Enab Baladi – Hibaa Shehadeh
As they watched the correspondent of pro-regime Addounia TV stalking the corpses of the Darayya massacre in August 2012 as she shoved the camera over the heads of the wounded, silence prevailed among the spectators in the Turkish city of Gaziantep in late October. Their eyes were fixed on what was being shown on the large screen of the workshop’s meeting room.
The media coverage of the semi-governmental media outlets at the time, in August 2012, broke all professional rules in its reporting of the massacre committed by the regime forces in the city of Darayya in the countryside of Damascus by falsifying it and violating the sanctities of the victims and transmitting messages of violence and incitement to the Syrian street, which made those responsible for broadcasting it partners in the war crime.
This breach of media professionalism was discussed in a workshop introducing the complaints committee of the Ethical Charter for Syrian Media (ECSM), which brought together journalists from press institutions and media professionals representing active humanitarian organizations in Syria. Most of them had watched the Addounia TV report previously, but the scene was not less severe with repetition.
Projecting the first moments of the report was sufficient to focus the workshop attendees’ minds on the harm that the media can inflict on the audience if it abandons its professional journalism standards, which represent its ethical laws when covering any event.
A discussion was opened about the responsibility of institutions, organizations, and recipients of media coverage to prevent any violation of these standards from passing through the independent Syrian media platforms.
The role of the media is no longer hidden from the Syrian public, but its reliability and adherence to the rules of the profession are still subject to controversy and questioning.
Therefore, the Ethical Charter initiative appeared, which is unique in the course of the Syrian press, and it defines standards governing media work in the absence of mechanisms of accountability by establishing commitment by institutions that signed to professional, ethical rules.
But what is the feasibility of this initiative, which has spent years without achieving the required spread to gather independent media under its umbrella? What is its benefit to the public who does not trust media platforms or their commitment to correction?
In this file, Enab Baladi raises these questions to journalists, experts, and recipients to discuss the possibility of the Syrian media and the public shouldering their responsibility together to reach the desired professional media.
No point in complaining?
No confidence in the Syrian media
The march of the media in Syria was distinguished at the global level during the past decade, as the war coincided with the development of social media, which enabled eyewitnesses and activists to report what the media affiliated with the Syrian regime turned a blind eye to, ignored or falsified, in terms of massacres and violations against the people who demanded reform since 2011.
Knowing the ethical standards was not a difficult task for the new or old media professionals who stood in the face of the sole discourse of state institutions, with the interest of international organizations concerned with the press to provide them with professional training since the early years, especially with the restriction of the entry of foreign journalists to Syria for safe coverage.
However, adherence to these rules was another matter when the activists found themselves facing the regime’s media, which violated all of these standards in reporting events to the local and international audiences, which in turn stood bewildered in front of two contradictory narratives.
The Syrian opposition media committed professional mistakes that made it lose its credibility in front of the Western audience first, with its ability to discern journalistic violations, and then the Syrian public, which judged it morally while it was constantly focusing on its reality.
“I do not trust the Syrian media, and when I want to follow up on the news, I resort to international impartial channels,” said Buthaina Rahal, the administrative director and official in charge of the media office of the Women Empowerment organization, who participated in the introductory workshop of the Complaints Committee.
In Rahal’s opinion, the Syrian media outlets, both supportive of the regime and oppositional, participated in violating professional standards. One party falsified the reality and presented what happened in Syria as a “conspiracy” and that those calling for reform were “saboteurs,” and a second party “exaggerated” in reporting the events, she told Enab Baladi.
In order to restore that confidence and benefit the public, some opposition media outlets adhered to the standards and worked to adjust them in their coverage and materials. Hence, the first step towards adopting the Ethical Charter for Syrian Media (ECSM) and then approving the launch of the Complaints Committee, which placed these institutions under the supervision of observers.
“Impartiality” was the basis on which Rahal relied to give her confidence to the media outlet, and it is one of the professional standards that she was not aware of the basics of before the introductory workshop, but she had not previously intended to complain about an institution that violated that standard in its coverage.
Enab Baladi sought the opinions of followers of the independent media through interviews in northwestern Syria, as it is easy to follow these media and active correspondents who are in direct contact with the people.
Pharmacist Ahmed Sabra, based in the northern countryside of Idlib, was not stable in his opinion about the feasibility of complaining to the Syrian media in the event of professional errors, considering that “all media outlets report the truth from their point of view.”
Sabra did not accuse the Syrian media of falsification but rather of deliberately directing one opinion to the exclusion of another, according to what he said to Enab Baladi, pointing out that the Syrian public is inactive towards correcting professional “deficiencies” but is satisfied with commenting and mocking instead of constructive criticism.
