Tall tales and outright misinformation plague war reporting in Syria, claims Absi Smesem, the editor-in-chief of a new weekly Syrian newspaper based in Turkey.
He hopes to leave behind what he disparaged as the ‘Facebook phase’ of reporting on the Syrian uprising, reported New York Times on Monday.
Smesem believes more objective coverage is essential in the effort to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad.
Too often, says Smesem, he could not believe the news on internationally broadcast satellite channels. According to him, news channels rely heavily on unfiltered reports from local activists, if all else fails they simply use social media websites as a source of information.
Lost in translationSmesem tells of an incident in which his hometown of Binnish in northern Syria came under siege by the Syrian Army. An activist-cum-correspondent used the term “dabahoona dbah,” to describe the situation. In Arabic this literally means “we are being slaughtered,” however in the northern Syrian dialect it is used to mean “we cannot breathe.”
Within minutes, according to Smesem, a breaking headline flashed across the television screen saying Syrian government forces were committing a massacre in Binnish.
“There are no objective sources of information on either side, neither with the regime nor the rebels,” said Smesem, a veteran reporter.
“We need to get out of this Facebook phase, where all we do is whine and complain about the regime,” he said.
Smesem believes that rampant exaggeration of the facts has harmed the cause of the rebellion. “When the regime simply denied the news, and they were right, that gave the regime more credibility,” he said.
According to the New York Times, coverage of the Syrian crisis has seriously eroded the reputation of some Arab news broadcasters, some of which have now been tarnished with allegations of having a political agenda.
“The major pan-Arab networks have lost a great deal of credibility on the Syria story,” said Marc Lynch, director of the Middle East studies program at George Washington University.
It is this perceived lack of objectivity that encouraged Smesem to open Sham, his newspaper that began publishing in February.
Syria’s media scene
The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, an opposition group which is stronger in exile, just began publishing its own newspaper, Al-Ahd.
An additional weekly paper, Free Syria, is being published in Turkey. The paper shares an ideological standpoint with Sham in that it aims to endorse pluralism, democracy and moderate Islam.
At least one military brigade is also publishing its own paper, named Brigades, and numerous extremist groups, including the Nusra Front, or Jabhet al-Nusra, tend to print short pamphlets to spread their ideas.
In many ways Sham is the most professional media outlet on the scene due to its well-ordered layout and links with the Sham News Network, an activists news outlet and research center.
Sham’s reporting style
Smesem says that he relies on 15 reporters spread throughout Syria. His efforts to avoid using activists to cover the news means that input from embattled cities such as Deir al-Zour in the east, is sometimes sparse.
The paper is geared towards both a Syrian and international market, says Smesem.
“The distribution is a bit random,” delivery inside Syria is often determined by which roads are safe. Of the 6,000 copies printed, up to 4,000 are distributed free throughout the country, while the rest are available by subscription abroad.
Despite the paper’s staunch backing of the revolution, Smesem and his editorial team strive to include the Syrian government viewpoint; this involves their relying on official statements.