By Robert Fisk
August 31, 2012 “The Independent” — When Syrian gunmen stormed Damascus last month, an angry, middle-aged and bespectacled man appeared on state television with a harsh message for Syria’s “enemies”.
“They are calling this the last battle,” he roared. “Yes, I agree it is the last battle – and they will lose!” Syrian viewers were not used to straight-talking of this kind from the voice of the regime, to be sure, but also the voice of a tough new broom at the top of the government’s media operations, Omran Zoubi. The Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad, appointed him the information Minister to turn Syrian state television into a credible source of information.
Want to watch Syrian troops fighting their way through the streets of the capital? Turn to state television. To witness the sacrifice of the government army – a badly wounded Syrian soldier lying in a narrow street in Aleppo, two of his comrades trying to staunch his wounds? All you have to do is turn to a young reporter – she wears a blue helmet and a flak-jacket marked “Press” like her Western colleagues – bellowing her live report down a microphone from Aleppo on the non-state (but hardly anti-Assad) Dunia television channel.
The Syrians – and Mr Zoubi, who is a political analyst of a rare if rather intense kind within the Damascus government – have learnt a lot from CNN and Al-Jazeera. “I am one of the believers in freedom and openness,” Mr Zoubi tells me in the building which I always cynically referred to as the Temple of Truth. And in the days of Ahmed Iskandar Ahmed and Mohamed Salman – a ferocious information minister who forgave “errant” journalists but died of brain cancer, and a slightly pious man who helped the foreign press if he trusted them, but ended up under house arrest – “truth” was hard to find amid the surfeit of successful five-year plans which the poor old Syrians had to devour.
But in Syria’s darkest hour, a little bit of real truth has bubbled to the surface. Two nights ago, Bashar al-Assad gave his most important interview in months – he would fight on, he said, and the battle for Syria was far from over – to the private Dunia station. Car bombs, body parts, screaming victims, are now a daily part of the evening news. When a Dunia journalist, interviewing a badly wounded woman after the Daraya massacre, delayed paramedics who were trying to take her to hospital, Syrian viewers were so outraged that the channel was later forced to edit the interview out of its coverage. Typically, a Western satellite channel later suggested that this censorship raised suspicions about the Syrian version of the mass killings.
“Nothing can be hidden,” Mr Zoubi insists. “There is no justification to hide anything. People are used to the real facts now. Now it’s all about reflecting on the screen what happens on the street… People nowadays have a lot of options on their television channels. We want to be one of those options. I am not trying to stop people watching Al Jazeera. But I want them to be able to decide for themselves.”
He has a good deal of contempt for Al Jazeera, suggesting at one point that America’s fury with the station’s failure to tell the truth might be one emotion he shared in common with the US.
“I make an open invitation to the Syrian opposition to appear on the Syrian screen,” the minister says. “In the previous era, there was a veto about who could appear on the screen. This veto has been abolished. There have been some ‘mentalities’ that became very accustomed to the old rules – it took a bit of time to bring them towards more openness and freedom.”
The worst thing, Mr Zoubi says, would be for the television to lie. “Thus we don’t want a lying media. The difference between us and the foreign media… is that we say the truth, but in an ugly, unsophisticated way – they are so good at marketing their lies.”
Well, up to a point, Lord Copper, I said to myself. You won’t find Syrian state television investigating torture by “mukhabarat” intelligence men or the amount of “collateral damage” caused by its military firepower, deliberate murder according to the Free Syrian Army, every Western government and hosts of reporters. But only this week, CNN broadcast an “exclusive” report on Syria’s opposition in which black-hooded gunmen were referred to as “activists” – a term previously used for unarmed protesters.
On the government “side”, there are now seven television channels, one dedicated to news and another to drama, a channel which friends tell me has lost some of its appeal over recent months. With real drama on the news, who wants the theatrical version?
Regime mouthpieces: Defending the indefensible
* During the invasion of Iraq the Information Minister Muhammad Saeed al-Sahhaf earned the moniker “Comical Ali” for his dogged insistence that there were no “American infidels in Baghdad”, even as tanks massed nearby. He also came out with ludicrous sound bites such as: “Our initial assessment is that they will all die”.
* Colonel Gaddafi’s information minister, Moussa Ibrahim, would take to the podium at Tripoli’s Rixos Hotel, smooth his impressive comb-over, and harangue foreign journalists about the Libyan leader’s omnipotence.
* The propagandist most renowned for using fine words to justify heinous atrocities was Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda chief who took his own life in Hitler’s bunker.