Wed 12 Aug 2020

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Pro-government media as a Security branch to deal with the COVID-19 crisis

Image from inside SANA agency building – 10 April 2020 (Facebook page of the agency)

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Abdullah al-Khatib | Taim al-Haj | Ali Darwish

In the frame of developing its “anti-germs” expertise, the Syrian regime resorted, in its fight against the coronavirus (COVID-19), to mechanisms similar to those used during the Syrian war, this time through the use of its so-called “heroes of the Syrian Arab Army,” and the support of “Internal Security Agency” represented by “a policeman called Younes.”

In one of his interviews on national television, the Minister of Health in the Syrian regime’s government, talked about this vision before the first infections were reported. However, the regime’s long-used patronizing sneer and intimidation techniques have been invested differently after the first cases of coronavirus were registered in Damascus and its surrounding areas. 

Media outlets were also well involved as tools to curb the virus, which has spread in most parts of the world, but still unable to do so freely in Syria, amid official secrecy, and government measures, which are more often of a security nature.

The Syrian media gradually mirrored the Syrian regime’s narrative, starting by ignoring to denying and then acknowledging that the coronavirus exists in Syria while overlooking its threat and finally, using it as a means to tighten security grip, and to scapegoat and justify the urgency to lift economic sanctions. 

This file sheds light on the Syrian regime and its pro-media outlets dealing with the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), that has begun to spread in Syria; first through carrying out an analysis of media content and news coverage related to the virus. Secondly, discussing the stages of the regime’s rhetoric change with experts and specialists. Finally, the file will highlight the aspects of this misuse.

A policeman on the streets of Damascus during the night curfew – March 2020 (Ministry of Interior of the Syrian Regime)

“SANA” as a case study 

How did the Coronavirus issue affect Syrian media discourse?

Enab Baladi held an analysis of the Syrian media discourse on the coronavirus issue, taking the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA)  as a case study example. Enab Baladi conducted thorough research on one-month news coverage, starting from 10 March to 10 April of this year, which led to the deduction of several conclusions regarding the quantity and content of the broadcasted information. 

In a month, “SANA” broadcasted about 419 news on its official website, 224 of which were about coronavirus (equivalent to 53.46 percent) of the study sample. 

One hundred seventy-one of this coronavirus related news (which make up 76 percent), tackled the issue inside Syria. In comparison, the other remaining 54 (almost 24 percent ) focused on the global spread of the virus, mainly countries like Iran, the United States, and China.

COVID-19 inside Syria…between reassurance and warnings 

Based on Enab Baladi’s research, SANA’s coronavirus news coverage in Syria can be subcategorized into three different types: the most prominent was sending reassurance and calling for public service messages, as well as warnings next to preventive measures against the disease. In addition, there were governmental decisions and popular campaigns, where 140 out of 171 news items tackled the subject (to make up almost 81 percent).  

The second type included information circulars issued by the Syrian Ministry of Health as well as statements by the appointed Minister, Nizar Yazigi. This news section focused on the announcement of domestic infections, the virus death toll, and test results with 23 news (about 13.4 percent), out of the total news coverage. 

As for the third type, it was concerned with news related to the political and economic demands, in terms of lifting of what it called “an economic blockade” on Syria and the popular denunciation of ” the West hypocrisy.”  This news also focused on lifting “coercive” measures preventing the arrival of humanitarian aid to Syria, with a specific focus on the health sector.

SANA talked explicitly and clearly about these demands in eight different news dispatches  (4.6 percent) of the total, in a month, through the use of international statements by the European Union (EU), represented by its foreign policy commissioner, Josep Borrell, Russian ones, or even local statements by the Syrian Minister of Health and well-known figures of the Syrian society.

Minister of Interior  Muhammad al-Rahmun on an inspection tour in Damascus – 3 April 2020 (Ministry of Interior Facebook account)

COVID-19 internationally…. the US as an enemy…. Iran as an ally

Despite the diversity of its media content covering the novel coronavirus outbreak, either globally or outside the Syrian context, “SANA,” the pro-government agency focused, in most of its media coverage, on the United States, Iran, and China. 

