WRITTEN BY MARY RIZZO
The question invariably arises when one loses faith in the narratives of the news media: If the mainstream media sets forth aspects of an issue in order to put forth a particular agenda of the dominant or powerful sector of society, and even the so-called alternative media presents its own narrative to push ahead its own ideologies or values and effect the situation with its own “solutions”, where is one to turn to if one seeks to know the truth?
The answer is simple and complicated at the same time. One has to find the truth oneself. The truth is indeed “out there”. The problem though is that it is an enormously cumbersome and time-consuming task to get to it, so difficult and depressing, in fact, that too many give up on it and fall back on whatever the media narrative is, even when we know and have the proof that it is full of lies, full of holes or full of propaganda. The truth can be found not in the various narratives of the news media, but in the vast and bottomless well of the body of evidence. To get to the truth, one has to do one’s own digging, sorting, one has to do one’s own thinking. One can only get to the truth on one’s own and only with great determination and persistency.
It is absolutely frustrating to look at the news on TV or read it in the paper and see things that not only “don’t look right” but “don’t feel right”. We claim (well, most of us who are interested in civil justice and world peace) that we are supporters of human rights. But do we realise that often what we feel as a violation of our own rights on our own soil we shrug off as just “the way they do things” when it is on a vast scale in another country. Mass arbitrary arrests, bombing of civilian areas, torture, policies of terror and starvation to subjugate a population are wrong in our own lands as they are wrong in other lands. However, for a very long time, the extent of these policies has been kept hidden from us, that is, our media only reported on institutionalised (policy-based) violations of human rights when at some level our own interests were involved or there has been what is perceived as a connection between “us” and “them”. Somehow, the bigger the atrocity is, the more distant we feel from it and the easier it is to keep us away from this reality. We accept as well the media narrative, which sometimes is just the echo of the regime or dominant narrative because the truth, the reality is far, far worse than what even our wildest ideas of it could be.
There is a reason why reality is not presented fully to us and why so many populations have been presented as “other”. The people are depicted as deserving of the oppression because they are primitive, not ready for rights and still needed to be controlled by a powerful figure that would take care of their interests, though at times he might be a little rough, he’s probably some kind of oriental despot that we have to learn to live with out of some perverted idea of “relativism”.
We extend our disgust in various ways towards the population and their ignorance. If they voted, they never did it “right”. If they didn’t vote, that was because they didn’t view democracy as a value and therefore if internal movements towards democracy arose, they would be depicted as being driven from reactionary forces abroad who would then throw the rulers out of power and establish their own protectorate. In essence, the individuals and the geographical/ethnic/linguistic/religious groups they belonged to did not have their own agency to affect their own change, and if they are not “willing” to help themselves, it’s very easy to promote the idea that they are impermeable to change or that it has to be imposed from outside if there is going to be any. Otherwise, they get what they deserve.
Only those who have forgotten (or who haven’t realised) that personal freedom is a right for every human on the planet and that there is a series of rights that belong to every human being in order to truly be considered as being a free individual, regardless of the geopolitical situation in which he or she was born or currently is living will be interested in finding the truth and rejecting the “story”, “spin” or “narrative” that any news providers is giving. News providers don’t appear out of nothing, they obtain their information and disseminate their information according to their own interests. If they support a particular ideology, they will have a bias towards only giving information that supports the tenets of their ideology. If they claim to be media providers that are free of ideological bias and hidden agendas, however, they are going to have to have an ethical code of some sort, they are going to have to follow some kind of criteria for the selection of the material they present.
This is the reason that the only way towards knowing and obtaining the truth is to sort through the body of evidence. We can’t pretend to know everything about everything or even something about everything, but if we are interested in international affairs, if we are interested in civil and human rights, we can’t afford the luxury of laziness. We can’t accept everything that is handed to us as “news” and what IS handed to us under that guise has to be scrutinised very carefully. We have been presented with a multitude of “instant pundits” and experts under various titles who assure us that they have a very consistent response to all the issues they speak about and yet, the only thing they are consistently doing is neglecting the bulk of material that comprises the body of evidence. Their arrangement and analysis of information is sometimes even based on no evidence at all, but mere speculation and repetition of what anyone could recognise as propaganda if they actually look at their sources of information or the repetition of specific images over the course of time.
A body of evidence, on the other hand is not sorted, is not usually accompanied by “analysis” of experts and it has a scientific criteria that we can apply, it has a rationale that we can use to judge and verify its strength. First of all, we have to have access to information that is as close as possible to those affected by events. We unfortunately know that witnesses to events, particularly in the worst and most inhuman situations, are too busy trying to survive or escape than they are in trying to inform the outside world about what is happening to them. Outsiders who make it in often themselves become victims of the same situation, so the number of outsiders must be dramatically reduced in order to prevent complications. But, in situations such as war in Syria, the body of evidence is overwhelming in its immensity. There are literally millions of photographs and videos available to anyone at any time. There are millions of witnesses who are able to tell what is happening instead of just posing for a photograph in their miserable setting of an overcrowded and disease-infested refugee camp. There is actually SO MUCH information that we are numbed by the overwhelming quantity of it… but mostly, it is surprising to find that despite the fact that the consistency and veracity of it (given strength by its size, range, content, precision, directness) is overwhelmingly constant: and almost always pointing in the same direction and the news media still seems to ignore it in favour of its own bias which is that of ignoring the voice and evidence of the oppressed in favour of a different narrative with its own appeal and history.
