How Western travel bloggers project a sanitized reality of Syria’s war

Special How Western travel bloggers project a sanitized reality of Syria’s war
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YouTubers are falling for the Assad regime's propaganda and casting doubt on who is to blame for destruction in Syria. (AFP)
Special How Western travel bloggers project a sanitized reality of Syria’s war
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YouTubers are falling for the Assad regime's propaganda and casting doubt on who is to blame for destruction in Syria. (AFP)
Special How Western travel bloggers project a sanitized reality of Syria’s war
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YouTubers are falling for the Assad regime's propaganda and casting doubt on who is to blame for destruction in Syria. (AFP)
Special How Western travel bloggers project a sanitized reality of Syria’s war
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YouTubers are falling for the Assad regime's propaganda and casting doubt on who is to blame for destruction in Syria. (AFP)
Special How Western travel bloggers project a sanitized reality of Syria’s war
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YouTubers are falling for the Assad regime's propaganda and casting doubt on who is to blame for destruction in Syria. (AFP)
Special How Western travel bloggers project a sanitized reality of Syria’s war
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YouTubers are falling for the Assad regime's propaganda and casting doubt on who is to blame for destruction in Syria. (AFP)
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Updated 30 August 2022

How Western travel bloggers project a sanitized reality of Syria’s war

How Western travel bloggers project a sanitized reality of Syria’s war
  • YouTubers often emphasize security and normality, stressing how they feel “perfectly safe” in war-torn country 
  • Human rights monitors warn such content gives the wrong impression Syria is safe for returnees 

LONDON: Saddled with a bankrupt economy, a devastated infrastructure and a worthless currency, the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad is on a desperate mission to mend relations with its neighbors and expedite its return to the Arab League.

Although political rehabilitation on a global scale remains a bridge too far, the Assad government has made some progress in rebuilding its ties with Arab states, as evidenced by the reopening of some embassies in Damascus and the return of Syrian ambassadors to some Arab capitals.

With active conflict easing across large swaths of Syria — remaining rebel factions are confined to isolated holdouts in the far south and northwest — the regime has increasingly turned to tourism in an attempt to whitewash its well-documented crimes against humanity.

In recent months, Western travel bloggers and YouTubers have flocked to regime-held areas of Syria in record numbers in search of images and testimonies they believe offer a candid, agenda-free look inside the outcast dictatorship.

Content of this kind, which includes videos that in some cases have amassed more than 2.5 million views, is often presented as a perspective on the “Syria that the media won’t show,” as Benjamin Rich, a British vlogger who goes by the YouTube user name “Bald and Bankrupt,” put it in a recent upload.




Benjamin Rich (‘Bald and Bankrupt’) filming destroyed buildings in Homs. (Supplied)

But human-rights monitors and experts are concerned that this rise of “war tourism” projects a sanitized version of reality that serves the regime’s disinformation campaign about Syria now being safe for refugees to return and resume their normal lives.

“Travel bloggers are perhaps the best advertising the Syrian government has had in over a decade,” Simon Bayley, the lead Syria analyst at the Center for Operational Analysis and Research, told Arab News.

“They tell only stories that the government would tell, gloss over the crimes of the state, and neglect realities that the government would consider best ignored. There can be no accountability, only more denial, control and marginalization of the many millions of Syrians to have lost loved ones, homes and livelihoods as a result of the regime’s actions.”

In several videos, bloggers appear keen to emphasize a sense of security and normality in Syria, for example by stressing how “perfectly safe” they feel, as YouTube user “Backpacker Ben” stated in one of his videos. “We were walking around, drinking beers on the street, talking to people,” he said.




‘Backpacker Ben’ filming a destroyed rebel stronghold in Maaloula, in rural Damascus. (Supplied)

But the Syria Justice and Accountability Center, a human rights organization based in Washington, D.C., warned that the content uploaded by travel bloggers creates a false impression of stability and security.

“Syria is clearly not safe for the return of refugees,” Mohammed Al-Abdallah, the center’s executive director, told Arab News. “But, if you watch these videos, you see a Syria that is safe, stable and, in some ways, prospering.”

The videos also appear to suggest the conflict in the country is largely over and life is returning to normal.

“Syrians who return to Syria don’t have those same experiences and often face intense suspicion and persecution by the Syrian government,” said Al-Abdallah.

According to human rights monitors, including the European Asylum Support Office, the Syrian regime continues to arrest, detain, interrogate, torture and kill returnees, despite many of them obtaining security clearances and status settlement before returning to Syria.

“For millions of Syrians, returning to Syria is not an option,” Laila Kiki, the executive director of rights-monitoring group The Syria Campaign, told Arab News.

“Several human rights reports indicate that those who do so have been arrested, forcibly disappeared, tortured or even killed.”

