Syria Sees No Need for Journalists to Investigate Massacre

Wednesday, May 30, 2012
Robert Mackey for the New York Times
Western Asia
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
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Just hours after a correspondent for Britain's Channel 4 News filed a video report from the Syrian village of Houla, where dozens of children were killed in a massacre last week, Syria's ambassador to the United Nations made it clear that his government would not be swayed by witness accounts of the killings gathered by journalists.

Speaking to another reporter for the same British channel at the U.N. headquarters in New York on Wednesday, the ambassador, Bashar Jaafari, called the massacre a “heinous and appalling crime.” But he insisted that there was no need for journalists to go to the village and gather information independently to determine who was responsible for the killings, since the Syrian government was conducting its own investigation.

In a somewhat bizarre exchange (captured in full, about 22 minutes into video posted on the U.N. Web site), Mr. Jaafari pleaded with the Channel 4 News correspondent in New York, Matt Frei, to ignore the work of his colleague in Syria, Alex Thomson, and wait for President Bashar al-Assad's commission of inquiry to publish its findings later this week. “Don't base your information on reports,” Mr. Jaafari told the reporter.

When Mr. Frei told the ambassador that his colleague in Syria had just spoken to survivors of the massacre who identified the killers as pro-government militiamen from two neighboring villages, Mr. Jaafari said that rather than producing a video report, Channel 4 News should have conveyed their information directly to the Syrian authorities.Mr. Frei replied that the news organization would publish all of the information gathered by its team in Houla on its Web site, which prompted Mr. Jaafari to complain that the reporters apparently did not want to help in the investigation.

Despite insisting that the world had to wait for the government's investigation to be completed to find out who was responsible for the massacre, Mr. Jaafari had no reservations in claiming minutes later that the massacre was carried out by opponents of the government. He told the assembled press corps near the end of the news conference:

The important point for all of you is to know that is that those who committed this crime, they did it on purpose to ignite civil war, because in these three villages, you have three different sects of people: you have Muslim Sunnis, you have Muslims Shiites, you have Muslims Alawites.

Those who triggered this and ignited this massacre were seeking to ignite a confessional and a sectarian confrontation between the populations of that area. So those who did it are professional criminals, professional terrorists, because they wanted by all means to instigate, to ignite a sectarian confrontation in the area…. many of our people in Syria are very aware of that, otherwise you would have seen real bloodshed, more dangerous than what you have seen so far.

So please help us: understand what is going on and don't fall in this trap of simplifying things.
So, as Syrian officials have throughout the uprising that started 15 months ago, Mr. Jaafari acknowledged that an attack had taken place, but also repeatedly suggested that it would be irresponsible for anyone who is not in Syria now to draw conclusions about who was responsible for the deaths. Since most foreign journalists continue to be barred from the country by the government and information provided by activists therefore cannot be independently verified, the authorities have helped to foster the idea that the truth in Syria is almost unknowable.

Among the unimplemented provision of the cease-fire plan negotiated by Kofi Annan was a commitment by Syria to allow unfettered access to independent journalists. The Channel 4 News crew did manage to visit Houla, briefly, in the company of U.N. observers, but that rare opportunity for the outside world to see what is happening in the conflict zone through the eyes of an impartial observer remains exceptional. In fact, when Mr. Frei, the Channel 4 News correspondent in New York first presented his colleague's findings to the Syrian ambassador, Mr. Jaafari's first instinct was to complain that the news organization's crew must have been entered Syria illegally.

Underlying the disconnect between the reporters at the U.N. on Wednesday and the Syrian ambassador was a fundamental disagreement about the potential contribution journalists could make to discovering and reporting the truth about the conflict in the country.

Behind Mr. Frei's confrontational questioning of the Syrian ambassador, and of his Russian counterpart before him, was a set of assumptions common in countries where the news media is allowed to operate more or less free from government control. To a British reporter, it is a given that a journalist's duty is to discover and make public the truth, even or particularly when it concerns matters that government officials might prefer to keep secret.

Mr. Jaafari, as representative of a government that blocks independent reporting and tightly controls the flow of information to its citizens through state-run news channels, insisted to Mr. Frei and the other reporters in New York that the truth about what happened in Houla could only be reliably determined by the government officials appointed by the president to discover it. As a result, he dismissed not only the information gathered by Channel 4 News in the village on Wednesday, but also the witness accounts collected earlier in the week by investigators for Human Rights Watch, reporters from other news organizations and U.N. observers who visited the village in the immediate aftermath of the massacre.The ambassador's position is entirely consistent with stance taken by the government since the start of the uprising, 15 months ago, when one of Mr. Assad's advisers, Bouthaina Shaaban, publicly scolded a BBC correspondent for using video recorded by activists to undermine the government's account of events in a report on the killing of protesters at the Omari mosque in the Syrian city of Dara'a.

There were “a lot of exaggerations,” in the BBC's report, Ms. Shaaban said, “and we could see that they were not willing to take the news as it exactly was.” She added that the employees of Syrian state television “have their credibility,” yet their official accounts of events in their country were not being accepted by foreign reporters. “I was talking to some of the media men,” Ms. Shaaban said, “and some of them said, ‘Even when we said to them something, they would not believe us.” At the end of her lecture, she told the BBC correspondent Lina Sinjab: “The events are happening in Syria, by the way, and only Syrian television tells the truth, no one else.”

The Syrian government's habit of reflexively dismissing credible reports from foreign journalists that slaughter in Houla was carried out by the Syrian army and pro-government militias as if they were no more reliable than, or identical to, enemy propaganda, has been echoed all week by reports from the state-financed satellite news channels of two close allies, Iran and Russia — two countries that also tend to equate independent reporting with treason.

The satellite network Russia Today, which was set up by the Russian government's information agency, broadcast reports this week suggesting that it was impossible to know which side was responsible for the massacre in the rebel-held village and seized on an error by the BBC, which mistook a photograph of bodies excavated from a mass grave in Iraq for one shot in Houla last weekend, as evidence of an intentional propaganda campaign against Syria.Earlier on Wednesday, Press TV, Iran's English-language satellite news channel, broadcast a report bearing the headline, “‘NATO Behind Houla Massacre,'” which featured remarks by a pundit who asserted that the massacre was “a brazen act of terrorism by the pro-Saudi, Wahhabi, pro-Israel and pro-American terrorists.”