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Syria: The Dangers of One-Sided Reporting

The news out of Syria gets more and more appalling. But so does the quality of the journalism. Here’s an example, from the BBC dated May 26:

At least 90 people, including many children, have been killed in Syria’s restive Homs province, opposition activists say, calling it a “massacre”.

They said scores were wounded in the violence in Houla, as government forces shelled and attacked the town.

Shocking footage has emerged of the bodies of children killed as part of one the bloodiest attacks in one area since a nominal truce began in April.

The UN said international monitors were heading to the area.

BBC then quotes the wire service AP:

An activist in Houla told the Associated Press news agency that troops began the assault on Houla after an anti-regime demonstration following Muslim prayers on Friday.

The assault began with artillery shelling which killed 12, he said – but scores more were butchered when pro-regime thugs known as “shabiha” then stormed the area.

And here’s UPI:

DAMASCUS, Syria, May 26 (UPI) — At least 88 people, many of them children, were killed in a town in the restive province of Homs in Syria in an attack by government forces, activists said.

All these reports were based almost entirely on the word from activists on one side in the conflict, not from journalists or neutral observers. That is not journalism. Why are there not more journalists actually in these places reporting? In the past, reporters always managed to get into conflict zones. And, notwithstanding Syrian government controls on access to these areas and the obvious physical dangers attendant to work in such places, news organizations should be able to hire Syrians who will be diligent, careful and precise.

This fast-moving story has already led to a follow-up from BBC here that raises questions about the earlier assertion of culpability:

The village of Taldou, near the town of Houla in Syria’s Homs province was the scene of one of the worst massacres in the country’s 14-month-long uprising on Friday.

United Nations observers on the ground have confirmed that at least 108 people were killed, including 49 children and 34 women. Some were killed by shell fire, others appear to have been shot or stabbed at close range.

But at whose hands they died remains a matter of contention. Anti-government activists and eyewitnesses interviewed by a limited number of journalists and human rights groups at the scene point the finger at the Syrian army and the shabiha, a sectarian civilian militia that supports the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

The government however denies all responsibility, saying its soldiers were attacked and armed terrorists went on to shoot and stab civilians.

[snip]

The picture being pieced together by activists, survivors and the limited number of international journalists and human rights organisations in Syria is of an attack that began with the army shelling the town and ended with militiamen killing people house-by-house late into the night.

Reports suggest that at about 13:00 local time (11:00 GMT) on Friday, just after midday prayers, soldiers fired on a protest in Taldou in the Houla area to disperse the crowds.

Some accounts say that opposition fighters then attacked the Syrian army position where the firing was coming from.

According to Syria’s foreign ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi, “hundreds of gunmen” armed with machine guns, mortars and anti-tank missiles attacked soldiers, killing three.

[snip]

Alexei Pushkov, chair of the international affairs committee of the Russian parliament, the Duma, was more explicit: “We have very strong doubts that those people who were shot at point blank [range] and were stabbed, that this was the action of forces loyal to President Assad,” he told the BBC.

“The shelling was probably the responsibility of the troops of Mr Assad, but the stabbing and point blank firing was definitely from the other side.”

Notice how BBC is backing off somewhat from its earlier report that seemed sure who was responsible for the civilian killings—only the one side. This is commendable as far as it goes.

But BBC jumped the gun, so to speak, in other ways. For example, it published a horrifying photo of scores of bodies lined up, purportedly victims of government violence in Houla. It later had to apologize and explain that it was really a 2003 photo from Iraq. Read more about that here, and be sure and scroll down to see the photo.

***

Here’s another example of inadequate reporting, from the earlier UPI piece:

Meanwhile, the Syrian Network for Human Rights reported Saturday government forces opened fire on international observers in Al-Quseir, Homs, to prevent them from getting to the area, and the observers returned to their hotels.