Since the onset of the uprising, protesters were determined to document the events in every way possible and to disseminate what they gathered outside of Syria. They did not own media providers, they were not part of an information “system”, they simply were providing evidence, most of it videos documenting the events and photographs of places during a protest or march or immediately following a sniper attack, a bombing, and later, a massacre. What has developed in Syria is a multitude of independent media aggregators, the Sham News Network, the Aleppo Media Centre, the phenomenon of the Young Lens photographers, the Kafranbel Media Centre and hundreds of others in every province and town, no matter how small. They collect, subtitle, disseminate and identify the evidence of the hundreds of thousands of witnesses to the war in Syria. They open YouTube channels, Facebook pages and blogs where anyone and everyone, INCLUDING mainstream and alternative media providers can tap into their evidence, and luckily, some outside news aggregators have picked up on their evidence and helped spread it far and wide. The problem is, the media providers that have a long history and prestige or are financed by advertising or political interest groups don’t tell a “sexy” story if it’s just about the (now four-year-long) struggle for survival of a besieged and oppressed people who have the misfortune of neither being of interest to the “imperialists” or the “anti-imperialists”, which are by the way, simply code words to express two variations of reactionary ideological thinking, where individuals don’t have rights, collective rights are also selective and all people can be fit into the prism of the narrative or spin of their administrations, regimes or leaders.
There is no shortage of evidence, the evidence provided meets all the criteria to be accepted as valid, even if it contradicts the story of the mass media, which often just serves as an amplifier of those who have the most power, preserving their interests. There is a clear causal chain that is evident to anyone who decides to access the body of evidence. The causal chain’s importance is heightened by the sheer magnitude of the evidence available. Literally, there are thousands of photographs and videos available that document the enormous quantity of atrocities committed against the people. It is not difficult to corroborate the evidence of the perpetrators of a massacre, and while the “pundits” will take the word of one “anonymous insider” whose words seem to mimic the regime narrative regarding who is responsible for the nerve gas attacks against the populations of the “free” towns that were resisting Assad and often victim to the regime’s violent attacks with more “orthodox” means, they refuse to study the evidence of experts who state that the only possible perpetrator is the regime and produce convincing argument that stands up to scrutiny, likewise corroborated by third party investigators who see more than the films, but have access to the sites or can scientifically test the tissue of survivors.
Yet, how could anyone in their right mind continue to even question or doubt such an obvious massacre as that of Ghouta? How could the proof of the culpability of the regime be in doubt for even one minute when their sponsors and patrons in the UN Security Council vetoed decisions made in Human Rights Commission following a detailed war crimes report to support the effort to bring the matter to the International Criminal Court which would judge the body of evidence in a legal seat and then exercise Justice, which then the world powers would have a leg to stand on when they took positions for or against Assad? By closing their eyes to the evidence, despite how great, consistent, direct, precise and applicable (i.e., bearing all the qualities that give what is known as “strength” to a body of evidence) they are able to hide the truth, but not to stop it being true.
Not only the massacre of approximately 1500 men, women and children by suffocation from exposure to nerve gas, but hidden or distorted are the numerous and well-documented “white weapons massacres” by knives and bayonets that are the signature of the Shabbiha thugs who operate for Assad, terrorising villages and leaving hundreds murdered despite their age, condition or innocence. The massacres of Houla, Banyas, Deir Ezzor and countless others have left in their wake hundreds and hundreds of photographs, videos and eyewitness testimony. If one looks at most of the news media though, you are going to find very little reference made to these events and they are simply not providing information on them, often with the ill-disguised goal of exclusion of the videos or pictures due to “the excessive cruelty of the images”, where they fall into the vacuum of oblivion, where our consciences can’t be reached and therefore our outrage can’t be aroused.
Instead they promote “massacres that weren’t” or at least that have no consistent body of evidence such as the “Adra Massacre” or the “Kessab massacre”. The “Hatla Massacre”, depicted as a sectarian attack against Shi’a Muslims by the agencies of the regime, bears a great deal of evidence that it was an armed conflict between anti-regime and pro-regime fighters with civilians caught in the crossfire and not a premeditated massacre to terrorise the population, though as a result, for a time the civilian population fled, as is the case in the entirety of Syria given the amount of urban warfare involved.
