Journalism in the age of a Syrian civil war

What’s the role of a reporter in such a conflict? To provide context, as much hard news as possible and not be taken in totally by any side. Scepticism rules. Interesting piece in the New York Times:

Even when his country was not convulsed by war, President… Bashar al-Assad… of… Syria… rarely gave televised interviews to foreigners. His session with Barbara Walters in December was a public relations disaster. So it seemed surprising a few weeks ago when Mr. Assad granted another Westerner… a face-to-face chat on camera.

This time, however, the questions were posed by Jürgen Todenhöfer of Germany, a 71-year-old writer and former judge, publishing executive and onetime member of Parliament. Unlike Ms. Walters, he is known in his country as an outspoken antiwar advocate and a critic of Western policy toward the Muslim and Arab worlds. And he has castigated Western press coverage of the Syrian conflict, calling it unfairly hostile to Mr. Assad and overly sympathetic to his enemies.

Rejecting accusations by critics that he had given Mr. Assad a propaganda platform, Mr. Todenhöfer said he saw the interview as an opportunity for Mr. Assad to explain himself. “They said, ”˜You speak to dictators,’… ” he said. “I thought it was important that we listen to this guy, whether we hate him or not.”

In… the interview, broadcast last month, Mr. Assad expressed a willingness to talk to adversaries if they were also willing, and he conceded that his military could have handled the early phases of the uprising less harshly. But as before, he did not acknowledge the legitimacy of those seeking to depose him. He also referred to all armed opponents as terrorists and accused other Arab countries, and the United States, of abetting them with weapons and supplies.

Less than two weeks later, insurgents struck at the heart of Mr. Assad’s inner circle, assassinating four high-ranking aides, including his defense minister, in a Damascus bombing. Mr. Assad has barely been seen or heard from since.

Speaking by telephone from Munich, his home, Mr. Todenhöfer said the Syrian conflict had been distorted by half-truths and fictions — much of it, in his opinion, by the opposition figures who want the world to see Mr. Assad as a butcher. “Lying is the most effective weapon in wars,” he said.

He had interviewed Mr. Assad once before, on a trip to Syria in late 2011, and had written in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, a major German newspaper, that he believed Mr. Assad could achieve a peaceful transition to democracy because he “still holds the authority among the majority of the population.”

Now, Mr. Todenhöfer conceded, such an outcome no longer seemed possible. “There is something which is changing now in Syria; for me it is a terrible tragedy,” he said, adding, “a classic tragedy without a clear solution.”

Many others disagree. At a debate organized by the German weekly newsmagazine Der Spiegel in late July, after the Assad interview was broadcast, Christoph Reuter, Der Spiegel’s veteran Syria correspondent, called Mr. Todenhöfer’s conclusions absurd and also rejected his view that Mr. Assad is interested in compromise. “Real negotiations would be the downfall of his regime,” Mr. Reuter said, “and Assad knows it.”

Mr. Todenhöfer faulted Mr. Reuter and other Western journalists for what he called their willingness to accept the rebel narrative, with its uncorroborated casualty reports, unverified videos of destruction and anonymous witnesses to atrocities by soldiers and thuggish militiamen. “I criticize their disinformation campaigns and their dreadful ”˜massacre marketing,’… ” he said.

Mr. Todenhöfer’s televised session with Mr. Assad, which lasted nearly 20 minutes, was taped at the presidential palace and broadcast July 7 on ARD, a public service network in Germany.

Mr. Assad’s aides knew his interview “would be hard,” he said. “They know I’m critical, but I also criticize the atrocities of the rebels.”


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