Posted by Alex on Friday, May 16th, 2008
Part II – The Syrian Response – Shy and Feeble
(Read part I here)
A media onslaught such as the one waged on Syria and its allies, and especially the non-stop pumping of sectarian hatred is and must be approached as a serious strategic threat to the country’s (and the region’s) security. But what has Syrian media channels done in lieu of countering this attack? In addition to Syrian TV – which does not enjoy an overwhelming popularity – and official newspapers, which have even less popularity, the Syrian view is represented by a very small number of scanty internet web sites. Cham Press and Syria-News are probably the best known of this category. Privately owned and enjoying a degree of freedom for sites hosted in Syria, they are probably the most read pro-Syrian sites operating from within the country.
Besides the fact that their readership is orders of magnitude less than that of Alarabiya web site for instance, these sites would qualify for no more than the low end of the Second Layer media outlets described earlier. The responses they produce to news and events vary from being feeble and incompetent, all the way to being overly coarse and abusive. On a couple of occasions, Cham Press ran inflamed articles aimed at the Saudis, and posted the picture shown here. The mock-up is most likely hijacked from some Arab internet club somewhere (was supposed to portray a group of hip-hop Arab college kids) The media Einsteins at Cham Press decided to use it in a cheap take at mocking up the Saudis instead.
Needless to say, not only do such crude tactics discredit the entire web site, they also make Al-Rashed and Co. very comfortable as these tactics downgrade the average Saudi individual, which creates an immediate immunity to the content. There is nothing in Syria that comes even close to the levels of the First Layer media the Saudis have built. The question is why is that the case? Why doesn’t (or couldn’t) Syria formulate a response to the relentless war that “Moderate” Arabs are waging against it at the media front? There are many theories.
The easiest answer, and the one often quoted by Syrian officials when asked this question, is that “it costs too much.” This is actually both true and false, depending on how you look at it. It’s true that Syria cannot match the Saudi media empire station for station, newspaper for newspaper, article for article, and writer for writer. There are estimates that the budget at Al-Rashed’s disposal is in excess of $1 Billion a year, probably many times more when you add up the many other separate networks the Saudis run. The money goes into creative marketing, which takes the shape of expensive Hollywood movies, high-budget programs, high rates for Arab and especially Western essayists, and much more as described earlier. To stand up to the challenge, a would-be Syrian network would at the bare minimum have to find educated, trained and skilled journalists that would also say “no” to lucrative job offers from Al-Rashed and Co. These are not very easy to find. The argument for the financial barrier, however, is not entirely true, because a would-be Syrian network would not have to match the Saudi empire bullet for bullet.
Another very plausible reason for why the Syrians choose to endure the Saudi abuse unchallenged is that there are close to 1.5 Million Syrians living and working in Saudi Arabia. This is almost a WMD that the Saudis have aimed at Damascus. In 1990, Saudi Arabia evicted close to a Million Yemenis from the country within a matter of days, because Yemen would not go along with the Saudi intentions for war against Iraq. The potential to doing something similar to its current Syrian residents – although not very likely – is never truly off-limits. This gives the Saudis a huge advantage. Where they are able to host people like Khaddam and Bayanouni, and talk openly about over-throwing the Syrian regime, while the Syrians could never do the same. The Saudis allow themselves the liberty to discuss internal Syrian, Lebanese, and Iraqi demographics and social differentiators, while no one in the entire Arab world is allowed to talk about parallel aspects internal to Saudi Arabia.
