Propaganda, lies and videos: Russian media and the Khan Sheikhun massacre

Syrians inspect the rubble of damaged buildings hit by airstrikes in the town of Khan Sheikhun in rebel-held Idlib, Syria.
Updated 17 April 2017

Propaganda, lies and videos: Russian media and the Khan Sheikhun massacre

BEIRUT: In his comments of the latest chemical bombardment in northern Syria, Russian President Vladimir Putin mocked what he descried as the “Western account” of what happened in Khan Sheikhun.
Referring to confirmations that civilians were targeted with chemical bombs by the regime of President Bashar Assad, the Russian president described this as no more than a “play.”
Putin’s statements are the latest propaganda pumped out by Russian media and allied media sources.
Beginning with the Russian military intervention in Syria in 2015, such propaganda and the Russian narrative has focused on the idea that all massacres are carried out by the “extremist” opposition, with no links made to the Syrian regime or Russian forces.
This propaganda reached an all-time high with the Khan Sheikhun massacre, both in terms of quantity and scope.
There is no mention of the testimonies of survivors, nor reports about Abdul Hamid Youssef, the Syrian father who lost his twin babies and 20 members of his family. There is also no mention of the documented history of massacres, bombings, and chemical attacks mentioned in international reports, the most recent of which was issued last month by Human Rights Watch.
There is only one story being amplified. Since 4 April, the day of the Khan Sheikhun attack that killed at least 87 civilians, including 31 children, Russian media, particularly Russia Today and Sputnik, have broadcast content almost daily that questions the root of the massacre or attributes the killing to the armed opposition.
For example, Russia Today posted reports attributed to Russian military analysts claiming that images of the town do not contain evidence of the use of live bombs containing chemical materials. It also carried an analytical piece about the timing of the bombing, and why such a bombing does not benefit Bashar Assad.
Of course, there was no mention about the identity of the “experts” cited, nor the evidence upon which they based their views.
Similarly, Sputnik broadcasted a report on one channel that claimed that the bases of the Syrian regime targeted by US missile strikes do not contain chemical materials. Again, there was no mention of evidence or documented analyzes; rather, just more pumping out of fake news.
The peak of news fabrication came in a broadcast by Sputnik, which claimed that the children who died in the Khan Sheikhun massacre were not killed by chemical weapons launched by the Syrian regime, but rather were killed by the civil defense volunteers known as the White Helmets.
The news was based on reports falsely attributed to Swedish doctors alleged to have said, according to a Russian site, that they “uncovered the deceit of the White Helmets.”
To trace back to the root of the story, Sputnik had published news on behalf of Veterans Today that was supposedly a translation of a report by the Swedish doctors.
Russian media, through Sputnik and Russia Today, spread the fake news extensively across all social media outlets and other media sources loyal to the Syrian regime, from Al-Alam to Al-Manar to Al-Maydan and other websites. All described the chemical massacre as an “act” produced by the White Helmets who, according to the Russian narrative, “did not rescue Syrian children but instead killed them in order to produce media images and videos that look more realistic.”
This series of fake reporting began with a lie that was circulated and republished to the extent that the original news got lost. Much of this propaganda in fact stems from one source, as it became evident that even sites that translated the news, such as the English site South Front are registered in Moscow.
The irony is that this fake news that has continued to spread, even after the Swedish organization attributed and linked to the report refuted it. In a published statement confirming that it analyzed some videos published the White Helmets, Swedish Doctors for Human Rights did not accuse them of killing children. In response to Russian allegations, it said “this rhetoric is inaccurate and does not represent our position on the mentioned case.”