Through its media discourse, SANA’s news reports on the US aimed to show America’s failure amid the coronavirus outbreak, through a daily display of COVID-19 statistics; the numbers of infections and death tolls. “SANA” also focused on reporting news faulting Donald Trump administration’s response to the virus, and accusing it of obstructing international efforts in this regard.

To this end, “SANA” published ten news, which constitutes 18.5 percent of the total of international news within a month. 

SANA’s media approach in covering news related to Iran, which ranks seventh with the highest number of infections and came in fifth on fatalities, was quite different from that of the US

In its coverage, “SANA” focused on showing the bright side by displaying the Iranian health-care system’s ability to withstand the virus and overcome the peak of infections. There was news on Iran’s launch of clinical tests to help find a cure for COVID-19 while accomplishing self-sufficiency in vaccine and drug production. The pro-government agency also published news related to sanctions imposed on Iran, emphasizing the urgency of lifting them. 

According to Enab Baladi’s research, “SANA” selected and published news faulting America for the virus’ outbreak in Iran, and hampering international efforts to assist it.

Based on the analysis, “SANA” published eight news (makeup 14.8 percent) of its global news coverage of COVID-19 amounting to 54 news. 

“SANA” devoted 36 international news (about 66.6 percent) out of 54 to different topics about the disease, focusing on China’s active role in the fight against the virus.

Meanwhile, the agency’s program schedule varied between material on health, economy, and Russian news feed next to statistics tracking the number of confirmed cases and death toll due to the COVID-19 around the world.

Security Terminology 

In its media coverage of the coronavirus pandemic in Syria, “SANA” employed a set of terminologies different from those used in media or the medical sector, and greatly closer to being security terminologies. 

In reporting the statement of the President of Hama University, Ziyad Sultan, the agency used the term “cell” as a reference to forming a unit tasked with visiting colleges and monitoring the implementation of the virus preventive measures.

“SANA” also employed the word “Monitor,” anyone spreading coronavirus fake news on social media, and the term “Warn” used by the Ministry of Interior urging citizens to abide by the imposed curfew.  

Meanwhile, the same term “warn” was used this time to point out to “the government team” meetings on implementing COVID-19 precautionary measures, and “monitoring” commitment to self-quarantine.

“SANA” also shared a picture calling people to report suspected cases of Covid-19 through the slogan “Report…Do not hesitate.”

SANA’s employment of these terms, reminded Syrians of the way the regime’s security apparatus treated them at the beginning of Syrian demonstrations in 2011 when people were encouraged to report and snitch on each other to security branches.

Coronavirus confirmed cases

From “Syria is fine” to “Younes the policeman”

How does the regime deal with coronavirus through its media outlets? 

Prior to 22 last March, most Syrians lived in a state of anticipation, awaiting the announcement of COVID-19 infection since most of Syria’s neighboring countries and countries with close ties with the regime such as Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon, have recorded cases of infection weeks before. However, Damascus continued receiving travelers and put no travel restrictions in place, despite international warnings to take necessary precautions against inbound travelers from countries where the coronavirus infections surged. 

Hani al-Lahham, the deputy director of communicable and chronic diseases at the Ministry of Health, confirmed on 29 last February to the local “Melody FM” radio, that two suspected coronavirus cases from Iran were transferred to al-Mujtahid hospital and were immediately quarantined, without giving further details on the date of their arrival.  

Back then, al-Lahham said that both cases recovered and they are now symptom-free and were discharged from the hospital, without confirming their infections with the virus. Al-Lahham pointed out that any suspected case coming from endemic areas in Iran, showing symptoms are transferred to hospitals equipped for the treatment of such cases. 

Last February, Enab Baladi contacted a doctor in Damascus, who confirmed that there was more than one suspected case of coronavirus in al-Mujtahid hospital, pointing out to “the great deal of discretion over the suspected infection cases.

