Posted by Alex on Thursday, May 15th, 2008
Joshua will be away this week. I will be posting a series of contributions from our readers. Alex
Syrian Media – The Challenge and the Need to Act
With the latest events in Lebanon, Saudi channel Alarabiya is again doing what it does best, inflaming Arab public opinion against Shiites, Syria, and the Lebanese Opposition, and it is doing so using the most recklessly sectarian language imaginable. The words Shiite, Sunni, Ta’ifi (sectarian,) and Alawite, are being repeated at an alarming rate on this and similar “Moderate Arab” media outlets, in reference to the political situations in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Iran. In spite of the fact that the two sides of the power struggle in Lebanon have Sunnis, Shiites, Christians, and Druze, Alarabiya and other similar media outlets are adamant on painting everything with the ugly sectarian color.
Giving politics a religious and sectarian angle is like taking a shot in the arm. It immediately gives the side evoking it a false sense of power, endurance, and meaning. It drives young kids to the streets shouting slogans over a thousand years old, as if echoes of the ancient bloody struggle that once took place in the region. Schoolmates suddenly find themselves standing opposite each other, shouting their lungs out with utter, incomprehensible hatred toward one another. And just like a shot in the arm would eventually devastate you, so would sectarian violence were it to be unleashed. Since the invasion of Iraq, Saudi owned and sponsored media outlets have been busy handing out free loaded needles to anyone with a TV set. Today’s news on Alarabiya and Asharq Alawsat is but a small sample of that, although it has upped the doses to desperately insane levels.
With that media provoking such destructive forces upon Syria, the Levant, and the Arab world in general, the question is where is the answer to that? Where is the media alternative provided by the secular interests in the region in today’s media spectrum in the Middle East? Where is the ‘Say-NO-To-Drugs’ campaign to the drug dealer handing out the deadly substance to the children and the youth of the region? It might be good time to take a small step back and look at the state of the Syrian media.
It’s no news that official Syrian media has always been, shall we say, less than adequate. However, it has perhaps never seen more miserable times than the weeks and months that immediately followed the assassination of Rafiq Hariri on March 14th, 2005. I think Syrian TV was showing a pre-recorded program about tourism in Palmyra when the explosion took place in Beirut. Within seconds, major news networks had interrupted their normal coverage and converged on to the event. Within minutes, Al-Jazeerah, Alarabiya, LBC, NTV, BBC, CNN, NBC, and of course Al-Mustaqbal (Hariri’s own network) had placed teams on location with reporters and live feed from the site of the horrific explosion. Syrian TV, on the other hand, continued showing its crude, humdrum program of Western tourists happily riding camels in Palmyra, followed by a program about hand crafts in Hamidiyeh market, probably followed by the age-old Arduna el-Khadraa’ (Our Green Land, a weekly farming program that has had the same title and format for over thirty years.) Regular programming continued for the rest of the day as if nothing had happened. The explosion and Hariri’s assassination appeared as one of the day’s events on the evening news, and that was about it. By that time, however, most Arab news networks had already launched an unprecedented media war against Syria. That war continues today, albeit at lower effect. After more than three years, Syrian official media is still unable to muster a viable defence.
It wasn’t the first time that a TV station has acted in this deer-freezing-in-middle-of-the-road type of response. When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1989, for instance, Saudi TV did not mention the momentous event for another three days. Saudi authorities were so shaken by the invasion, that they did not know what to do for three whole days. But that was in 1989, and they’ve learned quite a few lessons since then. In fact, the Saudis have moved from a position where they were being blackmailed by just about anyone who ran a printing press in the nineteen sixties, to a position today where they rule the Arab media space almost unchallenged. It is necessary to shed some light on that network in order to understand the impact it has had on Syrian and Lebanese societies, and on the Syrian regime. An observation of how the closely tied pack is orchestrated reveals unmistakable patterns, as we will see.
At what we might term as First Layer media are the higher end media outlets like Asharq Alawsat and Alarabiya TV. These can be characterized by their professional-looking styles and especially their subtle approach. Alarabiya, probably best described as the Saudi replica of Fox News, employs the latest trends in mass-media marketing technologies. The methods here are slick and highly polished, where great attention is taken to promoting certain pro-Saudi, pro-US, anti-Resistance terminology and nomenclature. A key characteristic of this layer is the highly selective news coverage and the extremely biased “opinion” forums and commentary. Abdlrahman Al-Rashed, is probably the most fitting journalist to represent this layer. As careful with his words as a shrewd layer, he manages to get his daily sectarian tainted anti-Syria, anti-Lebanese Opposition message through loud and clear.
