Will the regime propaganda succeed in triggering clashes between the Damascene and the people of Ghouta?
Enab Baladi’s Investigation Team
The few kilometers between Damascus and its eastern Ghouta did not allow for the cries of more than 350,000 civilians besieged for years to be heard by most residents of the capital, where the regime took further advantage of the shells that were used to bombard them to further widen a social rift that separates the two parts of Damascus.
Since the military operations led by the Syrian regime in Ghouta started, pictures and videos swept social media networks and showed the unprecedented magnitude of the disaster that hit that geographical area. The situation was met with stories and counter-recordings promoted by loyal official and non-official media, in order to justify the regime’s ground and air campaigns. The aim was to communicate an image of the inhabitants of the capital that goes in line with the regime’s agendas, under the slogan “decisiveness to rid Damascus of terrorists”.
Polls, video recordings and field correspondents, in addition to various media networks, all these reported the events as the regime wanted them to be reported. The latter took advantage of some victims of missiles in Damascus. It also spread the news that some of the capital’s people in the storming of Ghouta, for the sensitivity of the location and the demographic composition of Damascus and its countryside require a formal and informal media impetus to accompany the military operations on the ground to achieve some “victory”. .
The shells on Damascus overwhelm the victims of Ghouta
The term “decisiveness” has been uttered so many times by a good number of women interviewed by the Syrian News Channel. These women were presented as relatives of missile victims. On February 23, a video footage broadcasted by the channel showed three women, “May Allah never have mercy on them, the army and the president should eliminate them, enough is enough, ” said one of the women interviewed by the Syrian news agency, standing next to an injured child. Media officials considered this to be a pre-programmed plan to support the official narrative.
In the same recording, two women demanded that the cease-fire be halted and that military operations continue until “militants are eliminated.” They repeated the words “we should fight till the end, no one understands us, not even the United Nations. We are the only victims, and the West is safe.” The situation was exploited by the official media, which spoke to those affected during the trauma.
The factions in Ghouta and the Syrian regime have been accusing each other for years about the party responsible for the bombing of the capital, which killed dozens of civilians, while the regime exploited the situation to show it as “tragic” in Damascus. It ignored the killing of more than 560 civilians after bombing Ghouta cities and towns in just eight days.
In a remarkable development during the recent campaign, at least two people were killed and others wounded in a bombardment of Rokn al-Din area in central Damascus. The regime and local media said it was caused by a rocket shell originating from eastern Ghouta, while published video interviews talked about an aircraft rocket which mistakenly targeted the region for the first time, causing considerable material damage.
The official version about operation eastern Ghouta was supported by loyal media through video interviews. “National Defense” broadcasted one last February, and focused on three fighters, one of them from Damascus and the other from the eastern region, while the third comes from Ghouta, as his accent shows.
The fighters justified the military operations and the reason why they participate in them and said that they want “to confront the injustice that has befallen the people of Damascus and save them from being bombarded.”
The official media went even further and used scenes from a video recording of a “Cinema Make-up” workshop in Gaza City, Palestine and said that they were “acting scenes” in eastern Ghouta, where they fabricate scenes of dead and wounded people in Ghouta.
It also promoted the Russian story about the opening of humanitarian passageways, and accused the factions of obstructing the exit of civilians, which Ghouta factions claimed to Enab Baladi was totally wrong and was part of “forced displacement”. This coincided with a poll broadcasted by “Sham FM” radio close to the regime, under the title “If you have an empty room in the house, are you ready to receive a family from the eastern Ghouta fleeing from militants?”, And all those interviewed by the radio correspondent said they were ready to do so.
Chemical Weapons Propaganda
Two months before the recent campaign against Ghouta was launched, the regime media kept claiming that the military factions possessed chemical weapons in Ghouta, which are intended to be used against civilians. This was done in order to avoid suspicions or accusations about the regime forces in case they actually use these weapons as it did in several other incidents, some of which had international appeal, and the last of which was Khan Shaykhun in Idlib countryside, 2017.
