With our exclusive coverage on the newly-leaked Syrian security documents coming to an end, the time has finally arrived to voice an opinion about some of things that have been said since we -- at Al Arabiya News Channel -- began revealing the shocking contents of these documents two weeks ago.
First let us get the facts straight; we have said upfront that these documents were obtained from members of the Syrian Opposition; and to be precise from a group called ‘New Syria’.
As a news channel, we have dealt with ‘New Syria’ in the past; the opposition group was/still is one of the many and various sources which have supplied us with information since we started covering the Syrian pro-democracy protests eruption in early 2011.
Leaked documents obtained from this particular opposition group have proven to be true in the past; as a reminder, our viewers will remember very well Al Arabiya’s first batch of true and shocking leaked presidential emails last March.
Last July, Al Arabiya also exposed another batch of emails which were equally controversial; these belonged to the daughter of Syria’s ambassador to the United Nations (U.N.): Sheherzad ‘Sherry’ Jaafari.
At the time, some people criticized our decision to reveal the contents of these emails which they deemed ‘too personal’; however, what I always believed in was the conclusion me and my team reached when we discussed the matter: publishing these emails was for the public good.
Thanks to our ‘Sherry Leaks’, the whole world now knows that -- among other things -- she received instructions from her boss at New-York based PR firm, BLJ, ordering her not to mention key facts about the Assad regime to Joan Juliet Buck, the (now former) Vogue editor who eventually wrote an incredibly-flattering profile of the Syrian First Lady, Asma Al-Assad. (The timing couldn’t have been more unfortunate for Vogue magazine, as the article came out early in 2011 while Mr Assad’s henchmen were crushing both the hopes and bones of the country’s pro-democracy protesters).
Appologies for the disappointment
The whole reason for this long introduction is to apologize to some of our critics for a major disappointment which I am about to bestow about them.
To all those professional journalists who forgot or didn’t bother calling us for a comment or those café-based bloggers who think they can do a better job, I truly am very sorry for what I am about to say.
Sadly, the fact is that there is simply no “agenda” apart from doing our best to report the news as accurately and professionally as possible, nor are there any secret labs were documents are fabricated at Al Arabiya.
We also didn’t “have” to publish the recent leaked security files; it was purely an editorial decision which was reached after weeks of verification and cross-checking; and like the case was with Sherry’s emails, this decision was a collective one.
Now, there are those who make that rather simplistic assumption that since Saudi Arabia -- like most countries around the world -- is against the slaughtering of the Syrian people and Al Arabiya is ‘Saudi-owned’; then the channel by default “must” have an agenda against Assad.
First, we are as ‘Saudi-owned’ as CNN is ‘American-owned’; AH! But then again, saying ‘CNN is American-owned’ is exactly how the Syrian Regime attacks the credibility of CNN and every other channel, newspaper, journalist, human-rights organization that doesn’t report news the way the Syrian state-owned or controlled media does.
Now, I don’t care what inter-galactic conspiracy Assad wants the world to believe is happening; the reality is that there are between 28 thousand and 36 thousand reported deaths since the Syrian crisis erupted; these numbers were not invented by Al Arabiya, these were official death tolls published by the U.N. and other observatory groups.
What are we supposed to do? Not cover this atrocity? Ignore the hundreds of thousands of homeless refugees, children, women and old men who escaped Assad’s killing machine but must now face a cold winter with no prospects of ever returning to their normal lives?
Needless to say, these people didn’t just decide to escape to refugee camps because they wanted a change of scenery, they were forced to; Just like the pro-democracy protestors DID NOT suddenly die without a cause but were actually KILLED.
The leaked documents
Now, let us go over the fact relating to the documents which we have been exposing for the past two weeks.
First, we did clarify that these documents were obtained from opposition sources; as professional journalists, we obviously knew that this naturally means that they (our sources) may have been selective in what they chose to share with us.
Then, we did mention upfront that our sources declined to inform us how they managed to obtained these highly confidential files.
We also did declare that we have spent a long time verifying these documents and fact-checking them (which we did); and as an Al Arabiya newsroom insider I am exposed to the huge number of documents, information and claims we turn down every single day, so I do know for a fact that we could have easily declined to publish the recent leaks as well.
Now as for getting other sources to confirm authenticity; many people – especially those dreamy bloggers who think they can do a better job from the comfort of their own home – tend to forget that this is a crisis happening in a country ruled by one of the most secretive and autocratic regimes in the whole world.
The point is you just don’t ring someone’s press office and expect an answer in Syria; nor should we ever expect that an independent investigation into the violations will take place where the ruling elite would eventually be held responsible and collectively resign.
Despite us knowing these facts, I can’t even begin to recall how many times we have tried to get Syrian officials on our screen; they simply decline to do so or don’t take our calls.
Let us also not forget that since the early days of the crisis, the Syrian regime has kicked out correspondents, along with every other international correspondent that didn’t cover the news the way the regime wanted.
Needless to say, this is actually what Assad probably prefers, if we are not there and his officials don’t appear on our screen or anyone else’s… he could easily support his conspiracy claims by saying we are deliberately not carrying their point of view.
The Angry Arab
We finally come to the criticism of our leaked documents; I will of course not comment on some countries which didn’t comment at all – or commented in a very discreet way – on the contents of our leaks; as politicians rarely say what they mean or mean what they say.
The fact is many of the things mentioned in our documents were already known to many people; however, we still did what we can to verify what was in them and didn’t take their content for granted.
Yet, this didn’t seem enough for a particular ‘Angry Arab’.
I am of course referring to the comments made by California-based professor As’ad AbuKhalil, who in a recent blog post for the Lebanon-based ‘Al-Akhbar English’ attacked the credibility and ownership our channel as well as one of our most prominent and respected presenters, Giselle Khoury.
He then went on to discredit all our documents, claiming that the “days when an Arab intelligence services would put in writing assassination orders are long gone”; adding that “Arab regimes – especially those of the Baath – are known to rely on a very small circle of people (and on need-to-know basis) for any assassination orders. No trail of paper is ever left behind”.
Apart from his analysis insinuating that he seems to have interesting insight into how Arab intelligence services and dictatorships work; it is shocking that Abukhalil has deployed all his academic experience in ‘shooting the messenger’ and not analysing the actual documents.
Had he enlightened us with a substantial academic finding, we would have gladly published his theory, even if it was critical of us at Al Arabiya.
After all, we did carry Hezbollah’s denial of their involvement in the killing of former Lebanese MP and publishing guru, Gebran Tueni, as one of our leaked Syrian security documents insinuated they did.
Of course, and I hate to be ‘shooting the messenger’ myself, but if AbuKhalil is going to discredit us based on ownership, what is he doing writing for a newspaper renowned for serving an Iranian and Syrian agenda?
*Faisal J. Abbas is the Editor-in-Chief of Al Arabiya's English website and can be reached on @FaisalJAbbas on Twitter