“Backpacker Ben” told Arab News that he does not have any political agenda and was not aware of the situation that returning refugees faced. He said that since he published his videos, displaced Syrians have sent him messages expressing “confusion” on seeing, of all people, a tourist visiting their war-torn homeland.

INNUMBERS

100,000+ Estimated number of people missing or disappeared.

50% Proportion of the prewar population who are displaced.

90% Share of the remaining population now living in poverty.

Source: UN Human Rights office

Many travel bloggers say they are apolitical and know little about the Syrian conflict. Some, however, try to offer explanations for the scenes of destruction they encounter and film during their travels. Many critics suspect that they are merely repeating and amplifying talking points fed to them by regime-approved tour guides.

For example, videos uploaded by Rich (“Bald and Bankrupt”) show bombed-out buildings in Aleppo, Homs and Maaloula. Tellingly, he attributes the damage to “militants” without any mention of the Assad regime, whose war tactics are widely blamed for most of the destruction of Syria’s urban infrastructure.




Thomas Brag (‘Yes Theory’) in abandoned neighborhoods in Homs. (Supplied)

When travel bloggers are shown around Damascus, many of them venture to the nearby town of Sednaya to visit a renowned Greek Orthodox Church monastery. What these bloggers often gloss over is the fact that one of Syria’s most notorious prisons, where thousands of regime opponents have been tortured to death, is also located in Sednaya.

Bloggers’ visits are usually arranged through Syrian travel agencies that claim to be independent. However, experts say these agencies, like all other companies in the country, must obtain the approval of the Assad regime to operate.




Jaabar Citadel, the ancient lake-side fortress once used by jihadists to launch attacks, is slowly regaining its status as a top cultural destination. (AFP)

“For a country in which it is practically impossible to establish a volunteer charity initiative without considerable — often wholly prohibitive — interference from the central state, it is improbable that a Syrian travel agency has been able to secure the requisite licensing, permissions and access without some form of state intervention,” said Bayley.

Such travel agencies are carefully vetted by state security services, he said, and it is likely they are made well aware of the consequences for their business if their tours result in any bad publicity for the regime.

“Backpacker Ben” said he was accompanied throughout his visit to Syria by a “fixer” who guided him around the country. He admitted feeling “slightly restricted” as a result. Such guides appear to stay at the same hotels as their tour parties.




A family visits the ruins of the Jaabar Citadel in Syria's Raqqa province on June 3, 2022. The ancient lake-side fortress is attracting visitors from across war-torn Syria. (AFP) 

Hesham Nasri, the marketing director at Syrian travel agency Golden Team, told Arab news that tour operators typically take care of the entire process for foreign clients, from obtaining visas to creating itineraries.

He said the agency applies to government authorities for all required security clearances on behalf of clients who want to visit Syria, and the permits that allow the tourists and their guides to travel around the country.

Although Nasri said no conditions are attached to the security-clearance process, Syrian immigration authorities have been known to reject the visa applications of certain nationalities, notably American citizens.




What the gullible travel bloggers are not saying is the danger that awaits visitors in much of war-ravaged Syria. (AFP file)

Monitors say that by facilitating such stage-managed visits for often ill-informed and gullible travel bloggers, the regime is able to peddle its propaganda in cyberspace and bypass the professional rigour of conventional journalism.

“In future, I hope those with an online presence are mindful as to the consequences of their actions in such a politically sensitive place,” said Bayley.

“Regardless of how much one knows about the conflict, it is abundantly clear that a war is still being fought and that the wounds from that conflict are still very much open for many millions of people.”

 

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Saudi version of global ‘Idol’ talent show announced

Saudi version of global ‘Idol’ talent show announced
Updated 24 September 2022

Saudi version of global ‘Idol’ talent show announced

Saudi version of global ‘Idol’ talent show announced
  • Four famous Arab artists to judge contestants as filming starts in October
  • A joint venture between Saudi GEA and MBC Group, the program discovers local talent, mainly in Riyadh

RIYADH: A Saudi version of the international ‘Idol’ talent show franchise was unveiled on Saturday in a partnership between the Kingdom’s General Entertainment Authority (GEA) and MBC Group.
GEA’s chairman Turki Al-Sheikh tweeted that the Authority and MBC engaged in a partnership to launch the first season of “Saudi Idol,” which will kick off in December.
With filming scheduled to start in October, the Saudi Idol program will attempt to unearth local talent, mainly in Riyadh, with a four-member jury that constitutes of Saudi singer Aseel Abu Bakr, Emirati singer and actress Ahlam, popular Arab singer Asala (Syrian), and Iraqi-Saudi singer and composer Majed Al Mohandis.
“I’m happy to announce a new partnership between GEA and MBC Group to launch Saudi Idol… The program begins in December 2022” tweeted Al-Sheikh.
MBC’s program, “Trending,” a show that sheds light on news of artists, announced the start of preparations for the Saudi talent show with filming scheduled to start next month.
Announcing registration for the program, MBC tweeted: “You have a beautiful voice and would you like to sing? Do you like competition and enter the world of limelight and fame? Participate in the largest singing program. Don’t miss the chance, register now.”

