Dec 12, 2013
Patrick Cockburn: Covering Syria’s Complicated Civil War
Posted on Jul 31, 2013
AK: Right. An overabundance of information with fewer journalists makes verification harder. Blogs, which lack fact-checkers and teams of editors and researchers, have limited editorial authority.
PC: Yes. I think this will even out when people realize that all these things that are cool and new, YouTube, blogs, etc., are very open to being manipulated or falsified. It’s worth remembering that early on in the Syrian uprising there was an interesting blog attracting attention as a supposed lesbian dissident in Damascus, but it turned out to be a man in Istanbul, Turkey. I guess some people drew the conclusion that blogs purportedly from the scene can be highly biased and possibly fake.
AK: You say that the Syrian civil war is underreported. What in particular is going misunderstood about this conflict and the society behind it?
PC: I think a lot of people underestimate the social element of the conflicts. You could say before this happened there was a big drought in the mid-2000s. A lot of ruined farmers turned Syria into a dust bowl. One of the little reported aspects of the Arab uprising is the role of leaders who listened to the IMF, cut subsidies and privatized public services, which usually meant selling off state assets cheap to their cronies. This is one of the things that has destabilized the regime. The people in the streets know the money is being concentrated in the guys in the center. Three years ago 3 million Syrians were living in dire poverty. Neoliberalism there—as everywhere—increases inequality. It pushed people to the edge of starvation, so it’s not surprising these guys didn’t feel they owed the regime anything and supported a rebellion.
I think police states thought it smart to try to stamp out the first signs of dissent but in fact they spread the fire. Perhaps more important than anything was social media [and] Al-Jazeera satellite television, which everybody watched.
AK: So with all these factors standing against the Syrian government, why is Assad still in charge? Is the government more popular than the foreign press depicts?
PC: It’s not that the government is more popular. It’s that the opposition has failed by any measure to present itself as an attractive alternative to Assad. People ask themselves: “Do we want these head-choppers instead?”
AK: What about the role of foreign so-called academic experts in shaping our understanding of the conflicts?
PC: It is generally better to listen to serious journalists than academics, because academics are usually not there doing foot on the ground reporting. Locals often have pretty sophisticated ideas of what’s going on in their areas, about their political and economic circumstances. I’ve always preferred talking with them to listening to think tanks that haven’t been there anyway. I find this rather astonishing thing in British and American journalism, referring to think tanks without giving any reason to suppose these people are really expert. They don’t know what’s going on because they haven’t been there. It’s amazing to watch CNN or see an article in The New York Times citing some think tank in Washington but there is never any explanation as to why they are an authority.
Journalists can be trouble too. I’m always skeptical of people covering civil wars who assume there are white hats on one side and black hats on the other. There was very sophisticated propaganda put out by both sides in Belfast in the 1970s. But in some ways a lot of the reporting and analysis at that time was more sophisticated than it is at present. Still, as a journalist, no one tells you something because they like the look of your face, generally. They tell you to further their own interests or the interests of their party. As a journalist, you like to think of yourself as a fearless investigator. You rarely admit you’re often just a conduit for information.
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