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Seymour Hersh

Black Holes and Media Missionaries

A boy walking in a street in Bab Amr, Homs. Daniels and 3 other journalists were holed up for days is behind the building at rightA boy walking in a street in Bab Amr, Homs. Daniels and 3 other journalists were holed up for days is behind the building at right. Photo: Freedom House. This image is licensed under Creative Commons License.

The lights are going off in Syria. Peter Kassig is only the most recent witness that succumbed to the darkness. David Haines, Steve Satloff and James Foley went before him. They had all gone there to assist and bear witness. A measure of the Islamic State’s (IS) monstrosity is the nobility of the people it has killed. International media has rightly condemned these horrific murders.

For IS murder is a political act. But is also a performance–a spectacle as a means to amplify its message. The ritual act of murder, especially of a westerner, is certain to receive media coverage. IS uses this to rudely force attention.

The emergence of IS has been a godsend for the regime. IS is the monster that the regime always claimed it was fighting. Ideologues who echoed and amplified this regime line over the years have proclaimed IS the true face of the opposition.  Left unmentioned is the fact that until recently IS fought its biggest battles against the Syrian opposition. Indeed, earlier in the year, rebels had driven it out of Idlib, Deir Ezzor, much of Aleppo and areas around Damascus. It was only after its successes in Iraq and its newly acquired arsenal that it returned to Syria in triumph. But for many western ideologues, IS is part of an undifferentiated radical opposition to the secular regime of Bashar al Assad.

In fact, IS has a lot more in common with the regime. It is a totalitarian force that uses terror as a means of control. The regime kills but is loath to take responsibility; IS revels in murder. The regime kills more, but IS better amplifies its acts. The regime’s audience is domestic; IS has transnational ambitions. Significantly, where IS proudly rejects the international order, the regime presents itself as its indispensable, if ruthless guardian. For the media, IS is a more exciting story.

The media is selective elsewhere too. Foley and Satloff aren’t the only journalists IS has killed: there have been many more—Iraqis and Syrians—whose names remain unknown to the world. And IS isn’t the only force in Syria killing journalists and aid workers: Bashar al Assad’s regime has been doing it far longer.

The Syrian nightmare has unfolded with such pace and intensity that each day’s horror displaces the one preceding it. With IS dominating the news it might be hard for audiences to remember that the killing of western journalists in Syria is as old as the conflict itself. It began long before any jihadi had alighted on Syrian soil.

Years before anyone had heard the name IS, the regime killed Marie Colvin of theSunday Times along with the French photographer Rémi Ochlik when, in the first major escalation of the war, it used artillery on the Baba Amr district of Homs. A month before that it had killed Gilles Jacquier of France 2.

Since the beginning, Damascus has tried to control the narrative by making it too dangerous for journalists to report from Syria—unless they embedded with the regime. Some have embraced this arrangement; unwilling to compromise their objectivity, others have accepted the perils of independent reporting. But most have stayed clear, relying instead on stringers, activists, or citizen journalists.

Leaving aside the courage of the few who have risked much to report from outside regime-controlled Syria, reporting on the conflict has been gernally dismal. While some have used new technologies, including Skype, Youtube, Twitter, to gather material for reportage; others have forgone such exertions to deduce reality from pre-existing notions, ignoring the specificities of the situation in favour of ideological formulas that are impervious to time and place.

With multiplying dangers and fewer reporters willing to enter the killing fields of Syria, it is the ideological types that have come to dominate reporting. This type has also found it easier to embed with the regime. They visit Syria not in search of stories but bring stories to Syria in search of validation.

Beyond the ideological type, however, there is also the hack. If the ideological types are defined by their dogmas, the hacks are defined by procedures. All journalists aspire to be objective; and objectivity for most journalists is encoded in certain practices. To be objective is to be fair, impartial and balanced. But fairness and impartiality are harder to demonstrate; balance is measurable. For this reason, hack reporters use balance as an indicator of their objectivity. Balance is useful in many cases. But where there is a severe imbalance in the underlying situation, imposing balance distorts the picture.