 

 


MBC Group and Dubai Business Women Council host Women in Media forum

MBC Group and Dubai Business Women Council host Women in Media forum
Updated 24 September 2022

MBC Group and Dubai Business Women Council host Women in Media forum

MBC Group and Dubai Business Women Council host Women in Media forum
  • Two companies have signed a strategic partnership to coordinate their efforts to further women’s careers

DUBAI: The Dubai Business Women Council organized the “Women in Media” forum in collaboration with MBC Group, to discuss the role that media organizations can play in increasing the representation and accountability of women in media.

The event is part of the council’s #DBWCFORUMS initiative, which includes a series of talks that aim to raise awareness about the challenges and opportunities for women in different industries. 

During the event, MBC Group and DBWC signed a memorandum of understanding, which aims to coordinate and align both companies’ efforts in providing their female employees and members with access to mentorship programs, workshops and speaker sessions.

“This collaboration is of special importance as it unites two partners who value women and recognize their critical contribution to the economy,” said Nadine Halabi, business development manager of the Dubai Business Women Council.

“The council will continue to be committed to harnessing all available resources to serve its members and the business community, by organizing specialized events and seminars that add value to their personal and professional lives,” she said.

The forum focused on the importance of maximizing women’s strengths and potential to advance media work, develop strong female media role models, increase gender diversity, and foster a culture of success in the media industry.

Participants discussed the mechanisms needed to ensure balanced female representation in media, the best practices adopted by media leaders and officials, and the value of diversity in the workplace.

Samar Akrouk, group director of production at MBC Group, who held a fireside chat at the event, said: “MBC Group is proud to be a progressive trailblazer — on and off screen — in promoting gender equality. Throughout our organization and across most departments we have women in top leadership positions, as well as women that are identified and set on leadership tracks.”

“However, we are progressive enough to look at ourselves and say we can do more — and we will do more,” she said.

Akrouk highlighted self-limiting beliefs and how they can affect women in the workplace. She also offered advice on how to overcome these beliefs and offered guidance to those seeking a career in media.

The forum also featured three panel discussions.

The first panel brought together Rana Alamuddin, founder of BAYNEH W BAYNEK; Sally Moussa Hajjar, managing partner, Humanagement and Mohammed Abdulhaq, executive producer at MBC Group, to discuss the role and responsibility of media outlets in creating positive role models for regional audiences.

The second panel saw Bedriya Al-Saeed, employee engagement manager at MBC Group; Tala Obeidat, client partner, Leading Retail & Restaurants, Meta and Sara Eltarzi, communications director at OSN, discuss the steps and policies that led to better inclusivity and gender parity in media organizations.

The third and final panel brought together Rola Ghotmeh, founder and chief creative officer, The Creative 9; Natasha Romariz Maasri, executive creative director, Leo Burnett MEA and Andrej Arsenijevic, executive creative director and sustainability lead at Commonwealth McCann Dubai, to talk about responsible and impactful advertising and how to push boundaries through strategic messaging in society.

“We are thrilled to collaborate with MBC Group and look forward to coordinating our future efforts to develop the abilities of women and female business owners while also assisting them in acquiring media and marketing skills that can advance their careers,” Halabi said.
 


STARZPLAY reveals Saudi viewership trends

STARZPLAY reveals Saudi viewership trends
Updated 23 September 2022

STARZPLAY reveals Saudi viewership trends

STARZPLAY reveals Saudi viewership trends
  • Comedy, anime and Arabic drama are most watched categories in Kingdom

DUBAI: Regional streaming platform STARZPLAY has released a study revealing the viewership trends of Saudi audiences in 2022.

Comedy, anime and Arabic drama were the most watched categories in the Kingdom, the study found.

“The Big Bang Theory,” “The Office and “Two and a Half Men” are among the top watched comedy shows, while “Naruto,” “Naruto: Shippuden” and “Attack on Titan” top the list of anime shows.

In line with the popularity of anime content, STARZPLAY is adding an anime movie, “One Piece: Stampede” by Takashi Otsuka, to its library.

This year, “Ertugrul” and “Al Mo’asses Osman” were the most watched Turkish titles among Saudi viewers, while the new seasons of “Bab Al-Hara” and “Al-Daheeh” topped the charts for premium Arabic content.

In addition to these categories, Saudi audiences also favored exclusive action movies like “Hummingbird,” “Wild Card,” “Gringo” and “Misfits,” as well as first-run movie releases such as “House of Gucci,” “Infinite,” “Last Seen Alive” and “Clean.”