Subsequently, the regime intensified efforts to deny recording cases on the Syrian soil; in the meantime, media outlets affiliated to some medical institutions, in the controlled regime areas, rushed into rejecting any news of recording COVID-19 infections.  

Dr. Samer Khidr, the General Director of Damascus Hospital (al-Mujtahid), concealed the existence of infections in the facility following news spread on social media regarding multiple infection cases.

After repetitive denial, the Minister of Health in the regime government, Nizar Yazigi, announced on 22 last March, the first confirmed case of the virus of a 20-year-old girl coming from abroad, without further details on the country where she caught the virus. 

The regime’s continued policy of discretion regarding the virus outbreak in its areas was totally expected. This was reflected by Yazigi’s “weird” statements attempting to reassure Syrians when he talked about the regime’s army and its ability to defeat viruses and germs the way it defeated “terrorists” before, as he put it. 

Up to this point, the infection rate is still slow in Syria (with only 19 cases for more than a week now), unlike the rest of the world. The government of the regime finally announced recording 19 confirmed cases of COVID-19, four which recovered while another two died. In contrast, the contagion rates around the globe suggest that the number of infections, unreported ones, could become contagious and infect tens or even hundreds of people. 

Police officers in the streets of Damascus during the night curfew – March 2020 (Ministry of Interior of the Syrian Regime)

First Phase: Syria is fine 

Enab Baladi contacted three specialists in sociology to interpret Syrian media silence over the coronavirus infections, and they all agreed that the pro-regime media outlets adopt the same patterns to address all issues, whether political, social, or cultural, and even those related to the health-care sector. Consequently, they do not deviate from an approach of misinformation and concealment.

Hossam al-Saad, an academic and former teacher at Damascus University, considered that the regime’s media attempted to play down coronavirus, in exchange for magnifying the ideological aspect associated with the authority, such as the huge capabilities of doctors and hospitals and Syria’s immunity against whatever problems it may face, regardless their severity. 

Pro-government media outlets’ approach “is decades-old, characterized by lack of transparency in dealing with the current events with a huge reliance on “intimidation” of the disease,” said al-Saad. “this not the case for the majority of media institutions around the world in light of the current health crisis.”

Through denying the existence of the COVID-19 epidemic in Syria for two months in a row, the regime relied on its affiliated media platforms to promote its usual propaganda that “Syria is fine,” a slogan used throughout nine years of war and during successive economic and social crises.

The academic and researcher at the “Hermon” Center for Contemporary Studies, Talal Abdel-Mo’ti Mustafa, through what he monitored on media coverage of coronavirus crisis, observed that most media platforms, around the world,  teamed up to spread content about the pandemic and promote awareness about its dangers. They also published information about the rates of infections and fatalities as well as the precautionary measures people need to undertake, except for government and pro-Syrian media. 

At first, the regime overlooked the virus by adopting a “policy of irresponsibility,” which reflected negatively on Syrians, who did not take any preventive measures.  This means the possibility that the virus may have spread more widely than the regime’s Ministry of Health estimates show. 

In this context, Mostafa suggested that mistrust will grow increasingly between Syrians and official Syrian media, despite all undertaken measures lately, Mustafa said. “In fact, this gap of mistrust has multiplied over the years and still is the case since 2011.”

Second phase: “According to law”

Despite imposing a partial curfew and implementing precautionary measures to curb a coronavirus outbreak in Syria, it is quite clear that media outlets are under the grip, and that they work under the direction of the regime’s security apparatus. Intimidating citizens is the prominent feature in the media arena, where Syrians seem to have decoded security messages sent by these platforms, forced to abide by the decisions to avoid arrests and detention in the regime’s security branches.

To sow more fear among people, media outlets circulated a text of the law on communicable diseases and the imposed penalties for harboring patients. “SANA” also published numbers assigned by the Ministry of the Interior to report those entering Syrian territory illegally, from Lebanon, which has unauthorized crossings with Syrian regime-controlled areas.