Take a look at this article, dated May 3rd, 2007, discussing the fighting at the Palestinian camp Nahr el-Bared in Lebanon. It might be a little old, but it is quite fitting to illustrate his methods.
قبل معارك نهر البارد كانت مشكلة سورية، وكذلك القوى المؤيدة لها، محصورة في دائرة النزاع اللبناني لكن بعد ان صارت الجماعات الإرهابية الدولية طرفا حقيقيا في الأزمة، سواء بالاستخدام أو بالتأييد، فإننا سنرى تبدلا في القضية اللبنانية. لن تجد هذه القوى المتورطة من يساندها دوليا لأن الجميع في حال حرب مع الجماعات المتطرفة، سواء كانوا روسا أو صينيين أو أوروبيين.
Before the fighting at Nahr el-Bared, Syria’s problems, as well as the problems of its allies were limited to the conflict in Lebanon. But now that international terrorist groups have become a real side in the conflict, whether by [direct] use or by support, we’re going to see a change in the Lebanese issue. These forces will not find anyone to support them internationally because everyone is at war with the extremist groups, including the Russians, the Chinese, and the Europeans.
Note the crafty wording as he goes on to warn Syria of its imminent loss of its allies and of looming world prosecution, due to its alleged use of the extremist groups at Nahr el-Bared; groups that in fact, happened to be Wahabi Salafis with 300 Saudi nationals in their ranks. As Syria’s allies did not conform to his ultimatum, he later makes a rather desperate accusation that it “was actually Syria, more than anyone else in the world, that has defeated the US in Iraq,” in his article titled Syria, Sleeping with the Fundamentalists dated May 26th, 2008, in which he goes:
لا أحد يجهل أن تسمين وتربية الحركات الأصولية في منطقتنا، شيعية كانت أم سنية، نتيجته فوضى مدمرة. معاركها محتومة بحكم طبيعتها الدينية، والشواهد أمامنا عديدة من المغرب الى السعودية. وما زاد في حيرة الكثيرين، قدرة دمشق على استخدام هذه الحركات الأكثر تطرفا في العالم، من أجل مواجهة الأميركيين في العراق، أو التحكم في لبنان، أو إدارة الصراع في الأراضي الفلسطينية المحتلة.
No one is ignorant to the fact that the raising and fattening of fundamentalist groups in our region, be those Shiite or Sunni, inevitably leads to devastating chaos. With imminent fighting due to its religious nature [sic], and we do in fact have many examples in front of us from Morocco to Saudi Arabia. But what’s really surprising, is the ability Damascus has to use the most extremist of groups in the world, in order to fight the Americans in Iraq, or to control Lebanon, or to manage the struggle in the occupied Palestinian territories.
Lest you got carried away reading this convoluted peace, this is a Saudi journalist, preaching the secular Syrians about the malice of raising and nourishing terrorist and extremist religious groups. He was writing that article while his country’s National Security Advisor, prince Bandar, according to the Guardian here and here, was making it very clear to British officials, that his country would “cut off intelligence on terrorists if investigations into him and his family was not stopped.” The British took Bandar’s statements so seriously, that “Investigators said they were given to understand there would be "another 7/7" and the loss of ‘British lives on British streets’ if they carried on delving into the payments.” If that is not a clear “use of terrorism” to arm twist a Western nation, then I don’t know what is.
In the last few days, you could not listen to Alarabiya for one minute without hearing sectarian language from their anchors or their almost completely single-sided guest array. The examples are too many to mention, and yet, this is Abdelrahman Al-Rashed; the top-brass journalist of the Saudi media industry, who is marketed as a liberal and is (by-far) the most professional of Saudi journalists. He now leads the MBC ensemble including Alarabiya TV station, constituting with Asharq Alawsat the most competent and most respectful of media institutions that the Saudis have (Wish el-Basta). It’s all steeply downhill from here.
