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University of Balamand > News > Archive > Covering Syria – Opinion vs. Information

From the left, Cengiz Kandar, Sami Nader, Ramez Maluf, and Ali Hashem

Covering Syria – Opinion vs. Information

There may be no perfectly objective way for a journalist to cover a war, but some ways are better than others. Unfortunately, however, current coverage of the Syrian conflict leaves much to be desired.

This may have been the main message to come out of the “Covering Syria” panel discussion held on March 24 in Fares Auditorium with the participation of Mr. Ali Hashem, Dr. Sami Nader, and Mr. Cengiz Kandar from the on-line publication Al-Monitor, and Dr. Ramez Maluf from the University of Balamand.

Organized by the Mass Communication Club in collaboration with Al-Monitor, the panel engaged its audience in a two-hour long discussion over media coverage of the Syrian conflict. Moderator Sami Nader, a political analysts and Al-Monitor columnist, opened the discussion by asking whether “truth is at all possible given the diversity of conflicting political agendas represented in the media.”

Cengiz Kandar, a columnist for Al Monitor and a contributor to a number of Turkish publications, criticized the politicized coverage of the Syrian war in Turkish newspapers. The Istanbul media are mostly concerned with the implications of the Syrian conflict on local elections and local politics, he said, and interpret any development depending on their political allegiances. Those who only follow the local media, argued Mr. Kandar, will understand the war in the neighboring country from a very narrow perspective.

In turn, Al Mayadeen TV Beirut Bureau Chief Ali Hashem, said that Iranian media portray the Syrian conflict in line with the official government line. “There are no private television stations in Iran; they are owned by the government, and they reflect government policy.”

However, Mr. Hashem said that at the start of the conflict, when opposition to the Damascus government was limited to peaceful demonstrations, there was a lot of sympathy for the Syrian opposition in Iran and that was also reflected in the media. “But things started to change when the Syrian opposition and others started badmouthing the Shia, or more importantly, the ‘Persians’. Iranians are very sensitive to attacks on their ethnicity. It would be the same if people started attacking ‘Arabs’.” Iranians, said Mr. Hashem, distinguish between attacks against Iran, which they interpret as attacks against the regime, and attacks against their Persian identity.

Another point raised by Mr. Hashem, himself a seasoned war reporter, is the difficulty journalists have in moving freely inside Syria, forcing them to resort to second-hand information that may not always be reliable. In addition, he said, journalists in this part of the world are typically constrained by the point of view of the media outlets for which they work. “You have to report the story the way they want you to.”

Head of the Department of Mass Communication Ramez Maluf said that one of the ails facing journalism in the region is the overwhelming emphasis on advocacy, oftentimes by journalists who believe that it is their obligation to promote what they consider to be a just cause. “The argument one hears all the time is that there is no such thing as objective journalism, and therefore everyone should interpret the facts to their advantage.”

While Dr. Maluf agreed that what he called “epistemological objectivity” may not exist in journalism, however, he said that journalists “should not blunt the difference between biased reporting to promote a point of view, and good reporting that informs the public.” The primary responsibility of journalists and reporters, he said, is to inform, and not to opinionate. “Unfortunately,” he said, “media institutions in this part of the world have been created as political instruments and see as their responsibility the promotion of the party line, rather than providing information to the public.”

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