Syrian detainees’ coverage highlights state and alternative media opportunism

A gathering in Berlin in solidarity with the Syrian detainees’ families, coinciding with Bashar al-Assad’s general amnesty - 8 May 2022 (Families For Freedom)

A gathering in Berlin in solidarity with the Syrian detainees’ families, coinciding with Bashar al-Assad’s general amnesty - 8 May 2022 (Families For Freedom)

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Enab Baladi – Amal Rantisi

“Journalists write to tell a story, and telling the stories of survivors of traumatic events can be powerful, moving, and impactful. Getting an article published, however, should never become more important than the well-being of the survivors themselves. This means reporters must take their sources’ grievances seriously, and never use their stories just to gain a byline or drive engagement.”

This is how IJNet presents an article titled “Advice for ethical reporting on trauma” on covering topics in which sources must recall the intense emotional and psychological trauma they have experienced, which can be a difficult task for any journalist.

The shocking and poignant stories, in light of the scarcity of accurate information and the difficulty of verifying and investigating it, did not disappear from the scene of the release of detainees in Syria after a “general amnesty” for “terrorist crimes” under the Legislative Decree No. 7, which was issued by the head of the regime on 30 April.

The amnesty decree was followed by chaotic and random releases of 419 persons, as the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) documented, also exacerbated by media coverage that saw the event as an opportunity that could not be ignored. 

During the media coverage, inaccurate lists of detainees were circulated because the Syrian regime did not publish any details at first, in addition to publishing fabricated stories and testimonies to achieve a scoop, which diluted the main issue in favor of “attractive” stories by some social media and by alternative and local Syrian media.

On the other hand, the Syrian regime’s media focused on the meetings of the released and their families in a clear blackmail that includes glorification and thanks to the jailer who “pardoned” them, in clear violation of professional media standards that include special treatment and consideration for those who spent years of their lives in notorious prisons.

In this report, Enab Baladi discusses with media experts how the issue of the released detainees has been exploited by the local media and what are the ethical journalistic standards that alternative media outlets should have followed in this case, in addition to professional recommendations regarding the profitable aspect of publishing on social media platforms and promoting that by the regime-run media.

Pursuit of profitability

Some media intentionally publish attractive content that attracts the audience to increase the number of views, if it is a video clip, or to increase the number of “clicks” to enter website links, to make a profit across platforms in the online space, which is not necessarily bad, but these practices must be framed professionally and take into account journalistic ethics.

A member of the Complaints Committee of the Ethical Charter For Syrian Media, which includes 21 independent Syrian media institutions, journalist Ahmed Murad, told Enab Baladi that the media’s job has turned from a newsmaker to a mere transmitter in the context of the absence of professionalism from a number of media institutions in publishing lists for detainees, these methods rely on cutting and pasting without verifying the content.

The news coverage here is done through inaccurate sources without checking the credibility of the news or not, according to Murad, adding that the spread of social media cannot be denied, and the users of these means are not aware of the importance of verifying the authenticity, credibility, and source of information as open sources.

In general, achieving the scoop has become one of the weaknesses in the Syrian media in general, as dealing with any issue has turned into a profitable issue due to the cessation of financial support from most media outlets and the lack of alternative sources of funding.

Not to mention the financial compensation provided by means of media for the presence of advertisements in visual content, so newspaper headlines and journalistic content have become closer to “tabloid journalism,” as Murad described.

In his interview with Enab Baladi, Murad pointed out the lack of focus on the press being committed to the cause for which it was established or taking into account the sensitivity of the detainees’ issue in particular.

He considers that the spread of lists or misleading news, or the production of media materials bearing the nature of “excitement” in order to achieve readings, are violations of the rights of the released detainees and the rights of the families of the forcibly disappeared and that they are no less in principle than the violations and extortion they were subjected to before the Syrian regime, its courts, and its security branches.

In the context of the profit quest, the Syrian journalist Nedal Malouf said that adopting the “excitement” method, “yellow journalism,” and the prevalent “trending” mindset and bypassing the ethics of journalistic work in general that some media outlets follow, achieves benefit, but temporarily and in the short term, as in the long run, these means lose their credibility, and they have a closed audience who is not active.

Malouf explained to Enab Baladi that the gains are only temporary, as there are many accounts or channels on YouTube for news media that have hundreds of thousands of subscribers to use “agitation” in a specific event, but after a period of time, the interaction on them becomes little and disproportionate with the number of large subscriptions to the channel, and thus a financial loss.

Malouf advised the adherence to professional ethics in media work because it achieves greater sustainability in the matter of profit and audience gain.

Giving opportunity to ethics traders

Mohammad Muneer al-Faqeer, a human rights researcher at the Omran Center for Strategic Studies, believes that irresponsible publication, whether of lists or fabricated stories, not only contributes to “diluting” the detainees’ issue but also makes the detainees’ families victims of networks of extortion and fraud.

In his interview with Enab Baladi, al-Faqeer warned against case traders and brokers who work with the security and trade in the people’s emotions. When media outlets publish lists that are supposed to be correct, they revive false hope among the detainees’ families, which makes them vulnerable to fraud and fraud networks.