Second layer outlets such as Alarabiya online and Elaph web site are targeted at different recipient sectors and thus use different tools and tactics. As an example, both use sexually appealing reports and imagery on a regular basis to attract more traffic. Visit the sites any time and you are guaranteed to find content that’s specifically tailored to the perceived whims of their intended audience. The subject of choice at Alarabiya at the time of this writing is an investigation of whether or not women’s public baths in Damascus are actually a cover for clandestine Lesbian relationships, and another on the First Arab Movie on Lesbian Love. Now that they have your attention (note the number of replies to the subject) – and keeping to our discussion of their position vis-à-vis Syria, you’re very likely to find much harsher articles and extremely cruel reader comments targeted at Syria and the Lebanese Opposition. Here, one can expect to find the odd Ikhwani (members of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood movement,) typically living in Saudi Arabia or working for some Saudi sponsored “Islamic” organization somewhere. You’re also likely to find the March 14 variety, and just about anyone who has something bad to say about the Syrian regime, the Lebanese Opposition, or Iran. The job of the editors at these sites seems limited to clipping out not just attacks on Saudi Arabia, but also any counter arguments that might attempt to point out the political nature of the conflicts. Elaph, having lower readership than Alarabiya, takes the liberty of editing your comments for you before posting them. The combination of targeted marketing techniques, the abundance of essayists, and the uneven handedness in editing makes a potent combination. Reading hundreds of notoriously sectarian comments on a daily basis has also taken its toll on the collective Syrian psyche.
Third layer channels, which have still a different readership, sink even lower. The Kuwaiti newpaper Alseyassah, described by the notoriously anti-Syria columnist Michael Young as bring “close to King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia”, has made a career of repeatedly quoting “extremely intimate and reliable sources” inside Syria for fantastic “news.” Its news about Syria usually targets the Syrian economy, the availability of goods in Syrian markets, and often Bashar’s direct inner circle. In the past few years, headlines have read “Six months, and it’ll be all over in Syria,” and “Bashar has a nervous breakdown in anticipation of a similar fate as that of Saddam” and “Syrians hording in the streets for food, in anticipation of an imminent American strike”. Leachate from this shabby and tasteless publication ironically feeds a large number of seemingly more restrained outlets. Lebanese March 14 newspapers and sympathizers including Khaddam’s site, regularly quote Alseyassah for “news”. Almost a hundred percent of Alseyassah’s reports have been refuted as bogus and totally unfounded. In fact, this layer of media is so outrageous, that it has repelled many Syrians away from their initial sympathizing with the March 14th movement. The comedy show La yumall on Al-Mustaqbal has made a career of mocking the Syrian accent, the supposed Syrian demeanour, and even their depiction of a Syrian’s physical features (the actor always put on very heavy eye browses and talks in ridiculously exaggerated Syrian dialect.) Having said that, Alseyassah and similar outlets continue to take their position in today’s spectrum of Arab media.
In today’s Asharq Alawsat, Al-Rashed writes “Today, 200 million Arabs see him [Nasrallah] fighting the Sunni enemy. I repeat: The Sunni Enemy, the Sunni Enemy, the Sunni Enemy.” He totally ignores and does not report that both sides of the conflict have followers of all sects within their ranks. The kind of hatred he and his media empire are unleashing is resulting in Sunnis killing Sunnis, as Hariri’s thugs butchered up to 15 fellow Lebanese of the Syrian Socialist National Party (SSNP) in Halaba, Lebanon. Most of the victims were actually Sunnis. In order to promote the failing March 14 group, this man and his government do not mind to set Lebanon on fire.
Storm Rocks the Ship
So there we have it. A media empire spanning literally hundreds of publications and satellite TV stations, and covering interlacing and overlapping sectors of the Arab public audience, and one that’s not only there to promote Saudi Arabia’s interests, but is also on the offensive against Syria and the Lebanese Opposition. An excellent source of information about the Saudi media can be found in Paul Cochrane’s article Saudi Arabia’s Media Influence.
