The First Casualty of War
Shabi, Rachel, New Statesman (1996)
"We all have sympathies with the rebels--we all want the regime to fall," says Rainer Hermann, Middle East correspondent for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Maybe that's why his report from Syria has just been dismissed.
On 7 June, Hermann published accusations that the May massacres in Houla--where, the UN said, 108 people were killed, including 34 women and 49 children--were not the work of pro-regime militias as widely reported.
"These kind of simplistic explanations that are coming in every day through the media outlets of [the opposition group] the Free Syrian Army, I find less and less credible--nobody is on the ground to see it," he told me. Rather, he suggested in his report, the killings had been carried out by forces allied to the Free Syrian Army. The claim was rejected in a media statement apparently issued by Houla residents, but the dispute forces us to question our acceptance of a black-and-white narrative. We see an uprising in Syria in which pro-democracy protesters are crushed and killed by President Bashar al-Assad's autocracy--but what happens with stories that complicate the view?
Hindered by a ban on journalists entering the country (though some have since been granted visas), foreign media have relied on activists and "citizen journalists" on the inside. This, combined with sympathy for the protesters and horror at the death tolls, has skewed coverage of the conflict.
"We've taken sides," says Alex Thomson, chief correspondent for Channel 4 News, who visited Houla this month. While in Syria, he believes, he and his film crew were deliberately directed into a firing zone by the Free Syrian Army. "Dead journos are bad for [the regime in] Damascus," he later blogged. "I'd be the first to say the regime is an odious police state," Thomson told me, "but that does not excuse wilful myopia when discussing the tactics that rebels are using."
With the opposition becoming more militarised, deaths among the Syrian military and supporters of the regime are increasing. Several reporters also suggest that the rising lawlessness is being used as cover for revenge and religiously motivated killings. Some speak of a media monopoly by armed opposition groups that want western intervention, pushing aside non-armed groups that prefer the west to stay out. …