In the city of Idlib, lawyer Mohammad al-Salama ruled out the “politicized” media’s response to complaints about its mistakes.
Al-Salama did not rule out the idea of communicating with media institutions that he found credible, relying on the frequency of mistakes to judge the press institution and the possibility of interacting with it.
Haifa al-Mohammad, a graduate of the Faculty of Mass Communication at the International University for Science and Renaissance in the northern countryside of Aleppo, has already tried to contact a press institution to correct an error in one of its coverages, but she did not receive any response, she told Enab Baladi.
Media activist Karam Daroukh, based in the northern countryside of Aleppo, went through a similar experience in trying to correct a mistake of a channel that did not respond to him.
However, he does not deny the possibility of a response from all the media classified as opposition, even if most of them “will not respond,” Darukh told Enab Baladi.
“The media channels did not understand that the public needed at the beginning of the revolution a media supportive of its causes and conveying the image as it is, but after 11 years, we have passed the emergency phase, and the training of media workers on the professional and ethical side has become a necessity, but the reality is regrettable.”
A study by Free Press Unlimited (a global organization aimed at supporting independent journalism) for the Syrian public, issued in January 2021, showed that Syrians want reliable media sources, as the state of lack of trust in the media has created a habit of boycotting information from multiple sources before it is approved by the public while avoiding biased media sources that include “hate speech.”
The participants in the study, which relied on public questionnaires, personal interviews, and practical research to collect data from more than a thousand participants, focused on the fact that “news impartiality is important,” with the need for balanced news, and realizing the ability of independent journalism to create bridges of unity and peace in Syria.
The Syrian media remained under the tight control of the ruling regime for decades before the revolution, from which only minor exceptions could pass with limited effect.
After some Syrians got rid of that control, they established dozens of independent media platforms, that is, not affiliated with the government, opposition factions, or a certain party, and they found themselves under the rule of parties with similar mentalities that limit freedom and define media laws to prevent what contradicts their directions and criticize their violations in northeast and west of Syria.
Since the displacement of the residents of the town of al-Tah, from the southern countryside of Idlib three years ago towards the northern countryside, and their residence in the camp that bears the name of their town, media coverage has focused on them due to the efforts of the camp manager, Abdul Salam al-Youssef, and his facilitation of press coverage and his cooperation with media professionals in covering all topics.
Al-Youssef did not refer to the laws imposed on the ground, and he spoke to Enab Baladi about the mistakes of the press coverage that he experienced during the past three years, but to the poor professional qualification of the cadres and their lack of experience, according to his opinion.
Although 11 years have passed since the independent press began reporting events, some of its cadres are still poorly trained and ignorant of the basic rules of the profession, al-Youssef complains.
The media activist and founder of the “Thiqa” agency, Majed Abdul Nour, believes that the opposition’s media outperformed the regime’s media at the beginning of the revolution “because of the failure of the regime’s media and the failure of its security system, and not because we were professionals,” as he told Enab Baladi.
He added that the “revolutionary media” today “is similar to the regime’s media in many details,” which prompted the public to abandon its platforms and resort to social media.
Abdul Nour did not read the Ethical Charter for Syrian Journalists, but he heard about it, considering that adherence to professional standards is one of the “acceptability of a journalist; otherwise, he would not be a journalist.”
He clarified his opinion and experience during news reporting in the past years that making mistakes is possible, but amending, correcting, or deleting incorrect news is a professional duty. “It is a natural condition that increases people’s confidence and does not diminish the journalist’s importance or ability,” he said.
Is the audience the only judge?
Banning Orient channel, which is one of the most widespread Syrian media outlets among the public, from operating in Idlib, by the Syrian Salvation Government (SSG) that is affiliated with Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), occupied public opinion in the opposition-held areas.
At the beginning of last October, some people sympathized with Orient TV and its right to “free” coverage, and others criticized its handling of the region’s issues, especially with the use of the pretext of “lack of professionalism” by the security authorities in control on the ground to prevent it from working.
Orient does not recognize the idea of the “Ethical Charter,” according to its editor-in-chief, Alaa Farhat, who assumed that the only criterion is “the public, the only one capable of accountability, is the one who raises or brings down any media corporation.”
During the first days after Orient was banned by the HTS, whose violations against journalists were documented by human rights bodies, and accused Tahrir al-Sham of seeking to build a “loyal” media network similar to the regime’s media, media activists recalled the channel’s role in covering the peaceful protests in 2011, when it built its fan base in standing with the revolution.
