A number of prominent London-based Syrians are calling for the BBC to apologize over a “deceiving” TV documentary on Syria they say was biased toward President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
Critics accuse the British broadcaster of unbalanced and distorted reporting in 'A History of Syria with Dan Snow,’ which was first broadcast last week, with some lobbying for an investigation into the show.
'A History of Syria' attempted to analyze the bloody civil war in Syria in terms of the country’s long and complex history, making reference to centuries of religious conflict and the influence of groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood.
But some say the BBC program gave a one-sided account of the current civil war, pandering to Bashar al-Assad’s regime at a time when Britain is considering supplying arms to opposition fighters in Syria.
Ghassan Ibrahim, a Syrian national who is the chief executive of the London-based news site Global Arab Network (GAN), called upon the BBC to apologize for what he said was a biased and “inaccurate” documentary.
“They need to issue an apology to the Syrian people,” said Ibrahim, who was speaking from London. “[The show] wasn’t really balanced. It represented the views mainly of the regime.”
In 'A History of Syria,’ the well-known presenter Dan Snow referenced what he calls the Muslim Brotherhood’s "campaign of terror in the late 70s and early 80s,” when Hafez al-Assad, the father of the current president, was in power.
Critics say the BBC show unfairly linked this with the current civil war, giving the impression that the uprising in Syria was initiated by the Muslim Brotherhood and extremist Islamic groups.
Snow took history “out of context,” said Ibrahim.
“He’s saying all the opposition is Muslim Brotherhood or extremists,” he argued. “The Muslim Brotherhood is not the leader of this revolution. In the 1980s it was a different story. To put it that history is repeating itself is not true… I believe [Snow] misunderstood Syrian history. You don’t just pick and choose from the history to suit what’s going on today.”
Questions have also been raised over the level of access Dan Snow was given in Syria, given the difficulty most foreign journalists face entering the country and travelling safely within it.
While Snow interviewed both those loyal to the regime and members of the opposition, people in the former category were much higher-ranking, critics point out.
“From the [opposition] side, you didn’t find anyone who was a real figure or anyone you can identify. He did not give them any platform to talk,” Ibrahim said. “There is a big, big gap in this film. It looked like it was politically motivated.”
'A History of Syria' does include interviews with Syrian refugees and unidentified, masked men who claim they are from the rebel Free Syrian Army. But there are no interviews with prominent members of the opposition.
By contrast, Snow conducts a lengthy interview with Bouthaina Shaaban, Bashar al-Assad’s loyal media adviser who also served under his father, Hafez al-Assad. The academic Patrick Seale, who wrote a semi-authorized biography of Hafez al-Assad and is considered a sympathizer of the regime, is also interviewed.
Critics say Seale’s links with the Syrian regime are not adequately explained by the program, while statements by other interviewees go unquestioned.
At one point, Bouthaina Shaaban is allowed to justify the violence used by the state. “What would any government do, that is faced with armed gangs not allowing people to travel on the highway, not allowing people to get out of their homes, kidnapping people, killing people, destroying factories, schools," she says.
The BBC show also has a scene shot at the funeral of an Alawite soldier in Assad's army, with the presenter claiming that the mourners “fear the rise of Sunni Islamic extremists.” The statement of one mourner goes unchallenged by the presenter: "My brother was fighting terrorists in Aleppo,” the mourner says. “Infiltrators are entering Syria, but we don't know where they're coming from."
Ibrahim said such instances are examples of a lack of balance in the BBC film. “You cannot just quote someone without getting the other side to respond,” he said.
Critics also say that Snow’s conclusion - that the current conflict in Syria is one of “secularism versus religion" – oversimplifies the matter, and is identical to Assad’s portrayal of the conflict. “To tackle it from a sectarian point of view does not give the full picture,” said Ibrahim.
The BBC program does make reference to non-sectarian factors behind the revolution. It mentioned the draught, population growth and jobs shortage since Assad came into power, and quotes a Syrian refugee in Lebanon who says "all we wanted was democracy, freedom and equality."
