Arab Spring’s Partisan Media
Last month, Cairo, the capital of Egypt, saw the unedifying spectacle of six dead men being dragged through the streets of a suburb by the lynch mob that had been provoked by a Salafi Sheikh. The crime of the dead was their sect — they were all Shias. Till this incident took place, most Egyptians did not even know that there were Shias in their predominantly Sunni country. There are about 100,000 of them.
Similarly, many Turks claim that they have little recall of any sectarian differences in their society. They blame this growing sectarian hatred in the Arab world on the ugly happenings in Syria, which is in the throes of a messy civil war.
It is surprising that Syria has become the reason for this sectarian conflict in the region. Perhaps the most secular and plural society in the Arab world, Syrians prided themselves on communal and sectarian amity. Its idyllic landscape was epitomized by villages where people of different faiths happily coexisted. When neighbouring Lebanon was in the throes of a civil war or when Iraq was being turned into rubble by American bombers, Syria was peaceful. In the last 35 years that the Ba’ath Party has been in power in Damascus, there has been no documented incident of violent, sectarian face-off. For long years the regime was described in ideological terms like ‘Ba’athist’; never in sectarian terms. The Arab Spring of 2011 changed many things — including the way governments, people and the character of a society is described.
Qatar’s national channel, Al Jazeera, was the composer of this unequal music. Al Jazeera started lending content to the Arab Spring, using live reports and articulating aggressively the values of the movement. This was the first time that the Arab world was exposed to such aggressive TV journalism. Arabs watched in awe what was happening in their city squares and how their invincible leaders were coming to dishonour and grief. People’s power overthrowing dictators seemed so spontaneous and real that experts began to theorize on the power of the media and how it could transform societies. Studies indicate that more people watched street protests from the comfort of their drawing room on TV or from ‘their windows’. It was not the social media that drove the protests — it was the Arab satellite channels.
While Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen fell — with a little help from the US — Syria survived. The Assad government refused to give in to the pressure of the protestors or its neighbours that counselled change. During my visit to Damascus in 2011, the language of revolt was still very secular. There were no overtly sectarian suggestions. And then it began to change.
Scenarios of the Shia crescent comprising Iran-Iraq-Syria and the Hezbollah ganging up against the Israelis and Saudi Arabian-Qatari interests began to show up in the Arab and western media. Now, all reporting identified the sect of the killed and the killers. In Damascus, people, still untrained in such language, began to air their grievances. “We are Sunnis and in a majority, how can power be denied to us,” a Syrian told me. Democracy had acquired a majoritarian spin.
It was clear that the media was not just doing its primary job of faithfully reporting events, but a lot more. It was palming off incidents of violence that took place in Iraq long ago as if they had taken place in Syria. The trick was to first get those incidents to show up as YouTube videos and then to introduce them in conventional media. The most willing recipients of such dubious videos were Al Jazeera, BBC and Al-Arabiya. The western print media too gave legitimacy to these events while deploying a manifestly sectarian prism. Their unashamedly biased reporting and analysis deepened the schism between Shias and Sunnis. Nearly every country in the Muslim world is suffering the consequences of this partisan, sectarian reporting.
The Geneva Conference, to be held to bring peace to Syria, should be preceded by a commitment by the international media to adhere to certain norms of objectivity in the reporting of communal conflict. Indian reporters for long years never reported which community was fighting against whom or who was getting killed. This confusion helped in keeping religious passions in check. Even if this is not possible in 2013, would it not make good sense to just write about people getting killed rather than about which sect they belonged to? Would it make less commercial sense?