Yet Russian media have insisted on exaggerating and distorting the false claims, rebroadcasting them in different formats on different sites loyal to Russian policy. All these outlets have continued to broadcast the build on the inaccurate version of the news, even after the organization issued its clarification.
Usually, a statement as clear as the one published by the Swedish organization and made available on its official website would end any debate around the issue. But this is not the case.
And this is an illustration of the extent to which Russian propaganda is based on spreading incorrect information, as it is quite easy to clarify or correct false news if there is the desire to.
However, the sites continue to publish the fake news, showing no interest in modifying the story. A Google search will show that the dissipation of this fake news is more than double that of real news attributed to the Swedish organization, but the statement of the organization only is evident and visible when visiting the official website or through some limited sites that broadcast the fake statement.
The White Helmets is one of the primary organizations that is being focused on and targeted by Russian and Syrian media, as well other media in a similar vein. This is because this organization, through its volunteers and videos that it broadcasts, has been able to reveal a lot of the crimes carried out by the Syrian regime and Russian air forces, thus making it the main target in the campaign attack.
When the documentary about the White Helmets won the Oscar several weeks ago, it was subject to criticism and doubt by the Russian and Syrian regimes and their media. Ultimately the stories of the organization’s volunteers allowed people around the world to feel the pain of the Syrian people and the heroism of these young volunteers in carrying out unimaginable rescue operations. Many of these volunteers paid the price with their lives, which is what makes the stories of the White Helmets among the most powerful of the Syrian War.
In reality, Russian media will not stop their attempts to label the White Helmets as propaganda for terrorism, which is the same rhetoric used by Bashar Assad in more than one interview and statement.
What is suspicious, however, is the faces that appear in these campaigns, such as that of Vanessa Beeley. She describes herself as an independent British journalist, but Google only displays her interviews with Russian or Syrian media.
According to Beeley, these White Helmets cannot be considered an independent organization because they represent the interests of Western countries that support Syrian opposition organizations. She claims it is strange that members of the White Helmets are always present in areas under the control of terrorists and organizations like Daesh or Al-Nusra Front, or loyal organizations. Of course, she fails to mention the truth that the civil defense is barred from working in regime areas.
Her Facebook page is also filled with images of her in Syria and in areas under the control of the regime. But in these images, she appears as though she is on a tourism trip. There are a number of pictures of Bashar Assad, as well as writings about her trips which essentially summarize the Syrian regime as a secular regime fighting terrorism and Western colonialism.
These examples presented are in essence are an attempt to undermine the humanity of victims of the massacre. Victims are used as collateral in a long propaganda film supervised by “terrorists” and the West, which has been repeated and broadcasting with the blessing of the Syrian regime.
However, the rise of Russian propaganda since the Kremlin began its military work is what gives these lies a more dangerous dimension. The enormous potential and vast financial investments in Russian propaganda has allowed it to spread so widely, in turn allowing such media to lift Russia out from darkness and propel its own interests.