However, the documentary failed to shed light on the March 2011 incidents in Daraa, which at one point was described by rival news network, CNN, as the "spark that lit the Syrian flame.”
At the time, the arrest of at least 15 children for painting anti-government graffiti on the walls of a school in Daraa and the subsequent community outrage at the arrest and mistreatment escalated to the crisis the country is living two years on.
"Syrians compare the dramatic dynamics in the rural city to the moment Tunisian vendor Mohammad Bouazizi torched himself in December 2010," added a CNN.com report published last year.
But some say the line taken by the BBC documentary is suspiciously close to Assad’s portrayal of the conflict as one between a secular state versus religious extremists, in which minority groups are under threat.
“The revolution in Syria at the moment is primarily a Sunni Muslim revolution,” Dan Snow says in the program. "The conflict in Syria is attracting Sunni Islamic extremist fighters from Syria and abroad - some linked to Al Qaeda, who have carried out car-bombings… Elements of the Free Syrian Army have been blamed for summary executions and torture of Alawites and other supporters of Assad's regime… Such atrocities are terrifying Alawites, who are scared that the oppression and bloodshed of the past is about to repeat itself."
Hussam Eddin Mohammad, president of the Syrian Media Institute and vice president of the Syrian Writers’ Association, said he was “disappointed” by the BBC documentary.
“The whole program was orchestrated or staged to provide a similar narrative to the regime instead of an independent view on Syria,” he said.
“They are providing this black-and-white view, making all [members of] the Syrian revolution as Islamist and portraying the Syrian regime as secular. Having Bouthaina Shaaban and Patrick Seale as the main commentators was not very balanced.”
Mohammad said it was “deceiving” for the program to suggest that Assad is protecting minorities. “Describing the regime as a protector of minorities and mentioning the Christians several times is very, very dangerous,” he said.
Mohammad said at least a dozen of his Syrian friends objected to the documentary. He too is demanding an apology from the BBC, as well as “an investigation into how this program was arranged, and what editorial policy was applied.”
“They provided one side of the story,” Mohammed added. “I will ask the Syrian writers in the UK to sign this petition against this program.”
Other commentators were less critical.
“I’m not angry… my overview of the documentary is quite positive,” said Wael Aleji, a member of the Syrian Revolution General Commission and Syrian National Council. “I watched the documentary and I remember noticing some minor mistakes regarding some information. But I don’t think it affected the credibility.”
But even Aleji acknowledged that the BBC show focused too heavily on the sectarian elements of the conflict.
“There was some emphasis on the sectarian element, which is quite prominent at the moment but at the beginning wasn’t,” he said.
“When the revolution started, it was about dignity, freedom and democracy – which is still the same. But the religious and sectarian tension is very high at the moment, because the nature of the regime is sectarian.”
For its part, the BBC was quick to defend ‘A History of Syria’ with Dan Snow. “We're satisfied the description of events is balanced and impartial and the program is made in accordance to our editorial guidelines meeting our usual rigorous journalistic standards,” a BBC spokesperson told Al Arabiya.
The uproar caused by the BBC show is not the first time the British media has been accused of pandering to the Syrian regime in recent weeks.
Earlier this month, a source knowledgeable of Assad's media operations told Al Arabiya that The Sunday Times newspaper provided Bashar al-Assad with questions ahead of a recent interview, allowing the embattled president time to prepare responses in advance.
It is unusual for media to provide questions prior to an interview, raising questions over whether the British newspaper gave aAssad special treatment, and inadvertently aided the Syrian president’s ongoing public relations offensive in the West.
The Sunday Times opted not to comment when asked by Al Arabiya on if they had indeed provided the questions to Assad prior to the interview.
Issues over the British media’s stance on Syria come at a critical time for the war-torn country.
Britain said on Tuesday it could break with a European Union embargo on Syria, and help arm opposition fighters battling against Assad’s regime.
Ibrahim said the BBC documentary could potentially have “a bad impact” on the Syrian revolution. “Obviously the media has a strong role in creating public opinion,” he said.