Al-Faqeer advised the necessity of verification, direct communication, and coordination between media and human rights organizations, and not to use the issue of the forcibly disappeared as a material for media appearances, in addition to the fact that publishing lists that include large numbers gives the impression to the international community and the world that the Syrian regime “did not leave anyone but released them from its prisons,” according to the human rights defender. 

He continued, “This clearly dilutes the case, making it a normal vulgar file, and people lose confidence in this case completely.”

Al-Faqeer, as the coordinator of the Association of the Detainees and Missing of the Sednaya Prison (ADMSP), said that the association’s door is open to the media, the public, and the families of the detainees, to provide advice free of charge, and to provide assistance to integrate efforts.

The association had previously issued a clarification immediately after the “general amnesty” was issued, including caution and not believing the lists of names that were circulated on social media.

The ADMSP can be contacted either directly through its official website, by filling out a form that includes the name, e-mail, and message to be directed to the association, or via phone number 00905379365974 or e-mail [email protected], or via its Facebook page.

Publication criteria in the detainees’ case 

In its articles, the Ethical Charter For Syrian Media defines the “moral obligations of the media person,” which include seeking truth and professional integrity, respecting privacy, not harming individuals or institutions as a result of a press publication, and respecting their wishes or that of their relatives.

The standards are determined by verifying information, establishing an ethical framework for publication, and cooperation between media institutions and civil society organizations specialized in detainees’ issues, Murad explained.

He also stressed that the associations and committees representing detainees have documentation mechanisms that follow international human rights standards and that they cooperate with international bodies in order to access accurate information.

The media is considered responsible for training journalists on the ethics of media work and the professional qualities that journalists enjoy when training them on editing.

“This leads to transferring these means from a burden on the issues they represent to professional means that become sources of information and ensure access to the public without the need to follow the methods of yellow journalism,” said Murad.

On professional recommendations in sensitive issues, such as the issue of the release of detainees, when it comes to the profitable aspect of publishing on social media platforms, Murad said that the media provided access to features related to funded advertisements through press materials.

Murad considers that this opportunity should constitute an incentive for media outlets to develop their cadres, work on the professional side of journalists, and produce content that addresses any event of its various dimensions, taking into account the ethical aspect and not offending people, whether by violating their privacy, or publishing news without referring to sources and ensure its reliability.

Regime media involved in violations

The Syrian regime’s media describe the released detainees as “prisoners” in an attempt to mitigate the severe impact that the issue of detainees in notorious prisons and branches has on the lives of many Syrians.

This made the scene of citizens gathering under the President’s Bridge in Damascus, giving a bad character to the image of the Syrian regime, which it tried to polish through subsequent meetings with young men who had not yet known the news of their release after years of detention.

The state-run TV channel “Alikhbaria Syria” rushed to interview the released detainees, who in turn thanked al-Assad for issuing a “general amnesty” in an apparent attempt to blackmail them in front of the camera.

These interviews came after the absence of official media coverage of the first batches of detainees and after the local Sham FM radio station, which is close to the Syrian regime, deleted a video recording that it had broadcast, on 4 May, from the President’s Bridge area, showing dozens of people who criticized the arbitrary release of detainees and complained about the long wait.

Murad believes that the regime’s media coverage is part of the regime that committed violations against the Syrians, and its impact and victims are no less than the tanks and warplanes that have killed and are still killing civilians.

The journalist reviews many examples of the way the official media is used, as happened in the chemical massacres, the massacres of Darayya, Houla, al-Qubeir, and the siege of Zabadani, Madaya, and the displacement of Aleppo, Homs, and Damascus suburbs. In all of these events, the residents of those areas were “terrorists,” as the Syrian regime used to describe them.

Here, any description related to the ethics of media work, even “yellow journalism,” can be described as “terrorist media,” according to Murad.

When reviewing all the interviews, the state-run media held the detainees responsible despite the Syrians’ knowledge of the detention mechanisms and how charges are distributed to detainees in exceptional courts that do not have any legal status, such as terrorism courts or the field court.

The government’s propaganda focuses on the fate of those who demand freedom and dignity, to intimidate those in the regime’s areas, given the fate of those who have been arrested, and granting the right to life is a personal matter issued by the head of the regime, says Murad.

He added that the coverage bears several dimensions, the first of which is that the “amnesty” is an honor from the head of the Syrian regime, and the return of those released to the right path, and that the detainees have offended the state society, and themselves, and that this “amnesty” includes all detainees, but in fact, it includes only a few of them.

The Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) issued a report at the beginning of last April documenting the Syrian regime’s continued detention of hundreds of thousands of detainees without an arrest warrant for many years, without charges, and prohibiting them from hiring a lawyer and family visits, and turning about 68 percent of the total detainees into forcibly disappeared.

The number of detainees and forcibly disappeared persons at the hands of the Syrian regime from 2011 until late 2021 reached about 131,469 people, including 3,621 children and 8,037 women, according to the SNHR.

The SNHR continues to monitor the release of detainees against the backdrop of Decree No. 7 of 2022.

 

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