The Syrian Network cannot be characterized as truly neutral. Why is it necessary to take its word for this—indeed, where did the Syrian Network get its information? And if international observers were fired upon, why cannot the representatives of the observers tell us first? Do the observers themselves lack access to basic communications? Assuming we get verification from these purportedly neutral observers that they were fired upon, the next question is: how does anyone know who fired upon them? Were they shot at in close quarters by those wearing Syrian uniforms? What is the evidence? And even if Syrian uniforms, what of the many Syrian soldiers who defected to the opposition? Would those massacring people necessarily want to correctly identify themselves?

In fact, if you’re going to take all your information from one side of a conflict in which both sides are armed, at least demand—and share with your audience—a lot of details on what purportedly happened, and why. Thus, if you’re alleging that a family was killed when the government forces lobbed a shell at its house, the question would be: why? Is there a government campaign to lob shells indiscriminately at houses? Is this a common occurrence? Or, if the attack is verifiable, were government troops responding to gunfire from the house or something nearby? (We do begin to get tentative answers in Monday’s BBC report.) Or are they just committing atrocities as a way to intimidate the population?  Note that when reporting on conflicts between Israelis and Palestinians, Western news sources typically include statements from Israeli authorities characterizing bombardments of homes as either accidental or the inevitable consequence of militants using homes as cover for their own attacks—BBC did something similar with the Houla story, belatedly, Monday.

We know that the Syrian regime is brutal. We know that it faces an armed uprising which it is determined to crush. The opposition may be accidentally providing inaccurate information, it may be deliberately exaggerating or making things up out of whole cloth. It may be telling the truth in some or even all instances. It is also necessary to take into account other factors, like the shabiha militia, which supports the regime but has its own agenda. The bottom line is that without journalists verifying, it’s not journalism. And it’s not worth rushing to report one-sided claims under pressure to scoop the competition instead of waiting for more reliable information.

Would Western media have accepted reports from Vietnam (via entities with names like the Vietnamese People’s Human Rights Committee, or Vietnamese Network to Protect Civilians) that contained unverified and inadequately-documented or poorly-detailed reports of American atrocities? Don’t think so.

Given what is now emerging about behind-the-scenes covert involvement of outside forces in creating and stoking uprisings in other countries, don’t we need and deserve a closer look at all of this—including those very effective, neatly lettered, English-perfect signs that always catch the cameras?

The fact that many stories from Syria include a plea for “international intervention” (presumably of an armed nature) means this is not just an academic issue. Because, unless we get a handle on what is really going on, things are destined to get a lot worse.

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GRAPHIC: http://www.leftfootforward.org/images/2012/02/Syria-protests-young-child.jpg


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  • http://www.PakDestiny.com

    you not mentioned Iran’s role in current situation of Syria?

    PakDestiny provides you untold stories of Pakistani politics, power corridor and its celebrities.
    http://www.pakdestiny.com

  • Just_Sayin’

    What was that statement that came out about Tony Blair getting involved in Little George’s Big Adventure?   Something about “Facts being formed to fit the policy”, or such?

    Assad is on his way out.

    Facts are being formed to fit the policy.

    There is nothing new, under the Sun.

  • Guest

    And What Company Asset DIGNITARY’S kid Is THI$? (With his WASP jingoistic red, white and blue, Queen’s ENGLI$H $IGN?)

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  • tony bonn

    the entire syrio-iran affair is cia through and through….i am no fan of syria’s leaders but i also know that the cia (and mossad) are engaged in covert regime change and will murder its way to its goals….

    most “reporters” are access journalists who pump propaganda as though it were water at an amusement park….

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Larry-Polsky/688801664 Larry Polsky

    Anderson Cooper and the rest of our Corporate Controlled Meida will certainly disagree with you.  Thank goodness for Russia!

  • Jmrrpress

    Good article. I have been appalled by the transparently 1 sided media coverage of the Syrian conflict.

  • antoinepgrew

    Thank you, Russ. You are becoming a clear voice for what I learned as the ultimate basis in Reporting 101 at J School.