The official Syrian News Channel posted on its Facebook page two different opinion polls. The first one was posted on February 22, and it asked: “Do you think that the White Helmets that the British intelligence formed in 2013 will carry out another chemical attack in eastern Ghouta?” 68% of the interviewees said they think it will.
|Despite the fact that the truce demanded by the Security Council under Resolution No. 2401, followed by another adopted by Russia on Tuesday, February 27, stopped the bombardments on Damascus, it did not contribute to stopping them on the cities and towns of Ghouta, nor did it stop attempts by the Assad forces and allied militias to invade eastern Damascus.|
The poll was repeated in a different way on March 1. And so the question was: “Do you think that the use of chemical weapons by terrorists and white helmets against civilians in Ghouta is beneficial to their operators in the West for political and media investment to accuse the Syrian authorities?” The percentage of those who approved reached 74%, 17 hours after it was posted, but the result is far from being true, since most of the channel’s followers are loyal to the regime.
Such manipulation was not only limited to the official News Channel, but other pro-regime networks also took part in it. These included Damascus Today, Syrian Correspondents, and others run by military militias on the ground, in addition to personal contributions from media professionals from the regime’s institutions, headed by the official television correspondent, Jaafar Younis, and many others.
The propaganda coincided with the UN Security Council session on Ghouta by the end of last February. The statements made by the Permanent Representative of the United Nations, Bashar Jaafari, raised concerns about the use of chemical weapons before March 13, especially in the Ghouta area. This is what Jaafari did in the past, along with Russian official support for this version of the story.
This was met with an escalation in international reaction that corresponded with more serious warnings from the US, Britain, and France to use military force in case the regime was found guilty of using chemical weapons was proven. It also corresponded with calls for the establishment of a new investigation committee, amid talks about North Korea supporting the regime with weapons, that the latter denied saying that Washington “fabricated an argument to put pressure on the country”.
White Helmets Demonized
Since the “Syrian Civil Defense,” also called “White Helmets,” was established in 2013 in areas beyond the control of the Syrian regime, the latter worked to “demonize” this organization, for the sympathy and the international support it received as an “impartial organization working for civilians who are mainly affected by the bombing.” This is what hundreds of video recordings have proven.
The latest allegations made by the official media against the White Helmets had to do with the organization “getting involved in acting out scenes of chemical bombing of civilians”, at a time when medical sources of Enab Baladi documented actual bombardment of Ghouta by the regime forces with weapons that led to cases of suffocation. The sources said that civilians, including children, were suffocated after the town of Chifonia was bombarded with chlorine gas on the second day of the campaign.
The repeated accusation of “White Helmets” was carried out by the regime because of the organization’s work in the “liberated” areas and its emergence as a key party documenting massacres, bombing and chemical targeting in particular, especially the attack on Ghouta in 2013 and the recent Khan Shaykhun attack, which was documented by human rights centers and local and international media.
Enab Baladi detected pro-regime pages promoting information and claiming that “White Helmets is an organization funded by American and British organizations, in order to communicate with the terrorists of al-Nusra.” This has been markedly active on March 1, which happened to be the International Day of Civil Defense.
The origins of the term “propaganda”
The origins of the term Propaganda are to be found in Latin. It was first used in the early days of the modern era by the Catholic Church during the Thirty Years War in Europe. Then it was prominently featured during world wars and the Cold War which preceded it and involved America and Russia. Since then, it held a political connotation.
Propaganda aims at influencing public opinion, and often has a negative and non-objective meaning in politics, relying on misappropriation and concealment of facts.
This type of propaganda contributes to controlling public opinion, pushing it to support one side of a conflict and adopting false ideas about the other or the enemy.
Propaganda promoters often pose a problem of a different kind usually in order to pass the solutions they want. If the authorities want to launch a military campaign, they would claim that the lands they are invading pose a threat to others, such as possessing nuclear weapons, as was the case of the US invasion of Iraq. Authorities may also claim that they are fighting terrorism, just like the Russian military intervention in Syria.
