Syria: the battle over the truth
Al Jazeera has decided not to show recordings made by the Toulouse serial killer Mohammed Merah who apparently filmed his victims as they lay dying.
Every day you get stuff like this - difficult decisions about the rights and responsibilities of the media. What to report, what not. Which images to broadcast to the world, which to leave un-shown on the PC hard disk.
I was thinking about this last night watching a report on Channel 4 News about Syria. It was about “citizen journalists”, in particular the people making videos about places like Homs and Dera’a and posting them online. C4’s report showed that these “video journalists” are very aligned. They’re activists. C4’s reporter Jonathan Miller says: “They shoot from the hip. They live hard. And sometimes they die hard.” Actually, as the piece showed, some of the “VJs” have actually switched from one kind of shooting to another, with some of them putting aside their Sony video cameras and picking up a Kalashnikov instead.
The most interesting bit, though, was where one of the activist-film-makers is seen preparing a set-up for recording a new video clip from a man called Omar Talawi* in Homs. What you see - as they film themselves getting ready to do their video - is them manufacturing the background image. They place a burning tyre behind a wall to create a column of black smoke rising behind the speaker. The idea is to give the impression that they’re under mortar fire. It’s a very bad decision. As Miller says, it’s an “own goal” (indeed, ironically enough, the same team doing their roof-top filming comes under shell or mortar fire soon after their ill-advised stunt). The line from the Syrian government is that opposition groups routinely “fake” videos showing human rights abuses by the Syrian security forces. It seems there’s no doubt that Talawi’s video crew is not above using trickery, albeit of a minor kind. (Why do it though? They are operating in a very hostile environment. There’s no need to fake it).
As the TV critic Mark Lawson was saying recently, complex issues surround what is and is not broadcast on our television screens. With something like Fabrice Muamba’s on-field heart attack, Lawson reckons broadcasters were “tactful” about how much they showed viewers, using “decorous” long-shots etc. With Syria, broadcasters have had to decide how graphic their transmitted footage can be (I’ve seen some stuff that I’m sure will never be shown on national TV), but also whether the material is actually what it appears to be. That phrase “the authenticity of the video could not be verified” has now become ubiquitous.
Meanwhile, of course, there are worrying reports that armed opponents of Assad’s government have carried out numerous killings of prisoners. And for a reminder of some of the horrific incidents of torture of those detained by the Syrian security forces, go here and here. It should be obvious but … it’s worth saying that everything we see and hear over Syria needs to be cautiously filtered, not just in the broadcast ethics sense I’ve been talking about but also with an understanding that a vicious situation like Syria will inevitably involve distortions and outright lies.
Apart from everything else, a proper international investigation into the turmoil in Syria will need to peel away the layers of information and disinformation. In the end, I predict, it will be a job for the International Criminal Court.
*A footnote to this tale of high-tech comms and the battle over information is the fact that the Homs activist team working with Omar Talawi also apparently use homing pigeons to bring in messages. If true (is this video genuine?), it would be a reversion to centuries-old communication methods in the digital age. Sometimes reality is strange like that …
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