The ministry asked citizens not to cover for coronavirus-infected patients and report them instead, so they would be put into 14-days quarantine, under the pretext of ensuring public health.

In this regard, researcher and sociology doctor, Hossam al-Saad, said that the security apparatus in Syria interferes in all the different aspects of Syrian life, which makes it not far from controlling news coverage of the virus. 

Whereas, social expert, Safwan Moshli, believes that the official media in Syria did not change its well-known work mechanisms, being entirely under the control of the security apparatus. 

The expert said, how any news is reported as well as the extent of its coverage, whether it was weather reports or war and peace news, or anything related to the industrial, health or social sectors, is not carried out in an independent and professional manner, that serves only the security apparatus.

Research Mustafa agrees, along with both other experts, that security services hold its grip tight on the Syrian media discourse, and has the final say on anything related to it, to the point, that no one, including the Minister of Health, cannot make an announcement on the virus or its spread without prior approval.

Third phase: “handle his situation”

On 25 last March, the Ministry of Interior’s police units began patrolling the streets and neighborhoods to implement the curfew decision.

This coincided with the release of a video recording of police officials arresting a citizen who violated the curfew in Damascus city while heading to Sahnaya town. But instead of reaching his destination, he was transferred to a security branch to “resolve his situation.”

The phrase “Younes! Take him to the security branch to resolve his situation, quietly,” went viral on the Syrian social media, referring to a young policeman called Younes, who was ordered by an officer to arrest the person in the video and drive him towards the security branch and “resolve his situation.”

On a TV program called “Trending this Week,” broadcast on the state-run Syrian News Channel, al-Ikhbaria, the presenter talked about the famous video recording and how Syrians reacted to it.  The program’ s presenter ended the episode advising Syrians to, “stay home so Younes and his fellow police officials will not have to handle your situations.”

For its part, the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) launched a campaign entitled “Together against Corona,” pointing out that a coronavirus outbreak inside Syria is a threat to everyone. The campaign provided recommendations on how to curb the virus spread and called people to report infected patients through the use of slogans and images similar to those intended to indicate a felony or a crime.  

“The regime will fail in its attempts to show concern for citizens safety,” said social expert Moshli, “despite psychological violence practices to entrench fear among them.” 

The expert explained that the Syrian regime realized the threat of Syrians overcoming fear in 2011, as it is the case in most authoritarian regimes. Coronavirus could be a gift by which more restrictions would be imposed on people through media messages that perpetuate fear and panic, and calls to adhere to everything the regime and its institutions decide, he said.

Is there any response? 

Moshli ruled out implementing full sanitary isolation in regime areas despite official media threats. He then explained that approximately 90 percent of citizens inside those areas live under the poverty line. Hence, their savings have drained out, which will prompt them to go out in order to make a living.

He added, “whatever the danger posed by COVID-19 spread, everyone inside regime areas are economically drained, and they prefer to catch the infection while trying to provide for their children’s needs,” Moshli believes, “so regime recommendations will be responded by ridicule and funerary.”

Picture calling citizens to report quarantine violators (SANA agency)

Exploiting COVID-19 crisis

Appeals to lift sanctions and grab International organizations’ attention

The Syrian regime found a way out to elude the imposed sanctions amid the coronavirus spread, especially that the pandemic shook the world’s economy and experts’ expectation that the global economy will witness a contraction between 13 percent and 32 percent this year. The virus’s impact on global trade is expected to exceed the recession resulting from the global financial crisis of 2008, according to the World Trade Organization (WTO)

The depreciation of the Syrian pound since mid-last year—where US dollar exchange rate crossed the threshold of a 1000 Syrian pounds, along with the new economic sanctions expected to be imposed next June, and the implementation date of the “Civil Protection Law” (Caesar)— pushed the regime’s government to renew its demands for an immediate and unconditional lift of sanctions, through the Syrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Expatriates on 19 last March 

The regime also held the US and its allies fully responsible for infections’ demise through hampering efforts to curb the virus, which poses a severe threat to all humanity, as reported by “SANA.” The regime also called for lifting sanctions against several of Syria’s allied countries such as Iran and Cuba.

