Media coverage of the Syrian Civil War
Since the start of the Syrian Civil War, both sides use social media to try to disqualify their opponent by framing or indicating them with negative labels. They use negative terms such as: 'Syrian regime', 'armed gangs/terrorists’, ‘Syrian government/US State Department propaganda’, ‘biased’, ‘US/Western/foreign involvement’. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, given the complexity of the Syrian conflict, media bias in reporting remains a key challenge, plaguing the collection of useful data and misinforming researchers and policymakers regarding the actual events taking place.
As in the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, the Internet played a major role in the organization and coverage of the protests/armed-uprising. As of 2011 the largest Facebook page in support of the Syrian uprising was "The Syrian Revolution 2011", which claimed more than 383,000 followers. The page, co-founded by Fida al-Sayed, reports on news related to the uprising and provides general guidelines for protests.
As of 2015 the largest Facebook page in support of the Syrian President Bashar-al-Assad has more than 2,958,595 followers.
Since international news media was banned in Syria, the main source of second-hand information/dis-information was private videos usually taken by shaky mobile phone cameras and uploaded to YouTube. Such videos were difficult to verify independently, and several TV stations showed older footage from Iraq and Lebanon, which was claimed to have been filmed in Syria.
As if to add badly needed credibility to the videos, protestors often explicitly mention the date and location of the scene. Sometimes current newspaper issues are also shown. The largest collection of these videos is found on OnSyria, which as of 2011 had more than 200,000 videos.
Between January 2012 and September 2013, over a million videos documenting the war have been uploaded, and they have received hundreds of millions of views. The Wall Street Journal states that the "unprecedented confluence of two technologies—cellphone cams and social media—has produced, via the instant upload, a new phenomenon: the YouTube war." The New York Times states that online videos have "allowed a widening war to be documented like no other."
Prominent videos include the rebel commander Abu Sakkar cutting organs from the dead body of a Syrian soldier and putting one of them in his mouth, "as if he is taking a bite out of it". He called rebels to follow his example and terrorize the Alawite sect, which mostly backs Assad.
Both sides have been distributing on social media videos and photos of violence while falsely claiming that the presented atrocities had been committed by their opponent in this civil war: later it turned out to be footage from conflicts in other countries.
Syrian Hero Boy
A viral video showing a Syrian boy rescuing a girl under gunfire, watched online by millions of viewers, was faked by a Norwegian film crew, according to its director. Posted on YouTube, the "Syrian Hero Boy" video was shot on location in Malta in the summer of 2014 with professional actors directed by 34-year-old Norwegian Lars Klevberg who hoped to provoke debates about media distortion and context children in war zones.
Censorship of events
Since demonstrations began in March 2011, according to many western media sources, the Syrian government has allegedly restricted independent news coverage, barring foreign free press outlets and arresting reporters who try to cover protests. However, these allegations were never confirmed.
Without always waiting for some of the information to be confirmed, international media have used footage shot by civilians, who would often upload the files on the internet and YouTube. Most of the footage used was actually footage of bombings in Iraq and Libya.
Jonathan Steele, a Guardian columnist, asserted that western media tend to suppress or not report on ‘inconvenient’ facts, such as a respectable opinion poll held in Syria late 2011, finding out that 55% of Syrians inside Syria wanted Assad to stay in office, which disharmonized with the then dominant view in western countries that Assad had to go.
Propaganda and misinformation
Propaganda has been used by the Syrian government since the beginning of the conflict. SANA, the Syrian government's official news agency, often refers to the FSA and ISIS as "armed gangs" or "terrorists" - while other media sources maintain that only part of the opposition is ‘extremists’. President Assad has characterized the opposition as armed terrorist groups with Islamist "takfiri" extremist motives, portraying himself as the last guarantee for a secular government form. Syrian public school instructors teach students that the ongoing conflict is a foreign conspiracy.
The Syrian foreign ministry called the U.S. government's statements in 2012 concerning the danger of the Syrian government using chemical weapons against civilians a myth they invented to launch a campaign against Syria and “a joke”, thus accusing the U.S. of propaganda on that subject; which accusation, and denial of above-mentioned danger, 'are in turn of course again examples of propaganda'.
Both Syrian public-owned and private-owned media has alleged that outlets like Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya, BBC and France 24 are conspiring against the Syrian government to disrupt its stability. Syria is ranked the 3rd most repressive country in the world in terms of press freedom by the Committee to Protect Journalists, and the 4th most repressive by Reporters Without Borders.
It has been said that SANA television interviews sometimes use government supporters 'disguised as locals' who stand near sites of destruction and claim that they were caused by rebel fighters.
In 2016, it was revealed through emails of Hillary Clinton that the US government collaborated with Google and aj-Jazeera to encourage defections from the Syrian government through various Internet tools that disseminate information.
A Gay Girl In Damascus was a fictional character or hoax persona created and maintained by American Tom MacMaster. The identity was presented as a Syrian-American blogger, identifying herself as a lesbian on her weblog A Gay Girl In Damascus and blogging in support of increased civil and political freedom for Syrians. During the 2011 Syrian uprising, a posting on the blog purportedly by "Amina's" cousin claimed that Amina was abducted on 6 June 2011. This sparked a strong backlash from the LGBT community and was covered widely in mainstream media. The hoax has been described as misinformation and propaganda, and "Amina's cause" was championed by the U.S. State Department before it was exposed.
Attacks on journalists
It has been maintained that, by October 2012, 'more than hundred professional or citizen journalists' had reportedly died in the Syrian Civil War. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 13 journalists were killed in work-related incidents during the first eighteen months of the uprising. During the same period, Reporters Without Borders said a total of 33 journalists were killed. Examples are Marie Colvin who was killed by an explosion during the battle of Homs, but at least one, French journalist Gilles Jacquier, was killed by rebel mortar fire.
Except for those hand-picked by the government, journalists have been banned from reporting in Syria. Those who have entered the country regardless have been targeted. Within a month of the protests taking off, at least seven local and international journalists were detained, and at least one of them was beaten. 'Citizen journalist' Mohammed Hairiri was arrested in April 2012, tortured in prison, and sentenced to death in May 2012 for giving an interview for Al Jazeera. Jordanian Salameh Kaileh was tortured and detained in deplorable conditions before being deported.
NBC News team kidnapping
On 13 December 2012, NBC News reporter Richard Engel and his five crew members, Aziz Akyavaş, Ghazi Balkiz, John Kooistra, Ian Rivers and Ammar Cheikh Omar, were abducted in Syria. Having escaped after five days in captivity, Engel said he believed that a Shabiha group loyal to al-Assad was behind the abduction, and that the crew was freed by the Ahrar ash-Sham group five days later. Engel's account was however challenged from early on. In April 2015, NBC had to revise the kidnapping account, following further investigations by the New York Times, which suggested that the NBC team "was almost certainly taken by a Sunni criminal element affiliated with the Free Syrian Army," rather than by a loyalist Shia group.
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