Through their media outlets, authorities claim to achieve victory and present untrue realities in order to influence the decisions of people who will lose hope and give up, such as the propaganda promoted by the Syrian regime since the beginning of the revolution, “Khalsat” (Done).
This type of black propaganda contributes to the obstruction of justice in many countries of the world whose people have been subject to oppression and extermination, and because of the proliferation of news fabricated by the authorities, the truth about these events can easily be lost.
The Regime’s Favourite Game: Mixing facts
The scenarios put forward by the Syrian regime’s media to describe the events in Syria have repeatedly shown the very limited understanding of the nature of political power, which is expected. However, what seemed to be strange over the past few years is the presence of a pro-regime segment that accepts its media messages without questioning or trying to be open its mind on other scenarios.
These media messages do not only stop at the level of trying to strengthen the position of the Syrian regime, its forces and loyal militias, but go beyond that to reach the stage of “psychological warfare”. In order to achieve this, it makes use of different arguments and pretexts, although they are often unprofessional, but spare no effort to reach a segment of local and global public.
The Syrian journalist Murad Al-Quwatli explains some of the audience’s’ acceptance of media propaganda as an attempt to find justifications for accepting the scenes of blood and massacres. During an interview with Enab Baladi he stated that “this is clearly manifested through the comments on social media websites, which can be read on pro-regime pages. We would discover then that their writings are a restatement and repetition of what the regime media outlets have said to justify the massacres committed in Ghouta, using arguments such as the existence of terrorists, takfiris, agents and traitors who deserve to be killed and crushed mercilessly and relentlessly. ”
While this acceptance is a psychological defense mechanism, it can be said that it is not based on a firm or genuine conviction of the professionalism and credibility of the media loyal to the system.
Syrian journalist Ahmed Hamza is likely to go with the last possibility and believes that the majority of Syrians do not trust the media system. He stated “in case an honest academic survey was conducted to see whether the Syrian public, with all its different orientations, trusts the media or not, it would prove that what these sources are broadcasting or publishing whether news or any other things are not credible.”
However, on the backdrops of the dialectic of the public’s satisfaction or dissatisfaction with the messages of the regime media, it can be noted that the regime succeeded, even partially, with regard to the psychological impact on its followers, by instigating hatred among the components of Syrian society.
The Seeds of Sedition
The Syrian journalist Murad Al-Quwatli believes that the Syrian media coverage of the recent events in Ghouta has contributed to the promotion of hatred and division. He explained his point of view saying that “there are at least eight million people in Damascus, so when events in Ghouta get sparked and bomb shelling begins and the regime intentionally visits Al-Rabwah area to photograph some families eating food on the banks of Barada, what is the aim behind this? He wants to tell the people of Ghouta to take a look at yourselves while being subject to death and destruction whereas those who live in the city I’m controlling are living happily. ”
“It is not the case”, Al-Quwatli adds, “for most of the inhabitants of eastern Ghouta who were displaced from their homes moved to Damascus, and the people of Damascus have defied the regime since the beginning of the revolution and took part in demonstrations in the most dangerous and secure places in the capital. We have been witnesses to the recent solidarity campaign with Ghouta, and in case security forces caught one of the participants we will certainly hear the news about his elimination. ”
Al-Quwatli pointed out that the regime propaganda relies on Syrian weakness for “a bullet is the least possible harm one can suffer in exchange for a word in Damascus, but torture for months in detention and then death is the worst thing that can happen.”
As for Ahmad Hamza, he stressed that “in Damascus there are hundreds of thousands of sympathizers with the people of Ghouta, but unfortunately there are also those who are influenced by the content of the news of regime media and spread an inciting speech about the people of Ghouta, as we have seen over the past two weeks. Therefore, Ghouta people had to reproduce a similar speech as a reaction. It is worth noting that” there is no speech produced by activists or public figures in eastern Ghouta inciting harm to civilians in Damascus.”