What are the images that people remember from the news? They see a “rebel” (not even a member of the Free Syrian Army) eating a heart, they see a “Christian” crucified by Islamists, and to them, the vision of these two images, out of context and factually incorrect (at least in the case of the crucifixion, the victims were Free Syrian Army soldiers, who by their identification are Sunni Muslims) become “the icons” and the real atrocities that matter. The tens of thousands of photographs of the torture of starved prisoners in regime jails was just a blip on the radar. The atrocities committed against Syrians who are tortured to death for crimes they did not commit are too vast to even contemplate. So, see the pictures, then forget them, that is how it works. It is much easier to bear one image and give it any meaning you want or you have been told. It’s not worth it to differentiate between types of atrocities and their intensity of occurrence.
But the opposition to Assad, the suffering population has its own iconic images. Millions of them, some of them so familiar to those who have been seeking truth and evidence from Syria for these four years that it comes as a painful shock to see them “recycled” as being Palestinian victims of Israel’s brutal attacks in Gaza. To see the photos cropped to cut out watermarks, Syrian flags or anything that identifies the identity of the victim and the circumstances of his or her death has been a genuine shock and additional accumulation of suffering when one considers that these photos and videos have been shared for years, in the vain effort to inform the world of the situation and the extent of this crime against humanity that is the genocide of the Syrian people, first by Assad’s regime and its infiltrate forces and since the past two years also by the rogue “Islamist” forces that are conducting their proxy wars for the domination of either Iran or Saudi Arabia in the name of their stated objective of the creation of a Caliphate in the Levant.
ISIS, as well as Hezbollah, makes the claim that their enemy is the West, but they are only good at slaughtering and oppressing other Arabs, including Muslims or those who have come to witness and share the information of the besieged and oppressed people, including journalists and human rights workers and volunteers. To the distracted observer, the war is a sectarian war that is now in the face-off stages of secularism vs obscurantism and there is no interest in investigating the facts, but to act “better late than never” against the enemy that is perceived as dangerous to the West, forgetting in essence the actions and objectives of the tyrant whose policies were at the genesis of the entire uprising and who has only consolidated his power in farcical elections that would never be accepted by anyone if they were to happen in their own countries under such condition and lack of democracy or legitimacy. His “election” has given him the perceived license to kill as much and as brutally as possible, and it is a license that he has taken full advantage of.
It is indeed frustrating to realise that the body of evidence proving the total destruction of Syria, its people and its infrastructure, including those who are living in the Palestinian refugee camps who have been subjected to siege, torture, arrest and death no less than their brothers and sisters in Gaza and in the rest of Syria, has been ignored for years, only to be carted out and presented as a different war, a different enemy, a different sponsor. Sometimes the Syrian independence flags that are used by every faction against Assad with the exception of the “black flag Jihadis” are not even cropped out or the subtitles changed. It is with a sickening Orientalism that these victims are passed off as someone more worthy of support, and at least for them, some support has been forthcoming. It is as if Arabs are interchangeable and a defiant Aleppo survivor who painted his ultimate resistance on the ruins of his bombed out roof has become a Gazan. The situation is not identical, though similar, but only one defiant resistant soul is honoured at the expense of another, whose suffering again is buried under rubble and debris. Nothing to see here, move along!
There are shameless people who spread pictures and videos that depict persons in a state of shock after their loved ones are carried off dead in blankets among the buildings that were made to explode and collapse on top of them after air raids in civilian areas. The viewer should use a bit of healthy scepticism to realise that in July winter coats are not worn in Gaza and this event is someplace else, the victims are someone else. The perpetrator of such heinous crimes is not Netanyahu but instead it is Assad.
All of this evidence, the weight of which presents a picture that again and again shows the reality of the situation, the true story of what is happening, stripped from agendas and narratives, all of it is there for us to view. It is a deliberate choice we can make to ignore it and take the easy way out of accepting the stories told by the media that are deliberately hiding or altering this information in such a way so that the struggle to know the truth is stifled, and it is out of our hands to effect change in a positive way to those who are suffering (those whose side we have to be on, no matter what other considerations might influence us such as proximity or religious/ethnic affiliation).
If those who survived a massacre decided to document it, and took all the risks linked to that, they did this so that the truth would not be hidden. They did it in the hopes that those who had the power, influence or ability could help and protect them. They did it not because they want to shock us or draw us into a world that has nothing to do with us, but because this is our world already, it is only a short flight away from many of us or even has touched our shores with its outpouring of survivors of unspeakable atrocities. If we refuse to be lazy, we can look for the truth and we can find it. We are no longer bound to being complicit in genocides and then claiming in the same breath, “we didn’t know” and “never again”. It will be never again ONLY if we make it so NOW. Our task is to be an amplifier of the voices of the people, not a substitute or interpreter of them. We have the enormous possibility of affecting change simply by not keeping information buried or tearing it out of context. If we choose to, we can save lives and make a better world. It’s up to us. Can we be up to the task? Isn’t it a noble goal to seek the truth and serve the truth?