Syria’s permanent delegate to the United Nations (UN), Bashar al-Jaafari, also asked for the lifting of sanctions which he had always described as unfair, representing the US statements as irresponsible, misleading and merely an attempt to cover up the crimes and violations of the US against Syria. Moreover, al-Jaafari asked the United States to immediately and unconditionally lift all unilateral coercive economic measures imposed on Syria.

Al-Mujtahid Hospital in Damascus- (SANA Agency)

The Role of Allies and “Internal Opposition”

Regime’s allies reacted in the same way, as Russia and China, along with other countries, called for the lifting of sanctions on Syria, under the pretext of not politicizing the fight against coronavirus. These countries appealed, in a letter addressed to the United Nations Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, to fully and immediately lift the measures they described as “illegal, oppressive, and arbitrary economic pressure,” according to the newspaper Asharq al-Awsat, on 27 last March.

Guterres responded by calling for the lifting of international and individual sanctions imposed on some countries, considering that those sanctions could undermine their ability to curb the virus spread. 

Gaining the support of its allies, the Syrian regime used this time its Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Faisal al-Miqdad, to call for the lifting of sanctions, pointing out to their impact on the lives of the poor and how they would aggravate the virus spread among them, according to his statements to “Sputnik,” a Russian news agency.

Another letter was addressed to Guterres, on 28 of last March, by the head of the delegation of the internal opposition in Geneva, Eliane Massad, to lift the sanctions, as an attempt to ease the difficulties in obtaining the necessary medical, humanitarian, basic and food supplies. Massad accused “external opposition members living in hotels” as he put it, “they want the sanctions to remain.” 

There were also videos and statements by several Syrian artists asking for sanctions to be lifted; meanwhile, government platforms broadcast songs appealing to the lift of these sanctions. 

The United States and European countries imposed economic sanctions on individuals and entities associated with the Syrian regime, due to using excessive force against peaceful demonstrators in 2011, as well as bombing Syrian cities and towns with all sorts of weapons, including internationally prohibited ones.

Since 2011, these sanctions were imposed partially through 15 different packages. Since then, they have affected the Syrian regime in various sectors; politically by focusing on official figures who play a useful role in the violent repression of civilians. Economically by prohibiting the sale of oil and its derivatives, withholding foreign investment, freezing assets, and restricting the Central Bank’s activity. This consequently led to curtailing the regime’s international trade dealings and limited its financial capability. Through time, more sanctions were imposed on individuals and companies linked to the Syrian government.

Supplies by international organizations 

The UN, in its report regarding Syria’s needs to confront the coronavirus, described the public health system as fragile due to the long years of war. The reports added that Syria is in dire need of support to strengthen its ability to confront a possible outbreak of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19). 

The report stated that Syria currently needs 71.2 million USD to fund its preventive measures against the virus, with only 3,250,000 USD have been secured through the World Health Organization (WHO), UNICEF, and the WHO Regional Office for the Eastern Mediterranean. 

Syria also suffers from a shortage of hospitals and medical staff, according to a report published on 25 March on Syria’s needs to confront the coronavirus.

Senior Humanitarian Adviser, Najat Rushdie, urged donor countries and countries that have imposed unilateral measures to provide special exemptions in the field of medical care amid this crisis and to make vigorous efforts to ensure that assistance and support are provided to all Syrians throughout the country as soon as possible.

Ruth Hetherington, the public relations officer and spokesperson for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), also said that she is ready to provide possible support to quarantine and emergency centers in Syria, to support various preventive measures against the virus, and give the committee local  the needed supplies to help the “Syrian Arab Red Crescent.” (SARC). 

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