A third and hugely important reason is Saudi’s declared monopoly on Islam, and Sunni Islam in particular (when a differentiation between the two is useful, that is.) Although this has significantly receded in recent years, a majority of Muslims and Arabs world-wide still associate the Saudi state with Islam. They are literally unable (even privately) to criticize them because they genuinely fear they would be criticizing Islam. The Saudis excel at promoting and making the most of this association, and have spent billions upon billions of dollars advancing it. This gives the Saudis another advantage in that they can tap into the religious feelings of many Syrians, while the Syrians can’t do the opposite even if they wanted to. So at the best of times, the Syrian regime used to be referred to as a Ba’thi and Aflaqi (after Michelle Aflaq, the founder of the Ba’th party). In Saudi nomenclature this is an underlining of the Christian link of the party, and its secular nature. The world ‘secular’ in Saudi is marketed to sound something like the Anti-Christ in Kansas, by the very same people who are paying billions of dollars to soak the Arab recipient with American media. In the worst of times (like the last few years,) the Syrian regime is referred to (in Second and Third Layer media) as Alawi and Rafidhi, which taps into the collective heritage of age-long religious-turned-political-turned-sectarian history of conflict in the region. As a secular state, Syria does not have the same liberty of using these dark and deadly social forces.
A forth and also important reason for the Syrian position, is that decades of heavy media censorship dry up the talent pool you have. A good, self respecting journalist will not sit around and take orders from unqualified, government-imposed directors that know little about the huge developments in journalism and modern media. Like with any profession, journalists learn from making mistakes. If you do not allow them enough freedom to work and make mistakes, they’re not going to learn. The Total-Control mentality that many old-timers hold on to in Syria is massively counter productive and is hindering the development of Syrian media, as well as many other aspects of Syrian society. Some within the regime might worry about a free media exposing corruption or painting a bad picture of the country. But this way of thinking has to be challenged, as good media can really be an authority and an element of positive change in society, which is something I think the Syrian leadership wants. The barriers that such media might break actually deserve to be shattered.
A fifth reason why the Syrians are not actively answering the Saudi onslaught might actually be because they choose to. This can be looked at from two angles. For one thing, the more sophisticated your system is, the more maintenance it would need, and the more subject to faults and penetration it would become. On the other hand the more primal your system is, the easier to control and less prone to embarrassing mistakes it becomes. When you can afford very little embarrassment with other nations, you might be tempted to take the simpler approach. Another angle, and one that might have some merit to it, is that a big mouth does not make you a bigger than you really are. The abrupt folding in of the March 14th leaderships may offer some merit to that thought. Syrian leadership may have chosen to take the loud verbal abuse and preserve its energy to more tangible work on the ground.
The above list of possible explanations to the Syrian non-response on the media front may offer some argument in explanation of the media’s current state. However, and taking all the points above, I still think that there is a place and in fact a necessity for good media. I also believe it can be done in a smart way and with reasonable budget. The domain of a population’s public opinion is a very important front of any nation’s national security. What Al-Rashed and Co. are doing on a daily basis is an assault on the national and social integrity of the Syrian, Lebanese and other Arab societies. The poisonous venom they’re injecting into people’s minds is extremely dangerous, as it lays the ground for devastating explosions on the ground if the manipulated masses find arms and cash in their hands. We have seen it in Iraq, and we don’t want to see it in Syria or Lebanon. The reckless sectarian intimidation that Al-Rashed and Co. are waging on a daily basis is a strategic threat and cannot be left without answer. The answer to it is not by shutting down Al-Mustaqbal TV (not withstanding how trashy and irresponsible it really is,) but by offering alternative, sane media options for the recipient. The Syrian population has in general stood by its leadership during the past especially hard years. They deserve better respect of their sense of responsibly and intelligence than they’re currently getting. In fact, if the will for positive change is there, as many believe, then a well-designed, respectful and free media would help get the country there.
The inhibiting factors mentioned are real and potent, but they do not preclude the possibility of counter measures. There is place for respectful, professional, and rational Syrian media to be developed, and there are means to counter and defeat every single one of the factors mentioned. It can be done, and it can be done well. It would not require a multi-billion dollar budget per year, but a fraction of that. It can be made to operate in an attractive and diplomatic way without risking Syria’s national interests. It can show that Islam is not a Saudi monopoly, and that Muslims everywhere are sane people who are not fanatic about slitting throats of their brothers in religion, as Al-Rashed and Co. would have us believe. It needs to highlight the political nature of conflicts, and expose the shameless and irresponsible manipulation that some countries are trying to exercise over entire populations. Their foul produce must not be allowed to pass unchallenged.