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  • Drvirginia

    Hello, Russ and Dear Readers,
    Here’s an article by Dr Paul Craig Roberts, who served in the Reagan administration and who knows Washington inside-out.  Syria today appears a lot like Cuba in the 1960s.  Hope you find this informative.

    http://www.paulcraigroberts.org/2012/05/31/killing-innocent-civilians-as-part-of-a-us-covert-op-plan-to-mobilize-public-support-for-war-against-syria/

  • jawbone3

    Information about the details of the Houla massacre have been coming out in dribs and drabs, but, as of today, it seems to be fairly well ascertained that the people massacred were families loyal to the Syrian government.  One of the families had one of its male head of a family recently elected to the new Syrian legislature.  I haven’t been able to determine whether he is still alive or was killed with his extended family.

    But, from the beginning, non-MCM (Mainstream Corporate Media) writers have been questioning the reports provided by the “activists” of varying groups.  One early writer asked, Cui bono –Who benefits?

    Why would the Syrian government ask any supporters to go into Houla and slash throats and kill by gunshots to the heads families which support the Syrian government?

    Strange times in MCM-land.  I know how intensely skeptical the MCM was of any reports of civilians deaths in Iraq and still are in Afghanistan and Pakistan.  But, when the deaths are in Syria, the words of insurgents and activists are, well, gospel truth!  And Yemen? Well, since any men of military age who remain in areas where the Yemen groups calling themselves Al Qaeda are in control MUST be terrorists/bad guys, they are just counted as adding to the kill count of terrists. Hey, if that’s good enough for our Nobel Peace Prize Laureate president, then it’s good enough for the MCM. Or something.

    Check out moonofalabama.org for some non-MCM sources, comments, and some reading between the lines of MCM articles. 

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  • Southwick_7

    There is increasing evidence that the Houla massacre was carried out by the opposition Free Syrian Army, not government- backed forces.  See here: http://truth-out.org/news/item/9875-houla-massacre-carried-out-by-free-syrian-army-according-to-frankfurter-allgemeine-zeitung

    • hotforINSEGNANTE

      A gaggle of Russian sympathizers here, I see.
      Staunchly supporting Assad and his pals Putin, Hezbollah Terrorists and Iranian Terrorists.

      What a crowd – rejoicing in Britain’s sheer COWARDICE in backing away from confronting Assad last year.

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  • Man on the street

    The EU, NATO, CIA, and the Saudis/Qataris have credibility with me. All of them lied to us about their good intention of supporting the “Islamist rebels”, who like to eat human organs for lunch.

  • Man on the street

    The cook book used to start trouble around the world goes like this: send small sniper teams to kill innocent people from roof tops, and than use the powerful Western media to blame the government for doing the killings. There will be enough gullible citizen who will be upset with the government? Just give them arms, and money to start trouble in the streets! The government will then step in to impose law and order? Then use that powerful Western media again to say “government police brutality”? You can see the picture now? Starts from a sniper teams from roof tops, and a snowball effect makes the whole thing look like CIVIL WAR? It is not, because most of the trouble comes from imported jihadists who are carrying the al Qaeda flag, yet our presstitudes never ask the sheeple to get outraged at our government supporting al Qaeda?

  • hotforINSEGNANTE

    It is VERY SIMPLE to figure out: ONLY the goverment has aircraft – warplanes and gunships. Huge SCUD missiles – fired off by Assad. 55 gallon barrel bombs (gasoline, shrapnel and gunpowder) dropped by Assad. Russian made artillery shells – fired by Assad. Chemical Weapons – Assad had 2 MILLION pounds of it and the shells, at one time.
    NAPLAM or cluster bombs dropped from above.

    100% of all casualties via these means are the direct responsiblity of the War Criminal Assad.

    Finally, Russia is a HUGE backer of Assad, sending in nearly all his munitions used, along with Iran. If not for Russia the United Nations would be in Syria documenting War Crimes by both sides, two years ago.

    • hotforINSEGNANTE

      A street level massacre, evil and horrible, with many many previous accounts condemning Assad for them.
      Homs,. Bainya and Banya come to mind.