Orient, in turn, covered the third decision to prevent it from coverage after being banned by the Syrian regime and later by the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) and responded that “the role of the free press is criticism and the search for violations, not achievements, and this is in normal countries. But in the state of war that Syria is going through, asking for such praise is considered an ‘insult’ to the press and a loss of people’s respect,” which is what every authority that prevented it from covering its areas of control wanted.
However, Orient’s media coverage is not devoid of “discrimination” (such as using sectarian expressions or terms to identify certain parties) and sometimes relies on unworthy and unreliable sources to convey some information, which exposes it to criticism from media specialists, as well as from the public.
In Farhat’s opinion, the demand for adherence to standards during the state of war in Syria is not appropriate, and he considered that the channel did not start with discrimination but rather “labels the facts as they are.”
He said that ethical charters are “formal” and are nothing but a “prestige” for media corporations which restricts the journalist’s work.
While he denied knowing the experience of the Ethical Charter for Syrian Media (ECSM) or the invitation of Orient to sign it, he refused the idea of accepting it.
“In our internal politics, we are always with the public, with the Syrians, and the ceiling of our freedom is high. I will not set limits for myself, and I will not accept that another party places them for me under the name of a charter to restrict me,” the editor-in-chief of the Orient media outlet confirmed, adding, “When I see a violation by someone, I call it a militia, a gang, as long as it harms Syrian society.”
Farhat stressed that Orient adheres to the media laws imposed by the host countries, but it does not “favor any side with regard to the public’s issues, and we are committed to providing it with the most truthful and accurate news, and to be quick to convey its suffering and present its issues.”
What do we need from the media?
The adjective “controversial” has been attached to the media since its inception as a profession and censorship to and from society, and some of its materials and investigations were used in issuing judicial rulings that were the way to hold criminals accountable, and others documented violations and revealed facts that were not intended to appear.
The Syrian media has been subjected to manipulation, and it was a tool for parties and authorities that promoted their concepts and implanted their ideas in people’s minds to control them. Its harm has also reached incitement to violence when “hate speech” is used to charge one group against another to be an active partner in crimes and violations.
The controversy of the media continued within the circles of its makers and movers, as discussions were repeated over and over again about its message and its “moral responsibility,” its basic standards, and its social validity.
Professor of Journalism at the Free University of Brussels, Yazan Badran, focused in his answer to a question about the usefulness of the media as “a basic societal institution that organizes our knowledge and our relationship with the surrounding world.”
He added to Enab Baladi that journalism provides the necessary knowledge and explanation to form informed opinions among the public about the issues it reports, “, especially in the political field,” and thus enables it to understand the problems facing its society and find appropriate solutions to them.
The relationship between the professional standards of journalism and its ability to benefit the public is an “organic connection,” according to Badran’s description, that is, there is no one without the other.
Without presenting the opinions of all parties related to the issue reported by the media (a commitment to objectivity) or without clarifying the sources of information on which the media relied while explaining the relevance of the sources to the information provided (a commitment to transparency), the recipient will not have enough information to assess the credibility of the various information nor to understand the issue sufficiently to differentiate between opinions and form his own opinion about it, according to Badran.
Accountability should be “guaranteed”
The Ethical Journalism Network (EJN) linked adherence to professional and ethical standards to the ability of journalism to achieve its goal and benefit to the public.
The director of the network of 70 global media organizations, Aidan White, summarized the five most important principles shared by most media charters around the world, which are accuracy, independence, impartiality (conveying the collection of viewpoints of parties related to the event), and humanity (understanding the consequences of what journalists publish and avoiding harm and damage), and fifthly, “ensuring accountability,” which he said is “difficult for journalists despite their firmness in holding others accountable, but undoing mistakes is what they have to do, as well as interacting with the public to correct when they make a mistake,” stressing that these principles make journalism what it is.
Executive Director of the ECSM, Dr. Melhem al-Abdullah, told Enab Baladi that the launch of the Complaints Committee by the Ethical Charter for Syrian Media was derived from a similar belief that accountability and public accountability of the media ensures that it is free from professional violations.
Al-Abdullah expects the organization to become a professional and ethical umbrella for all independent Syrian media outlets, but it did not achieve the required spread among the public and the media during the seven years during which it was active, with some of the broader Syrian institutions refusing to join, and the collision with the Syrian street’s lack of confidence in the validity of complaints.
Nine months after the launch of the complaints system, the committee has received only three, of which two did not comply with the conditions set for accepting complaints, and work was done to correct the last complaint, which was done “smoothly,” as described by the executive director of the charter.
Earthquake for the Syrian media
Ali Eid, managing editor of Enab Baladi newspaper and the former president of the Syrian Journalists Association (SJA), distinguished the reasons for the lack of adherence to professional standards for the independent Syrian media from the fact that it arose from the experience of the “citizen journalist” and within a country that did not follow ethical standards.