Journalist Murad Al-Quwatli believes that since the beginning of the revolution, the regime has applied the theory of interpellation among loyalists. It is one of the theories of media that studies how recipients are influenced through a long cumulative effect. It has illustrated what is happening in Syria as “a war against terrorism”, described all what is standing against the regime as terrorist and created pretexts and distorted truth in order to create a mental image for its loyal recipients, and to deliberately replicate such mental images in order to entrench them in the minds of its followers, until it gained their support for mass killings and the way it dealt with cities outside of its control. ”
Ahmed Hamza agrees with Al-Quwatli, saying that “the media of the regime has worked for five years and more, to demonize the people of various areas that have gone out of control of the regime.”
He added that “this demonization has dispelled the possibility that inhabitants of the areas controlled by the regime would sympathize with the civilian victims killed by aviation or artillery and missile shelling outside the areas of controlled by the regime. Sympathizing with the victims is rather like a crime, for according to the propaganda of regime media outlets it is similar to sympathizing with demons and rogue terrorists … “.
The Regime and Global Media Outlets
Although Western media have sought to investigate the reality of the situation in Syria through various viewpoints and stories, the news the regime delivers are often subject to skepticism by most of them. Perhaps the tragedy caused by the regime to millions of Syrians is the most obvious event in the media.
“The media of the regime has, in some cases, been able to communicate its narrative to Western societies more than the opposition did, but the impact of this cannot be accurately measured. If we consider that the regime’s media could influence Hezbollah’s audience or Iran or Russia, it is not a success, because the media of these parties deal with the facts in Syria in the same way as the regime. ”
“I think the world’s professional media have no confidence in the regime’s version of the story, especially as it is classified among the worst countries in press freedom index,” he said.
Journalist Ahmad Hamza pointed out that the regime did not necessarily create credibility for the Arab and Western audience, but it at least has managed to cause confusion in understanding the reality of what is going on in Syria through the process of mixing facts and framing the events.
Hamza added: “With the allegations of the regime’ media outlets, the Western audience, and even the Arab audience sometimes, get confused when they delve into the details of what is really going on. Thus, the regime’s media outlets have partially succeeded in fabricating the truth, which has become blurred and in which narratives and counter-narratives sharply contradict each other.”
Reform in the Syrian Media Presupposes Political Change
In 2008, one year after Addounia TV, a private sector channel, was launched, it had already given its audience enough evidence that it was nothing but an improved version of the Syrian Arab Television, and hopes to liberate the Syrian media from the Syrian regime faded away then.
At that time, Syrian businessman Ghassan Aboud was preparing to announce a new TV channel that works independently from the regime, which would be closer to the community and the youth, and would present a superior content to other Syrian media outlets in terms of content, visual image and ideological discourse. This made the launch of Orient TV a compensation for the disappointment caused by the Addounia TV.
Over the next two years, the number of Syrian private channels has significantly increased. The newspapers sector has witnessed a relative recovery with the emergence of private newspapers. Some websites have witnessed a greater recovery, despite the low level of the allowed freedom of expression back then.
However, the attempts that have constituted the first steps towards private Syrian media outlets which would suit the various segments of society were like the “anesthetic injections” the Syrian regime has used in the face of political change attempts, which started to appear in public in 2006. What indicates this is the return of the Syrian media outlets, at some point after the revolution, to adopt the regime’s discourse to the extent of conforming with it and promoting its narratives.
During the revolution, the categorization of media outlets according to the private and public sectors was no longer practical. It had rather become only based on the political affiliation. Most of both governmental and private media outlets in the regime-controlled areas took the form of official media, and they had been commonly defined as “regime-loyal media outlets” or “regime-affiliated media outlets.”
Accordingly, the media in Syria has not been liberated from the regime’s control. It has rather approached it and moved away from it in small distances and under the direct supervision of the authority. This raises questions about the possibility to reform the media system in the future.
In view of the Arab States’ experiences in this context, it can be said that the political regimes in most Arab countries have never ceased their control over the media, even in countries that have experienced revolutions. This may be due to the lack of the available alternatives and the difficulty in controlling the involved broad legislative frameworks.