In Syria, the hack reporter’s need for balance has created a misleading picture of the conflict. One often hears the bien pensant liberal lament how “both sides” in the conflict are just as bad as the other. But “both sides” in the conflict are not equal. One side is a state with its hierarchies, chains of command and coercive apparatus intact; the other side is a diffuse, uncoordinated and disorganized opposition. The crimes of the former reflect policy; those of the latter only reflect on the group or individual perpetrating them. The regime’s crimes have been sustained and wholesale; the crimes of the opposition are retail and sporadic.

That is not to excuse any crime. All criminals—rebel or regime—must face justice. But one must be wary of false notions of balance that undermine a sense of proportion.

On September 11, 2013, Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro, special investigator for the UN Human Rights Council, concluded that before the August 2013 chemical massacre, the Assad regime had perpetrated at least eight major massacres while the rebels had been responsible for one. The rise and extreme brutality of IS hasn’t changed this equation. In a report concluded a year later, Pineheiro noted that the despite IS’s extreme violence, the Assad regime “remains responsible for the majority of the civilian casualties, killing and maiming scores of civilians daily”.

This isn’t all that surprising if one considers that the Assad regime has a monopoly on airpower, armour, heavy artillery, ballistic missiles, and unconventional weapons—and it hasn’t hesitated to use them against civilians.

But monstrous as the regime’s actions are, it has always managed to find people willing to give it the benefit of doubts. Refracted through ideology, each of the regime’s ruthless acts of repression becomes a strike against western imperialism or Islamic fundamentalism (the contradictions between the two notwithstanding). This is achieved by zooming out from actual events to an imagined context: Assad is not at war with his own people, we are made to understand, but against the proxies of an imperial force trying to undermine the “axis of resistance” of which he is a part.

Only such creative reimagining could allow a veteran journalist like Charles Glass to present Assad as the underdog and his most heinous crime—last year’s chemical attack on Ghouta—as something positive. Consider these words:

“The introduction of chemical weapons, which have been alleged to have been used not only by the government but by the rebels as well, was only the most dramatic escalation by combatants who seek nothing short of the annihilation of the other side”

After using the benign “introduction” to describe a major escalation, Glass immediately retreats into the passive voice with “alleged to have been used” which doesn’t require him to identify the alleger. The UN and OPCW have alleged no such thing. The regime perhaps?

But things get worse: Glass next tells us that the attack “unexpectedly led to hope for a way out”, because the Russians compelled Assad to give up his chemical arsenal. Glass then goes on to laud Russian which “delivered President Assad” at Geneva, but condemns the US for being “slow to persuade the militias it funds” along with its allies.

By this reckoning when the Syrian regime uses chemical weapons against its people, it is delivering hope; the real aggressor, it turns out, is the US.

Glass is not even the worst of them. The Independent’s celebrated foreign correspondent Robert Fisk, who has also chosen to embed with the regime,reported shortly after the chemical attack, that “information is now circulating in the city”—furnished by the Russians and corroborated by “a former Special Forces officer” operating with the Syrian Army’s 4th Division, who is “considered a reliable source” (by whom?)—that Assad wasn’t responsible for the attack. Fisk’s reliable source—the regime—tells him that it was indeed the rebels that were responsible for the attack.

Fisk’s credulity is matched by his ethics. In August 2012, after a massacre in Daraya had left between 400-500 people, Fisk rode a Syrian Army armoured personnel carrier into the city to interview survivors and concluded that it was “armed insurgents rather than Syrian troops” that were responsible for the massacre. It somehow did not occur to this veteran journalist that people might not be very forthcoming being interviewed by a journalist “in the company of armed Syrian forces”. Indeed, Human Rights Watch came to very different conclusions after its investigation into the massacre. And when the veteran war correspondentJanine di Giovanni visited the town unaccompanied by regime troops, she received detailed testimony on how the Syrian military had carried out the massacre.