Here, we're looking at a very important question. What proportion of a newspaper's, or a TV station's job is to report news and events, and what proportion is it to manufacture public opinion. How do you distinguish between press that's run and funded by a country's governing elite, and propaganda? Why does everyone seem to agree that Saddam's media was propaganda, but not Fox News or its Arabic replica Alarabiya? These are big questions that I'm not going to attempt to answer here. But I think it's fair to say that the media is an extension of language, law, religion, politics, and other fields of human endeavour that still have no scientific or precise definitions. The use of modern media is an extension of the use of spoken, scripted, and printed word that we have been using for millennia, only now it's orders of magnitude louder. Modern media is an interactive, dynamic process that receives inputs from its domains of operation (society, policy makers, history, interest groups) but also projects output onto that domain with an intention of achieving varying degrees of influence.
With that in mind, let us try to examine what influence the Saudi owned, sponsored, or inspired media outlets may be trying to achieve. To start with, there are a number of very important domestic objects. Read Andrew Hammond's Saudi Arabia Media Empire: Keepiong the Masses at Home for a review of some of the most important objectives of Saudi Arabian media network. However, following 9/11 and the extreme pressure and embarrassment that the Saudis were subjected to, radical measures had to be taken. Where the American TV station Al-Hurra (the Free) has failed miserably, Al-Rashed's MBC channels and Alarabiya has had much better success in promoting the US administration’s views. When the MBC ensemble was first announced, the Arab audience was promised something spectacular. The ads ran for weeks "now, you will watch what they get to watch! and see what they get to see!" 'They' in the ad, meant the Americans! The Arab recipient of this message was supposed to be taken with awe and gratitude, that now he or she would see American shows just as the average American does.
That was the undertaking of the TV network that’s owned by the very country that bans women from driving. The country that in 2007 had the highest world-wide number of executions per capita, and the country whose state-backed and state-paid religious police are so stringent about girls coming in contact with boys that they’d rather let them burn than have firemen rescue them. Do you get that? This is a country that spends hundreds of millions of dollars a year to bring Friends to its public, while simultaneously spending equally enormous amounts of money jailing that public, for sitting at a public café with a woman. Are you confused? You shouldn’t be. Control and mass manipulation is what they’re after in both cases. By showing non-stop, around the clock Hollywood hits (fully translated and quite new too,) exclusively American children’s cartoons, in addition to Oprah, Dr. Phil, and American Idol, Al-Rashed and Co. have created a very attractive packaging that attracts millions of Arab viewers. Unfortunately, it has been using the attractive packaging to try and destabilize the Syrian regime and its allies by spreading sectarian hatred and inflammation throughout the region. Similar dynamics – in message and packaging – can be shown for the other media outlets mentioned earlier, most of which are Saudi sponsored in one way or another.
Although these are clearly the tactics of desperation from a bad loser, messages sent by this media empire do find ears, unfortunately. The most serious damage caused by the onslaught with respect to Syria can probably be divided into two main parts: Syrian (as well as Lebanese and Arab) public opinion, and Western research institutions and decision makers.
In the weeks and months that followed Hariri's assassination in 2005, the above-described media peaked in the toll it took on the Syrian public opinion. With lack of adequate Syrian response, the Syrian public was pinned to reports by Alarabiya, Almustaqbal, and many others, relentlessly attacking the Syrian regime and spreading rumours of an imminent US invasion of Damascus. It was so stressful on the Syrian public that at one point, the Syrian Lira lost about 20% of its value, the lowest point it had reached in over 15 years. Although it did adjust back after intervention from the Central Bank of Syria, many investments had already been scared away. People stopped spending, were genuinely worried and braced for the worst. With utter irresponsibility, these networks continued to gush wave after wave of sectarian frenzy, recklessly pouring gasoline on the worst fears of Syrian, Lebanese, and Arab masses everywhere.
Lebanon in particular has been hardest hit by the sectarian angle the Saudis excel at, although a common consensus not to drift into another civil war has been stronger than Al-Rashed and Co. Nonetheless, the billions of dollars spent have been successful in feeding deep mistrust and fear along every possible differentiation line that exists in the region, be that sectarian, ethnic, religious, or national. Fear is a force to reckon with. It can build irrational worlds in the minds of targeted groups and individuals, derailing life plans and causing people to make desolate, uninformed decisions. Fear can also manifest itself as a potent recruiting tool, reaping a constant supply of confused and desperate people, ripe and ready for manipulation.
Another implication of Syria’s absence on the media front, is that others get to set what is said about it in the international media.
Tomorrow: Part II The Syrian Response – Shy and Feeble