Lebanon’s journalists suffer abuse, threats covering unrest

Updated 07 December 2019

Lebanon’s journalists suffer abuse, threats covering unrest

  • The deteriorating situation for journalists in Lebanon comes despite its decades-old reputation for being an island of free press in the Arab world

BEIRUT: Lebanese journalists are facing threats and wide-ranging harassment in their work — including verbal insults and physical attacks, even death threats — while reporting on nearly 50 days of anti-government protests, despite Lebanon’s reputation as a haven for free speech in a troubled region.
Nationwide demonstrations erupted on Oct. 17 over a plunging economy. They quickly grew into calls for sweeping aside Lebanon’s entire ruling elite. Local media outlets — some of which represent the sectarian interests protesters are looking to overthrow — are now largely seen as pro- or anti-protests, with some journalists feeling pressured to leave their workplaces over disagreements about media coverage.
The deteriorating situation for journalists in Lebanon comes despite its decades-old reputation for being an island of free press in the Arab world. Amid Lebanon’s divided politics, media staff have usually had wide range to freely express their opinions, unlike in other countries in the region where the state stifles the media.
The acts of harassment began early in the protests. MTV television reporter Nawal Berry was attacked in central Beirut in the first days of the demonstrations by supporters of the militant group Hezbollah and its allies. They smashed the camera, robbed the microphone she was holding, spat on her and kicked her in the leg.
“How is it possible that a journalist today goes to report and gets subjected to beating and humiliation? Where are we? Lebanon is the country of freedoms and democracy,” Berry said.
Outlets like MTV are widely seen as backing protesters’ demands that Lebanon’s sectarian political system be completely overturned to end decades of corruption and mismanagement.
Rival TV stations and newspapers portray the unrest — which led to the Cabinet’s resignation over a month ago — as playing into the hands of alleged plots to undermine Hezbollah and its allies. Many of those outlets are run by Hezbollah, President Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement and the Amal Movement of Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri. These media regularly blast protesters for closing roads and using other civil disobedience tactics, describing them as “bandits.”
For Berry, the media environment worsened as the unrest continued. On the night of Nov. 24, while she was covering clashes between protesters and Hezbollah and Amal supporters on a central road in Beirut, supporters of the Shiite groups chased her into a building. She hid there until police came and escorted her out.
“I was doing my job and will continue to do so. I have passed through worse periods and was able to overcome them,” said Berry, who added she is taking a short break from working because of what she passed through recently.
Hezbollah supporters also targeted Dima Sadek, who resigned last month as an anchorwoman at LBC TV. She blamed Hezbollah supporters for robbing her smartphone while she was filming protests, and said the harassment was followed by insulting and threatening phone calls to her mother, who suffered a stroke as a result of the stress.
“I have taken a decision (to be part of the protests) and I am following it. I have been waiting for this moment all my life and I have always been against the political, sectarian and corrupt system in Lebanon,” said Sadek, a harsh critic of Hezbollah, adding that she has been subjected to cyberbullying for the past four years.
“I know very well that this will have repercussions on my personal and professional life. I will go to the end no matter what the price is,” Sadek said shortly after taking part in a demonstration in central Beirut.
Protesters have also targeted journalists reporting with what are seen as pro-government outlets. OTV station workers briefly removed their logos from equipment while covering on the demonstrations to avoid verbal and physical abuse. The station is run by supporters of Aoun’s FPM.
“The protest movement has turned our lives upside down,” said OTV journalist Rima Hamdan, who during one of her reports slapped a man on his hand after he pointed his middle finger at her. She said the station’s logo “is our identity even though sometimes we had to remove it for our own safety.”
Television reporters with Hezbollah’s Al-Manar and Amal’s NBN channels were also attacked in a town near Beirut, when they were covering the closure of the highway linking the capital city with southern Lebanon by protesters. In a video, an NBN correspondent is seen being attacked, while troops and policemen stand nearby without intervening.
“This happens a lot in Lebanon because some media organizations are politicized. No one sees media organizations as they are but sees them as representing the political group that owns them,” said Ayman Mhanna, director of the Beirut-based media watchdog group SKeyes.
“The biggest problem regarding these violations is that there is no punishment,” Mhanna said. Authorities usually fail to act even when they identify those behind attacks on journalists, he added.
Coverage of the protests also led to several journalists resigning from one of Lebanon’s most prominent newspapers, Al-Akhbar, which is seen as close to Hezbollah, and the pan-Arab TV station Al-Mayadeen, which aligns closely with the policies of Iran, Syria and Venezuela.
Joy Slim, who quit as culture writer at Al-Akhbar after more than five years, said she did so after being “disappointed” with the daily’s coverage of the demonstrations. She released a video widely circulated on social media that ridiculed those who accuse the protesters of being American agents.
Sami Kleib, a prominent Lebanese journalist with a wide following around the Middle East, resigned from Al-Mayadeen last month. He said the reason behind his move was that he was “closer to the people than the authorities.”
“The Lebanese media is similar to politics in Lebanon where there is division between two axes: One that supports the idea of conspiracy theory, and another that fully backs the protest movement with its advantages and disadvantages,” Kleib said.