Patrick Cockburn, Fisk’s colleague at The Independent, is another veteran correspondent, a winner of many awards. His book, The Jihadi’s Return, is enjoying great success. For Cockburn, IS  has little to do with the Syrian regime; it is a by-product of the West and its Gulf allies’s decision to support an uprising against Assad. Cockburn finds it absurd that the West should try to strengthen the Iraqi government against IS while simultaneously trying to weaken the Syrian one. For Cockburn the Syrian regime is the only force capable of confronting IS. More controversially, he has portrayed the Free Syria Army as being in cahoots with IS, attributing this incendiary claim to an “intelligence officer from a Middle Eastern country neighbouring Syria”. (Note that this is the only instance in which Cockburn doesn’t reveal the name of the country. His most frequent source is the intelligence service of Iraq—Assad’s closest ally).

Cockburn’s problems go beyond sourcing. Like Fisk, he also takes liberties with facts.

On page 76 of his book, he writes: “I witnessed JAN forces storm a housing complex by advancing through a drainage pipe which came out behind government lines, where they proceeded to kill Alawites and Christians.”

If he witnessed this, then it would be major scoop. Since other than the regime, the only source to make this claim was the Russian state broadcaster RT. However, RT had used fake pictures to support its claim. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have found no evidence of this alleged massacre.

However, when one looks at Cockburn’s original report on the incident in his January 28, 2014 column for The Independent, he attributes the story about rebels arriving through drainage pipes to “a Syrian soldier, who gave his name as Abu Ali”. In that version, Cockburn wasn’t a witness.

By far the most egregious incident of journalistic malpractice comes from one of the most celebrated names in journalism: the Pulitzer Prize-winner . In two frontpage articles for the venerable London Review of Books, he claimed that it was the rebels rather than regime that carried out August 2013’s chemical massacre. Hersh attributed this claim to an unnamed “former intelligence official”. Hersh’s theory was contradicted by extant data collected by the UN and OPCW (as I have shown in an extended investigation for the Los Angeles Review of Books). But the story that Hersh was retailing had already been circulating on the internet. It’s authors were a group of former intelligence officials, some of whom are Hersh’s frequent sources. Their main claims were attributed thus:

There is a growing body of evidence from numerous sources in the Middle East — mostly affiliated with the Syrian opposition and its supporters — providing a strong circumstantial case that the August 21 chemical incident was a pre-planned provocation by the Syrian opposition and its Saudi and Turkish supporters.

The date was September 6. But on September 1, the Canadian conspiracy site Globalresearch.ca published an article by one Yossef Bodansky implicating the Obama administration in the chemical attack. It began thus:

There is a growing volume of new evidence from numerous sources in the Middle East — mostly affiliated with the Syrian opposition and its sponsors and supporters — which makes a very strong case, based on solid circumstantial evidence, that the August 21, 2013, chemical strike in the Damascus suburbs was indeed a pre-meditated provocation by the Syrian opposition.

The intelligence officials had plagiarized. Their claim was the figment of a conspiracist’s imagination.

Syria has been a deadly conflict for journalists – it has claimed the lives of 70 so far. Few journalists are willing to venture there any longer—except as guests of the regime.  Those who have made this compromise in turn have acquired influence despite the compromised nature of the journalism that they are producing.  In turn they are shaping public opinion and even policy. We have to be wary of those who see Syria as an opportunity to settle old ideological scores.

An abridged version was first published in “die tageszeitung” on November 25, 2014

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Raging with the Machine: Robert Fisk, Seymour Hersh and Syria

April 25, 2014 § 5 Comments

Yassin al-Haj Saleh is a Syrian writer who spent 16 years in the regime’s prisons. In this exclusive for PULSE, Saleh, who has been described as the “conscience of Syria“, discusses the distorted lens through which most people are viewing the conflict.

In the West, Robert Fisk and Seymour Hersh are considered critical journalists. They occupy dissident positions in the English-speaking press. Among Syrians, however, they are viewed very differently.

The problem with their writings on Syria is that it is deeply centered on the West. The purported focus of their analysis – Syria, its people and the current conflict – serves only as backdrop to their commentary where ordinary Syrians are often invisible. For Fisk and Hersh the struggle in Syria is about ancient sects engaged in primordial battle. What really matters for them are the geopolitics of the conflict, specifically where the US fits into this picture.

