The Media’s War: How the press is fueling Syria’s conflict

Faisal al-Qaism, AlJazeera host of broadcast program "Opposite Directions"
Faisal al-Qaism, AlJazeera host of broadcast program “Opposite Directions”

The events of the Syrian conflict have captivated the world’s attention over the past five years, primarily as a result of widespread media coverage. While much of this coverage has been quality and objective reporting, some media outlets have served to fuel violence and hatred amongst different ethnic and sectarian groups. Freedom of expression, an important principle enshrined in the international human rights framework, was one of the original demands of Syrian protesters in 2011. But international law as well as the domestic laws of many democracies monitor this freedom when speech is intended to spur violent action. Although international attention is squarely fixated on the battlefield, the war of words is playing out over the airwaves, an issue that must be addressed today by regional policymakers as well as by future accountability mechanisms.

Syria’s media landscape is divided. While many  outlets are either funded or controlled funded by the Syrian government, others in opposition to the government are based in predominantly Sunni countries like Saudi Arabia which have opposing sectarian views from Alawite rulership in Syria. Within Syria, the government’s restrictive laws censor journalists and pro-opposition sentiments. In response, new media outlets have sprouted in rebel-held territories and neighboring countries to give voice to the opposition. In both instances, the coverage is often biased and, in some cases, extremely inflammatory. This dynamic does not only hold true for Syria itself, but also for Arabic-language media which have by and large taken sides through biased programming. According to a study by the Columbia Journalism Review, the media is not just reporting the violence in Syria, but acting as militias by using hate speech to “actively incite it.

The examples are countless. In a clip on Al Jazeera, a Syrian presenter is shown inciting violence against Alawites. The guest, Maher Sherrafeddene states openly about Alawite rulership: “We know about the Alawites that before they ruled, they were extremely poor. The Alawite farmer if he owned a cow used to go to great lengths to protect his cattle from being stolen. The only way to steal their cattle was over their dead bodies. Today the Alawites do the exact same thing with their rulership”.  The host, Faisal al- Qaism states on the same program: “The Alawites don’t need demonization, they are demons, even Satan, the Devil himself is ashamed of them.”

Since 2011, Syrian state TV and pro-government TV stations have consistently encouraged and incited violence against protesters and anti-government groups. In this example from Al Dounia TV, an interviewee encouraged such violence, stating ““there is a proxy war being fought between Syria and Israel through the protesters [fighting on behalf of Israel], and killing those protesters is a task and duty on all of us. Killing them is a higher priority than fighting Israel itself.”

This practice has been mirrored by all parties to the conflict, including violence incitement between Kurds and Arabs, among other religious and ethnic groups.

The result of such rhetoric is dehumanization, and dehumanization through the use of violent rhetoric can subsequently lead to the normalization of abuse, torture, and even killing, so long as the victims are the condemned “other.” Many governments recognize the harmful effects of dehumanization and have enacted measures to prevent against it. For example, South Africa’s Constitution mandates a right to “inherent dignity” in an attempt to prevent the type of dehumanization that was endemic in the Apartheid regime.

In a media climate that encourages violence and dehumanization based on sectarian, ethnic, and political grounds, how can a future Syrian government convince all members of society to reconcile and collectively rebuild institutions at the state and community levels? Restoring trust will be an enormous challenge that will require a multi-pronged approach, but one of these approaches can and should be justice.  

Since the post-World War II Nuremberg trials of the Nazi regime in Europe, incitement to genocide has been viewed as a punishable offense in international criminal law. This is true whether or not the genocidal act was carried out or completed due to the powerful impact public calls for violence and hatred against certain groups has on fueling discord within society. According to some experts, genocide cannot occur unless there is a  widespread public incitement to hatred. This sentiment has been enshrined in the Rome Statute and the Genocide Convention, as well as in decisions of the International Criminal Court for Rwanda (ICTR). In what is commonly referred to as “the media case,” in which three Rwandan media leaders were convicted of direct and public incitement to genocide, the Court affirmed: “The power of the media to create and destroy fundamental human values comes with great responsibility. Those who control the media are accountable for its consequences.”    

Other areas of international criminal law, such as war crimes and crimes against humanity, do not include incitement as a punishable offense unless the incited act is then carried out or attempted. In other words, if an actor “orders, solicits, or induces,” “aids, abets, or otherwise assists, or “in any other way contributes to the commission or attempted commission of” a war crime or crime against humanity that causally leads to such a crime taking place, he or she may be convicted. This means there must be a connection between the instigation and the crime or attempted crime. Following the 2007-2008 post-election violence in Kenya, the ICC charged media personality Joshua Arap Sang with crimes against humanity for using his radio show as part of a “common plan” to spur violence through the spread of hate messages and by explicitly revealing a desire to expel members of the Kikuyu ethnic group. While the case was eventually terminated for lack of evidence, the court made clear that Mr. Sang could be re-indicted in the future if new evidence is brought forward.

Even in cases where media are not responsible under strict legal definitions, truth telling efforts can still elucidate on how certain reports and coverage contributed to an atmosphere of hate and polarization. By exposing the truth, such efforts can help recalibrate public sentiment and encourage media to play a more positive role in the post-conflict period. In fact, media will have an instrumental role to play in advancing peace-building efforts by, for example, explaining the transition to the public, providing a forum to humanize the conflict through stories and shared experiences, and publicizing announcements about how and when to register for certain transitional justice programs. In South Africa, the South African Broadcasting Corporation produced 87 episodes on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that provided an invaluable resource to the public on the progress and testimonies of the Commission. Positive impacts, however, will only be possible if media act responsibly and ethically.

Although media outlets do not necessarily cause wars, they are oftentimes guilty of prolonging and intensifying violence. Fortunately, international precedent exists for prosecuting those who have actively participated in incitement. But like the war crimes of armed groups, incitement by media actors needs to be clearly and comprehensively documented in order to ensure that it will be addressed in post-conflict transitional justice processes. Although documentation of media falls outside the scope of the Syria Justice and Accountability Centre’s (SJAC’s) mandate, other entities could step in to fill this role. Only through high quality documentation and accountability efforts can there be any hope of reversing the negative effects brought about by the dissemination of hate through print, radio, television, and social media.

For more information or to provide feedback, please email SJAC at info@syriaccountability.org.

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