BOB GARFIELD: We have frequently discussed the problems of reporting the battle between rebels and government forces in Syria, chiefly getting into the country to witness the fighting. Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, the most watched Arab satellite news channels, have nonetheless covered the story heavily. But the question is how well.
Blogger and political commentator Sultan Al-Qassemi believes that both channels have played the story up big at the expense of basic journalistic standards, including excessive deference to the Gulf States that sponsor them.
SULTAN AL QASSEMI: Qatar established Al Jazeera in 1996. In 2003, weeks before the US invasion of Iraq, Al Jazeera’s competition, Al Arabiya, was launched, mainly financed by Saudi, Lebanese and other Gulf money.
BOB GARFIELD: Tell me what you see as being the most obvious and perhaps pernicious journalistic misbehavior.
SULTAN AL QASSEMI: For instance, Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya would host individuals who would speak for 15, 20 minutes about events on the ground, when they were not even in the country. Sometimes, even if they were be in the country, they would be hundreds of miles away from the scene of events.
The background of some of these activists is never investigated. The channels do not give disclaimers about them not being able to verify these videos or these claims. There is a pattern that we noticed with them being clearly sympathetic of the rebels. That is not the job of a channel that I’m supposed to turn to for neutral news.
BOB GARFIELD: Maybe the most astonishing example of what you’ve just described is the appearance, I think on both channels, of the cleric, Adnan al-Aroor. He’s presented as a kind of disinterested voice on the subject but has said the most incendiary things about the Assad regime and the Alawite minority that supports him.
SULTAN AL QASSEMI: And their clamor to host anyone who will criticize the brutal regime of Bashar al-Assad. The channels have gone to a – an unprecedented length by hosting a vile cleric who has said the most horrific things about a minority, a sect that is part and parcel of the community that is Syria. He’s encouraging people to take revenge on them.
BOB GARFIELD: To, quote, “Mince them in meat grinders and feed their flesh to the dogs.”
SULTAN AL QASSEMI: Amongst other things.
BOB GARFIELD: And Al Jazeera, the guy running the Syrian desk, is the brother of a leader in the Syrian National Council, which sounds innocuous enough but it happens to be the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria.
SULTAN AL QASSEMI: Well the SNC is a Muslim Brotherhood-dominated opposition group, and an investigation by the, the Lebanese newspaper Al Akhbar found that these two individuals m – one who works in Al Jazeera who handles the Syrian desk, and one who is a senior member of the SNC, are, in fact, brothers, but they go by different last names in order to hide this affiliation. This also builds into a very strong relationship between Al Jazeera and the Muslim Brotherhood organization, not only in Syria but also in Egypt and elsewhere.
BOB GARFIELD: We’ve ‘til now discussed sins of commission. There are also sins of omission, you say, chiefly obscuring the fact that some members of the rebel forces are not necessarily good guys themselves. For example, some of them are al Qaeda.
SULTAN AL QASSEMI: There have been reports for over a year now that there are elements of extreme Sunni Islamist groups that have been operating in Syria. As the evidence mounts, these channels continue to dismiss it, perhaps only very briefly mention this quite alarming development.
BOB GARFIELD: If you’re right about all of this, that the bias is clear and sinister, are Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya fighting a proxy war against Iran, through their support of the Syrian opposition?
SULTAN AL QASSEMI: Well, the… Al Ababiya and Al Jazeera are very much an extension of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the countries that back them. So whatever the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of their countries just to be a worthy cause, these channels propagate that cause. I don’t know if it is so much anti-Iran as it is trying to influence the outcome of one of the last Arab states that hasn’t been deconstructed yet.
And so, Syria with its strategic position, the makeup of the population is a very important state. And so, whoever emerges triumphantly on the outcome of this civil war could either be an ally of the Al Jazeera backers or the backers of Al Arabiya.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, to be clear here, finding fault with a pro-rebel slant at Al Jazeera or Al Arabiya does not equal defending the Bashar al-Assad regime.
SULTAN AL QASSEMI: This regime is evil. It has caused the deaths of 20,000 people at least. My sympathies lie with the people who want to see the end of this regime. However, I refuse to be told a story that is, in one way or the other, curated for the benefit of one party or the other.
BOB GARFIELD: Sultan, thank you so much.
SULTAN AL QASSEMI: Thank you very much.
BOB GARFIELD: Political commentator Sultan Al Qassemi wrote about Syria coverage on foreignpolicy.com.