganda campaign waged by the government to convince people that all is OK and that the West is to blame—and it's working. Plus, Daniel Stone on Obama's Syria tightrope.

"I tell you, there's nothing happening. They're all liars, all of them," Abou Mahmoud tells me over the chatter that fills his tiny sandwich shop in Aleppo's old city. His lectures about the foreign media have become a regular accompaniment to my daily visits to his shop. "Some say the Syrian media are lying, but the opposite is true. They're 100 percent correct. If you want to know what's really going on, watch the Syrian news."

The protests in Syria have caused the world's media to focus on this autocratic state and its brutal response to the latest development in the Arab Spring. Foreign journalists are not being allowed into Syria. As a result, conspicuously lacking from international coverage is the response of Syrians themselves to the protests. And key in understanding this response is the "media war" that the Syrian regime has openly declared.

The extent of distortion and disinformation, of efforts to control Syrians' opinions, is mind-boggling, and terrifying. Here is a brief sample:

Armed terrorist groups are trying to destabilize Syria. Televised confessions and discoveries of weapons caches prove this.

Syrian citizens welcome the arrival of the army into their cities to protect them from these armed groups. Scenes of women throwing flowers over advancing tanks prove this.

The quickest way to get arrested in Damascus or Aleppo, friends tell me, is not to join a protest, but to photograph or video one.

Foreign satellite news channels—Al-Jazeera, Al-Arabiya, and BBC Arabic chief among them—are involved in deception and distortion in order to destabilize Syria. Detailed "refutations" of their reports prove this.

Under the pretense of democracy promotion, the United States is providing funds to groups whose aim is in fact to spread discord. A montage of bombardments from Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, along with footage of maimed children and women, proves this. The clip finishes with the words 'Made in the USA' filling the screen.

On Fridays, the day on which the biggest protests have traditionally happened, looping scenes of "calm and peace and stability" in Syria's cities are broadcast.

And now, ringing condemnations of the Israelis' use of force against peaceful demonstrators in the occupied Golan Heights—presented without a shred of irony—eclipse all else in the Syrian news.

"It makes me want to laugh and cry at the same time. I simply can't watch it," says Mona, a Ph.D. student at Aleppo University, who participated in an anti-regime protest on Eid al-Jelaa, Syria's independence day, last month.

But it's inescapable: on the radio in taxis, on televisions in shops, in newspapers. When protests first started in Daraa in mid-March, there was an explosion of Syrian flags and already-ubiquitous pictures of Bashar al-Assad. And now, in a more recent development, Orwellian slogans in bold, playful colors have appeared on half of Aleppo's billboards. "Freedom starts not with discord, but with national unity." "Traditional or modern, I'm with the law." "If God is with us, then who is against us?"

"We discovered the conspiracy, thank God," says Abou Mahmoud sincerely, almost triumphantly, referring to the incredible notion doing the rounds here that the U.S., Israel, the satellite channels, the radical cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi, and others, are part of some unholy alliance to bring down Syria—the jewel of the Middle East.

He is not alone in his credulity. I've heard these stories repeated with approval by shopkeepers, taxi drivers, and university professors; by Arabs, Kurds, and Armenians; by Muslims and Christians. "When I watch these scenes that Al-Jazeera and others claim are happening in Syria, I feel like they're happening in Libya. There must be exaggeration," said one.

Do these people really believe what the Syrian media tell them? "Some do," Dr. Adnan Hussein, an intellectual and historian from Aleppo, tells me. "But most believe it because they want to, because they're afraid."

This is the Syrian regime's trump card: spreading fear.

People have a fear of the present, of expressing anti-government sentiment publicly and facing arrest or worse. The recent campaign of arrests—which has brought the total since the start of protests to some 8,000 people, according to the Damascus Bureau—is a calculated part of this strategy. Many of those arrested are released within a week or two, Dr. Hussein tells me. They are taken in, sometimes tortured, and then released so they can tell their friends and make them afraid. This strategy seems like it could be backfiring, with many protests taking place in solidarity with those arrested.

Stories of random attacks also spread fear, and disrupt normal life. Ten Syrians were killed in a minibus that had come from Lebanon, Syrian media reported last weekend. The bus was "ambushed by an armed terrorist group" near Homs. Of course, no independent verification of the story is possible. But its effect on people is clear.

Greater than these fears of the present, though, is people's fear for the future, for what will follow if the regime were to fall. And here the regime, the Syrian media, and those who believe them—or at least profess to believe them—have distinguished company, in our own Syria experts in the U.S. and Europe. Many are united in backing, inadvertently or not, the regime's argument: It's us, or it's fitna—strife, probably of a sectarian nature. Syrians don't have to look far to see what this looks like, since both Iraq and Lebanon are neighbors, and some 1 million Iraqi refugees have come to Syria since 2003.

Hosni Mubarak, the former president of Egypt, gave a version of this tired argument: It's me, or it's chaos. There is neither in Egypt. There are, to be sure, huge differences between the two countries, not least in the degree of development of opposition parties and an independent media, and in the level of general political consciousness.

But the two regimes' justifications for their existence are the same. It's the regime, or an anarchic bloodbath. It is a measure of how accustomed we have become to the rule of dictatorial "strongmen" in the Arab world that these arguments are taken seriously. As Slavoj Zizek has pointed out, such an argument for the regime is in fact an argument against it.

Where next, then, for the Syrian protest movement? It faces a massive government disinformation campaign, waves of arbitrary arrests, and the use of lethal military force to break up protests, even as the regime promises reform and a "national dialogue." Coordination of the opposition even within one city such as Aleppo, let alone between cities, is very difficult. Mona, the Ph.D. student, tells me speculation and worry about what communication the infamous security agencies are able to monitor is a constant theme of conversations with her friends. The quickest way to get arrested in Damascus or Aleppo, friends tell me, is not to join a protest, but to photograph or video one.

The biggest obstacle, though, is the subjugated and fearful majority—those who appear in the interminable vox-pops on Syrian television, thanking God and Bashar al-Assad for the security and stability they enjoy. Most have experienced nothing other than the 48-year rule of the Baath Party. The psychological effect of such a period of one-party rule—the infantilization of its citizens practised by the regime—is very hard to imagine. For many, denial is the easiest reaction—at least for the time being.

But the supporters of the protest movement are nonplussed by these obstacles. The consciousness of the silent majority will be roused, they will understand the message of the opposition "through words, through the media, through blood," says Dr. Hussein.

The protest supporters are acutely aware of the dangers of what may come next—especially those protesters from minority groups—but for them, that can never be an argument against seizing this opportunity to get rid of Assad's dictatorship.

Editor's Note: All names in this story have been changed to protect their identities.

RB is a British student and writer living in Syria.