Ana Maria Luca
If you wanted to see the revolution against the regime of Hosni Mubarak unfold in Cairo's Tahrir Square in February 2011, all you had to do was turn your TV on Al Jazeera or Al-Arabyia. But when the rumor spread that there were protests taking place in Daraa, Syria at the end of February, the only news sources were Twitter, Youtube and Facebook.
It took a few weeks for the media to pick up on the Syrian uprising. Journalists on the ground say it is because no news outlets have had real access to what is happening in Syria and have had to rely on information received via social media from sources difficult to verify, as the government in Damascus has expelled foreign journalists and threatened Arab correspondents.
But for some analysts the problem goes far beyond that, to editorial policies and the way the media frames the news.
It was five or six weeks after the start of the demonstrations – when Syrian protesters actually asked for the downfall of President Bashar al-Assad, burned pictures of him and tore down statues of his father – that the media's take on the uprising shifted. Al Jazeera correspondent Cal Perry witnessed and wrote about a massacre in Daraa, and refugees from Syrian towns made it into Lebanon and talked about other abuses by the state.
Some analysts and activists blame certain media outlets for making a “pact with the devil” in order to be able to stay in Syria and give restricted coverage on the protests. Yet one journalist who tried to cover the demonstrations and was turned away from Daraa told NOW Lebanon that reporting on the Syrian demonstrations was more difficult than covering the uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia and even Bahrain.
"I have been in Bahrain. It was difficult to get the visa. They wanted us out in 72 hours, but once we were in, there was no constraint. We could talk to whomever we wanted. But Syria is another thing. I had two security agents assigned only to me," the journalist said on condition of anonymity.
Most Western media outlets, such as BBC, Reuters and the Associated Press, are covering the uprising from Lebanon, Jordan or even Cyprus, after having their reporters expelled from Syria. Al Jazeera and Al-Arabyia, the main pan-Arab news channels, remained on the ground, but according to sources they were told to keep their reports from exposing too much.
"I don't know how much is the Syrian security control and how much is self-censorship," the journalist said. "It's so difficult to go to the field and stay there to report, so you do everything possible to stay there. On the ground some reporters might get softer in order to be able to deliver their report. But I can't say we haven't pushed the limits. We had our equipment confiscated, we went to Daraa. We ended up with a piece of paper allowing us to work only in Damascus [where it is much quieter]," the reporter added.
But the journalist also says that the picture is not as clear in Syria as it was in Egypt. "The first few days there was no information at all. The activists were giving exaggerated data, and the authorities were not saying anything. Then, after it was clear that there was a Syrian uprising, you can't tell if people are asking for the same things in Daraa, in Latakia and in Homs."
Malik al Abdeh, a British journalist of Syrian origin and editor-in-chief of Barada TV, says that the lack of access to information and self-censorship by reporters who have been threatened by the regime are important obstacles to the coverage of the protests, but not the only ones.
The main reason is that the events in towns across the country were not framed as a revolution, as was the Egyptian Spring, but as a reform movement, he said.
Even the demonstrators themselves had a role in the media framing their protests in that light, he said. "When it began, protesters avoided saying they wanted the downfall of Bashar al-Assad, but they were asking for reforms. Even the BBC and Al Jazeera were calling them ‘pro-reform’ demonstrators as opposed to ‘anti-regime demonstrators’," he added.
Another reason Abdeh said the Syrian protests were less present in media was that most opinion leaders were skeptical that a revolution was possible under Bashar al-Assad's rule. "The Syria watchers were not prepared for the Syrian uprising at all. Academics in the West who wrote about Syria always held the belief that change in Syria would be difficult, that Bashar al-Assad is popular in the country. That was the general perception within foreign policy circles," he told NOW Lebanon. He believes that the influential Western and Arab analysts thought that the Syrian regime's anti-US foreign policy and the regime’s history of brutal reprisal against dissent made it less vulnerable.
The journalist who spoke to NOW Lebanon agrees. "While I was there, I didn’t hear the protesters in Syria saying, ‘We want to end the regime.’ If they don't say it, I can't say it. The media is not responsible to push the protests in Syria; our job is to show what is happening."