However, the continuation of this situation is “unjustified,” and based on his 25-year experience in journalism, the Syrian media “needs an earthquake,” according to Eid.
Initiatives to organize Syrian media work and apply professional standards, such as the Ethical Charter for Syrian Media (ECSM), are still “timid” in the material sense, Eid believes.
This “timid effort” does not reflect the desire of the entity, the organization, or the administrations in charge of these (media) institutions but the framework in which they operate, the size of their cadres, and the level or source of support provided, is what imposes this situation, says Enab Baladi’s managing editor.
Eid stresses that the independent Syrian media needs to reset its foundations, content, and production mechanism to overcome its mistakes and that the work of Syrian journalists and entire media outlets without funding indicates a real desire on their part to play the role of “news delivery.”
Pointing out that the economic cost of the media is “expensive” since there is no economic cycle that produces self-financing, as funding remains dependent on donors and their limited projects.
The complaints system is a “good” idea, which Enab Baladi has endorsed as well as the ECSM, according to Eid.
The media outlets’ fear of being labeled as unprofessional or providing inflammatory content or hate speech will lead them to monitor complaints with “concern.” This will develop into the stage of self-censorship to adhere to the professional standards required in the media sector, Eid indicated.
Amjad al-Sari, one of the founders of the Horrya Press website (one of the media institutions that signed the ECSM), says that submitting to the standards of the charter and being monitored by the public allows unifying media efforts to achieve professional and objective work that can achieve its goal by “conveying people’s concerns and shedding light on their issues.”
Al-Sari is not afraid of the idea of the public following the professional inaccuracies that the Horrya Press journalists might make, for “if we make a mistake, the public will have the right to hold us accountable,” he told Enab Baladi.
Al-Sari also noted his confidence in the experts participating in the committee and their professional distinction between valid and false complaints.
Hassan Khalaf, programs director at Daraa24 (the first website operating in regime-held areas to sign the Ethical Charter), said the reason for signing was the desire to actively participate within the independent Syrian media system and to communicate with media outlets throughout Syria.
Khalaf told Enab Baladi that “the correct application of the complaints system in any work targeting the community must lead to improving the quality of the service provided, building trust, and increasing acceptance and credibility,” adding, “It is an important factor in detecting errors and contributing to correcting them while encouraging transparency and impartiality.”
Complain to correct errors
The complaints system of the Ethical Charter for Syrian Media is based on making it possible to complain about any media material published through the media outlets that have signed its code of conduct.
The second step is verifying the complaint validity by an independent committee, then mediating between the media and the complainant to take the appropriate action in the event that the complaint proves to be in violation of professional standards.
The complaint is a means of pressure that affects the reputation of institutions that are not disciplined by professional standards, although the accountability mechanisms that the committee possesses are limited to issuing reports that prove the moral responsibility of the media in the event that it does not respond to complaints, without judicial or financial accountability, and is concerned with the media parties that have signed the Ethical Charter for Syrian Media (ECSM).
The Board of Directors of the ECSM, in coordination with the Complaints Committee, can expand the framework of the complaints system to include its reports on unsigned Syrian media organizations as well, with the aim of urging all institutions to beware of committing professional violations that may cause harm to the public.
The committee, in accordance with the definition of its tasks and objectives, avoids charging the parties to the complaint and provoking sensitivities between the public and media institutions, with its commitment to providing training, awareness, and guidance on professional and ethical standards in the media and best practices in the profession of journalism.
Have you noticed the last two lines at the bottom of all articles published on Enab Baladi’s news site:
“If you think the article contains wrong information or you have additional details, (Please) send a correction.
If you believe that the article violates any ethical principles or professional standards, (Please) file a complaint.”
The first link is concerned with sending corrections directly to Enab Baladi newspaper.
The second takes you to the Ethical Charter For Syrian Media website to file a complaint related to professional violations, and you can search for the Ethical Charter website and file a complaint directly.
The complainant must provide a copy, photo, or link to the report at issue, identify the breached provision of the Code of Professional Conduct, describe the breach, and explain why it is believed to constitute a violation of the Code of Professional Conduct.
The complainant shall provide photos or copies of the correspondence with the media outlet complained of if any, and he shall try not to make the complaint against materials published a long time ago.
It is always preferable to submit a complaint as close to the date of the violation or offense as possible, as the Complaints Committee will not consider complaints regarding the material published more than three months prior to the date of submission of the complaint.
The exception is if the complainant has suffered direct harm as a result of the report, then a period of three months is calculated since he became aware of the publication of the content, provided there is evidence proving and describing the damage and the aggrieved party’s right to file a complaint lapses after one year of publication.
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