On the topic of chemical weapons, Fisk and Hersh, completely ignore the antecedents of last summer’s attack on Ghouta .

A reader who relies exclusively on Fisk/Hersh for their understanding of Syria would never know that the Assad regime had used chemical weapons several times before the August 21, 2013 massacre in Ghouta. I was there at the time. I saw victims of sarin gas on two occasions in Eastern Ghouta and I met doctors treating them. The victims were from Jobar, which was hit with chemical weapons in April 2013 and from Harasta, which was hit in May 2013.

It is shocking that investigative journalists such as Fisk and Hersh know nothing about these attacks. They write as if Ghouta was the first time chemical weapons were used in Syria. Their credibility and objectivity is compromised by these omissions.

For these renowned commentators, the entire Middle East is reducible to geopolitical intrigue. There are no people; there is only the White House, the CIA, the British Government, Recep Tayyib Erdogan, the Emir of Qatar, the Iranian regime and of course Bashar Assad and the jihadis.

In Fisk’s myriad articles, one rarely reads about ordinary Syrians (the observation also applies to the late Patrick Seale).

Robert Fisk was once a scourge of American reporters embedding with US forces during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. But he saw no irony in himself embedding with Syria regime forces as they entered Daraya in August 2012.

More than 500 people were killed in a massacre at that time (245 according to Fisk). Who killed them? The rebels, determined Fisk based solely on interviews with regime detainees. Why should local fighters kill hundreds from their own community? Robert Fisk does not provide an answer. Had he spoken to a single citizen without his minders present, he would have learned that they had no doubts about the regime’s responsibility. Indeed, it was an American journalist, Janine di Giovanni, who established that fact shortly thereafter by visiting Daraya on her own.

At the same time when this was happening Human Rights Watch documented ten attacks on bread queues around Aleppo. Fisk did not mention a single one.

During this time Fisk visited a security center in Damascus where he was welcomed by a security official. He was given access to four jihadi fighters, two Syrians and two foreigners. Fisk made a point of mentioning that the prisoners were allowed family visits. As someone who spent 16 years in Assad’s jails and who has firsthand knowledge of these factories of death, I find this claim highly improbable. Fisk’s credulity is risible; he is assisting a shameful attempt to beautify the ugly polices of the House of Assad.

Why has Robert Fisk never attempted to contact people of Eastern Ghouta to ask them what happened there last August? It would have been easy for a person as well-connected as he to convince his friends in the regime, such as Assad’s media adviser Buthaina Shaaban, to facilitate his entrance to the besieged town. He could have met ordinary people for a change without the intimidating presence of regime minders and found out for himself who used the chemical weapons that killed 1466 people, including more than 400 children.

Ignoring local sources of information on the conflict in Syria seems to be a standard practice among many in the West, especially among left wing and liberal commentators. This speaks volumes about their ideological bias. Their dogmatic self-assurance with its veneer of professionalism is not substantively different than the obscurantist self-righteousness of the jihadis.

The Hersh/Fisk narrative unfolds in a historical vacuum: it tells you nothing about the history and character of the regime. You will not learn that the regime has used collective punishment as a policy since the very beginning of the Syrian revolt. That it has used fighter jets, barrel bombs and scud missiles against civilians to cow them; that it has invited foreigners from Lebanon, Iran, Iraq, and other countries to assist in the slaughter.

Nor will you learn about a flourishing death industry in the very places to which Fisk is a welcome visitor. Three months ago he penned an article about Assad’s systematic killing of the detainees in his dungeons, but Fisk reported on this topic in a way that gives us a biopsy of his professional conscience.

Fisk prefaces his report on the regime’s atrocities by warning readers about the horrors that may soon exist “if the insurrection against Bashar al-Assad succeeds.” For most, the significant fact about the photos was the industrial scale killings inside Assad’s jails that they evidenced. But Fisk appeared more obsessed with the timing of the photos, as they appeared a day before the Geneva 2 Conference. Fisk may have been reminded of Nazi Germany by the horrific fate of the 11,000 prisoners, but he still found occasion to expatiate at length about Qatar, whose “royal family viscerally hates Bashar al-Assad”, for funding the investigation. For Fisk, the atrocities were a mere detail in a larger conspiracy whose real victim was Assad’s regime.

