If truth is the first casualty of war, the Syrian uprising is a veritable massacre. The claim and counter-claim by both (or more correctly all) sides has left integrity wrapped in a sheet and buried in a mass grave.
In an article in Foreign Policy magazine, Sultan al-Qassemi points to what he sees as the editorial self-destruction of al-Jazeera. He claims that in their desire to support the Syrian rebels, and particularly the Sunni groups, al-Jazeera has thrown out basic journalistic standards and become nothing more than a mouthpiece for some fairly dubious causes.
The article also criticises the al-Arabiya network. Perhaps less known in the West but highly influential in the Middle East, al-Arabiya is funded by the Saudi royal family. As such it is probably more explicable that they would by sympathetic to a hardline Sunni doctrine, but al-Qassemi argues that the bias has become preposterous.
“In their bid to support the Syrian rebels’ cause, these media giants have lowered their journalistic standards, abandoned rudimentary fact-checks, and relied on anonymous callers and unverified videos in place of solid reporting.”
Of particular concern to al-Qassemi is the obfuscation by the networks over the potential presence in Syria of al-Qaeda or affiliated organisations. He claims that such speculation goes unmentioned or even actively refuted in the Arabic version of the networks’ websites, though it is sometimes broached for the English-speaking audience. However if this is the case, it’s hard to see what the regimes of Saudi Arabia and Qatar have to gain by soft-pedalling on al-Qaeda, an organisation that sees the Gulf monarchies as corrupt Western puppets.
By means of balance, the article also addresses the propaganda put out by the Syrian government and the shameless trumpeting of pro-Assad stories by the Iranian state media. But then nobody expects “fair and balanced” from the Iranians and their news channels don’t enjoy the reputation for objectivity that al-Jazeera does amongst Middle East news junkies.
Over-arching this criticism are the many challenges posed by citizen journalism. Content is king and in the drive to feed the great sucking maw of 24-hour coverage, hand-held video recordings are grist for the mill. Most new outlets make some vague disclaimer about the footage being unverifiable, but then they show it anyway. Their veracity is thus manufactured post-facto.
The danger of reporting in Syria is part of the problem here. With the situation fluid and very geographically dispersed, things are not as easy as in Libya, with reporters riding with the rebel convoy up the road to Tripoli. And if you want to report from the government side, you can also be assured of strict censorship staged events and blatant propaganda.
So we’re stuck with 45-second iPhone videos of dead children emailed in by sources unknown. Who killed them, where, when and why are just details that may or may not get sorted out at a later date.
The only verifiable statement in all this is that every news outlet has its bias. Including of course, this one.