The most binge-watched shows this year included “Dexter: New Blood,” “The Flash,” “Your Honor,” “Young Sheldon,” “The Good Doctor” and “Mr. Robot.”

Most STARZPLAY users in Saudi Arabia streamed content via their TVs, with 42 percent of all consumption occuring on smart TVs, followed by iOS and Android devices.

“While anime, comedy and Arabic drama remain favorite genres for our viewers, we also saw an increasing interest for live sporting events this year, which has immensely benefited our position as the ultimate platform for sports in the MENA region,” said Nadim Dada, vice-president of programming and content acquisition at STARZPLAY.

In celebration of Saudi National Day, all new users who sign up on the day can enjoy a discounted rate of SR9.2 ($2.4) per month with lifetime validity.

The Kingdom “continues to be one of our largest markets, with our platform witnessing stupendous growth this year,” said Dada, who added: “We look forward to strengthening our presence in the market.”


Media rights watchdog condemns arrest of Iranian journalists as anti-state protests spread

Media rights watchdog condemns arrest of Iranian journalists as anti-state protests spread
Updated 23 September 2022

Media rights watchdog condemns arrest of Iranian journalists as anti-state protests spread

Media rights watchdog condemns arrest of Iranian journalists as anti-state protests spread
  • Government-imposed internet blackout makes it difficult to obtain information on individuals in detention

LONDON: Media rights watchdog Committee to Protect Journalists has demanded the release of all journalists detained while reporting on anti-government protests in Iran.

“Iranian authorities must immediately and unconditionally release all journalists arrested while covering mass protests around the country and restore blocked internet access to the country,” the CPJ said in a statement on Thursday.

As reported by CPJ, Iranian authorities have arrested at least seven journalists since protests began last Saturday.

A government-imposed, near-total internet blackout has caused major disruptions to phone networks and social media apps, making it difficult to obtain further information about individuals who have been detained.

According to exile-based Iranian human rights group Hengaw Organization for Human Rights, clashes between security forces and protesters have left 15 people dead and 733 injured.

“Iranian authorities must immediately release all journalists arrested because of their coverage of Mahsa Amini’s death and the protests that have followed,” said CPJ’s Middle East and North Africa program coordinator, Sherif Mansour.

“Iranian security forces must drop their repressive measures against the journalists telling this critical story and restore the internet access that is vital to keep the public informed.”

Protests erupted across Iran last week following the death of Amini, a 22-year-old woman detained by morality police after allegedly violating Iran’s strict hijab law.

Women first took to the streets to protest against police brutality and call for more freedom from Islamic law, which requires them to cover their hair and wear long, baggy clothing.

In the past few days protests intensified, with other women posting online videos of themselves cutting their hair and burning the hijab.

On Monday, authorities arrested photojournalist Yalda Moaiery. Two days later,  reporter Niloofar Hamedi was detained after security forces raided her home and confiscated personal devices.

Recent events in Iran have provoked an international outcry, with protesters staging rallies in front of Iranian embassies worldwide.

 


People with hearing disabilities to experience Saudi anthem at this year’s National Day

People with hearing disabilities to experience Saudi anthem at this year’s National Day
The flag features multi-force sensors woven into the fabric of a Saudi Arabian flag. (Supplied)
Updated 23 September 2022

People with hearing disabilities to experience Saudi anthem at this year’s National Day

People with hearing disabilities to experience Saudi anthem at this year’s National Day
  • Haptic technology used to create immersive flag experience, bringing music to life

LONDON: The King Salman Center for Disability Research and Saudi Research & Media Group announced on Thursday the launch of cutting-edge haptic technology that allows people with hearing disabilities to experience the Kingdom’s national anthem.

The two companies have teamed up to design a wearable “hearing flag” that enables people to “feel” the song as part of a campaign celebrating Saudi Arabia’s 92nd National Day.

The flag features multi-force sensors woven into the fabric of a Saudi Arabian flag, to create an immersive experience that brings music to life in a way that can be felt physically on the body.

“Using the ‘hearing flag,’ people can immerse themselves in sound through real-time touch haptics which recreate the sensation of sound on the body,” said the two companies in a statement.

King Salman Center for Disability Research tweeted from its official account: “Have you heard of a sound that gives life? Have you heard of a flag that sings to the nation?”

The campaign, which is a partnership between the for-profit and nonprofit sectors, highlights how Saudi National Day “symbolizes the spirit of cooperation and empowerment of all members of society.”

To promote the initiative, King Salman Center for Disability Research and SRMG also launched an emotional campaign film across social media platforms depicting people’s first encounters with the flag and their own national anthem.

The flag, born out an idea by SRMG, was produced by London-based wearable technology brand CuteCircuit, which pioneers smart textile and interactive fashion.