To the uninitiated, Fisk’s article might convey the impression that those 11,000 were all that were killed by Assad’s regime and the 20,000 killed in Hama in 1982 were all that that were killed by his father’s. The actual number of victims is eleven times as many for Assad and twice as many for his father. Moreover, these figures ignore the tens of thousands arrested, tortured, and jailed, and the millions who have been humiliated by this regime

By methodically ignoring the Syrian people and by focusing on Al Qaeda, Robert Fisk and Seymour Hersh have done us all a huge disservice. The perspective on Syria portrayed by these writers is exactly the view of Syria that Bashaar Assad wants the rest of the world to see.

–  Yassin al-Haj Saleh (born in Raqqa in 1961) is one of Syria’s most prominent political dissidents. In 1980, when he was studying medicine in Aleppo, he was imprisoned for his membership in a pro-democracy group and remained behind bars until 1996. He writes on political, social and cultural subjects relating to Syria and the Arab world for several Arab newspapers and journals outside of Syria, and regularly contributes to the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper, the Egyptian leftist magazine Al-Bosla, and the Syrian online periodical The Republic. Among Saleh’s books (all in Arabic) are Syria in the Shadow: Glimpses Inside the Black Box (2009), Walking on One Foot (2011), a collection of 52 essays written between 2006 and 2010, Salvation O Boys: 16 Years in Syrian Prisons (2012), The Myths of the Others: A Critique of Contemporary Islam and a Critique of the Critique (2012), and Deliverance or Destruction? Syria at a Crossroads (2014). In 2012 he was granted the Prince Claus Award as “a tribute to the Syrian people and the Syrian revolution”. He was not able to collect the award, as he was living in hiding in the underground in Damascus.

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Seymour Hersh says official story of bin Laden killing is ‘one big lie, not one word is true’

                    on September 27, 2013 44

 

Guardian piece on the legendary journalist Seymour Hersh, 76, holding forth to young English journalism students.

He is angry about the timidity of journalists in America, their failure to challenge the White House and be an unpopular messenger of truth.

Don’t even get him started on the New York Times which, he says, spends “so much more time carrying water for Obama than I ever thought they would” – or the death of Osama bin Laden. “Nothing’s been done about that story, it’s one big lie, not one word of it is true,” he says of the dramatic US Navy Seals raid in 2011.

Hersh is writing a book about national security and has devoted a chapter to the bin Laden killing. He says a recent report put out by an “independent” Pakistani commission about life in the Abottabad compound in which Bin Laden was holed up would not stand up to scrutiny. “The Pakistanis put out a report, don’t get me going on it. Let’s put it this way, it was done with considerable American input. It’s a bullshit report,” he says hinting of revelations to come in his book.

Other great stuff:

“But I don’t know if it’s going to mean anything in the long [run] because the polls I see in America – the president can still say to voters ‘al-Qaida, al-Qaida’ and the public will vote two to one for this kind of surveillance, which is so idiotic,” he says…

If Hersh was in charge of US Media Inc, his scorched earth policy wouldn’t stop with newspapers.

“I would close down the news bureaus of the networks and let’s start all over, tabula rasa. The majors, NBCs, ABCs, they won’t like this – just do something different, do something that gets people mad at you, that’s what we’re supposed to be doing,” he says….

“The republic’s in trouble, we lie about everything, lying has become the staple.” And he implores journalists to do something about it.

(One comment. The guy’s an investigative journalist. I remember when Hersh fired me with a passion for investigative journalism, back in 1975; he visited my college newspaper and when I asked him what to investigate said that Harvard had likely cooked its admissions standards to exclude radical troublemakers. I couldn’t confirm this. I lacked the chops. At that time, Nick Lemann said “to be an investigative journalist, you have to have a low threshhold for outrage.” Wonderful insight.)

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