In Egypt, for example, governmental and pro-regime media witnessed a wider spread, especially after the current president’s, Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, coup. The imposed restrictions on the media have increased and the new laws failed to grant some freedom to journalists.
In Libya, the media witnessed a significant increase in levels of “hate discourse” after the overthrow of Gaddafi’ regime. It has turned from being a mere pro-leader media, to media that threatens civil peace, amid several parties’ urgent attempts to reform the media system.
In other Arab countries that have not experienced similar revolutions, the audiovisual communication bodies suffer from a lack of independence from governments, which has a negative impact on public media performance in these countries.
The legislative rules of the concerned bodies with the organization of the media are probably one of the biggest problems that the Arab world media are facing in general, and which prevent the democratization of the media and its liberation of the burdens of the ruling regimes, according to a study which was conducted by Professor of Information and Communication at Al Akhawayn University in Morocco, Zaid Bouziane, and was published in Al Jazeera Center for Studies website in 2016.
The aforementioned applies to the Syrian situation. The information law which was issued in 2011, after the Syrian revolution, represents one of the most obvious proofs of the attempt to restrict the media. Despite the provisions of the facilitation of licensing and freedom of expression, the chapter on the criminalization of anything that threatens national identity and sovereignty, holds the essential controlling keys of the media.
Accordingly, the talk about reforming the media system in Syria cannot be settled for now. It is subject to the change that will affect the political system, and the consequent introduction of a new constitution and special laws and legislations.
Rigidity in the official media situation will allow the spread of “alternative” media outlets that would seek to replace the official media in the event of a political transition. This will increase the unclarity of the Syrian media’s future which is dependent on two options: either rooted media outlets that resist change and prevent freedoms, or newly-emerging media outlets that are not based on solid foundations.
Syria: The regime is Spreading Hatred among People
Enab Baladi has conducted an opinion poll on its website to survey the Syrian people’s opinions about the role of the official media in spreading hatred among the residents of Damascus and those of Eastern Ghouta, following the recent military escalation and subsequent accusations on both sides of responsibility for the safety of civilians.
That series of accusations, which some have described as “Fitnah”, necessitated an observation of the role of official Syrian media, in particular, in igniting or extinguishing this fuse, especially with the publication of videos of people in Damascus demanding a decisive battle to rid them of “terrorists” in Ghouta.
The question Enab Baladi has published on its website is the following: “Do you think that the official Syrian media is trying to turn the battle in Ghouta into a war between the residents of Damascus and those of Ghouta?”
63 percent of the total 2000 respondents considered that the Syrian media played a significant role in shaking the sympathy of the residents of Damascus with the massacres the Syrian regime has been committing against the residents of Ghouta.
Insaf Nasr said: “Yes, this criminal regime has long been playing with the emotions of the residents of Damascus. It showers the capital with missiles and says that the rebels of Ghouta are the ones who are bombing it.”
Ghada Azazi supported what Insaf said by saying “For years, the regime has been carrying out bombings and throwing missiles in Damascus, and accusing Ghouta rebels of doing so under the name of (terrorists).”
Ghada continued by saying: “Many people have a high level of awareness. With their cleverness they can analyze matters and the considerations of events, and they can spot the media’s lies. The others are like mules, they do not look except when their bridles are attached to them, especially those who suffer from a permanent blind applause syndrome.”
17% of the respondents considered that the official Syrian media did not play a role in igniting conflict between the residents of Damascus and those of Ghouta. Salwa Mahmoud said: “The war was going to happen anyway, whether with the help of the media or not.”
20% of the respondents could not determine their position towards the role of the official Syrian media in this regard.
There were calls among the survey participants to not to be dragged behind what is being promoted by the regime’s media to spread fitnah among the residents of Damascus and those of Ghouta.
Bassem Al-Zu’bi said “The residents of Damascus are those of Ghouta, and most of those who are now in Damascus are not the original residents of Damascus.” He continued: “What is Damascus without its Ghouta?”
Nuha Abu Dara’ said: “I wish people use their minds a little bit to understand the whole game, which is making people kill each other.”