BEIRUT — From the beginning of the Syrian uprising, the battle has been one of words as well as weapons and, as rebels strike ever closer to the heart of the regime, the state propaganda machine also appears under threat.
The state-run news agency SANA reported Sunday that the Ministry of Information was accusing “Western intelligence services” of planning to hijack Syrian satellite channels to broadcast “false news.” Meanwhile, SANA cast fighters attacking the capital of Damascus and commercial hub of Aleppo as terrorist insurgents.
Analysts dismissed both reports as typical of the regime’s casting of the popular uprising as the work of foreign terrorists. While the regime tries to downplay gains made by the Free Syrian Army, the defection of TV host Ola Abbas certainly will not go unnoticed by the Syrian public.
“[The regime] fears that a host or anchor would defect more than someone in the military because [that would mean] a year ago the host said one thing, and now they’re saying something different,” she said. “Everyone knows the state media is lying and remembers the faces of hosts.”
Speaking in Beirut before leaving for France, Ms. Abbas said in her first interview with foreign media that several security branches oversee the Syrian media and that instructions are dictated from regime officials by phone to managers who execute their orders.
“Never say the word, ‘protest’; say ‘gathering,’” said Ms. Abbas, describing the rules that governed any reports on the uprising. “Never say ‘revolution.’ Ever. Say, ‘crisis.’”
During the 17-month-old uprising, the regime has consistently tried to downplay the scale and violence of the revolt through its media, broadcasting purportedly live images of calm, empty streets even as citizen-generated video from the same locations showed huge protests.
After three attacks on government buildings this year, the state media were quick to report the news in order to tell the regime’s version of the story, in each case blaming Islamist terrorists.
The most recent attack, which killed five top regime officials last week, was labeled a suicide bombing. Blaming Islamist terrorists instead of rebels showed that the regime has become more sophisticated in its propaganda during the uprising, said Syrian media critic Keenan Ali, who declined to use his real name out of fear of retaliation.
“In the past, they would just ignore anything that was said about the Syrian regime,” said Mr. Ali. “Now they are willing to take some other coverage if they think they can make a more convincing story.”
Syria warns of ‘false news’
On Sunday, Syria accused the West of planning to “hijack” the country’s satellite television channels to broadcast disinformation about an alleged coup or defections.
“An Information Ministry source warned that Western intelligence are planning, in cooperation with some Arab parties, to hijack the frequencies of Syrian satellite channels,” SANA reported.
It said the aim would be “to broadcast false news on an alleged coup d’etat or military defections or the fall of certain cities.”
False news, the ministry added, “might be broadcast by Syrian presenters and journalists who work for Arab and Western channels, or who might have been abducted” and forced to broadcast such reports.
Ms. Abbas, who hosted a culture show before she fled the country, said she struggled with her conscience as Syrians died in the thousands, but out of fear she quietly remained on the sidelines until she could take no more. That she is wealthy and Alawite, the same sect of President Bashar Assad, provided cover for her doubts.
One night this month, she posted a message on Facebook announcing her resignation. Within an hour, it got more than 200 “likes,” but she also received a phone call from a man who she suspects was an agent of state security, asking her about the message. After a sleepless night, she crossed the border to Lebanon.
“You feel that the state is always above you,” Ms. Abbas said. “You might say what you want, and they won’t imprison you, but then someone else will hurt you because you’re no longer protected.”
The regime’s use of the media to bolster power began long before the start of the uprising in spring 2011. Mr. Assad’s father, Hafez Assad, built a strict media edifice after he came to power in 1970.
When Bashar Assad inherited his father’s regime, he was credited with opening space for journalists to write about corruption. Such reports always stayed clear of the president and his family, as well as the army, security services and high officials of the regime.
“We sensed after a while that they were only exposing the names of the people they wanted to get rid of,” Mr. Ali said. “They sacrificed some people to show that the Syrian regime is doing something, but if a journalist found out about corruption it was probably leaked from the secret service.”
Since the start of the uprising, the regime has had to counter alternative narratives to those it approves for the state-controlled media. Activists and citizen journalists have risked their lives to disseminate images of the regime’s brutal attacks on peaceful protesters, and some report that security forces have more vengefully punished activists caught with recording equipment than those carrying weapons.
Analysts point out that both sides have been guilty of spreading disinformation in the propaganda war. The government has been adept at publicizing examples of the opposition falsifying reports or making sectarian comments.
“The regime exploited the mistakes made by the revolutionaries and would show people on camera who would say that they want to kill Alawites, for example,” Ms. Abbas said.
However, many Syrians have seen firsthand the graphic evidence of regime brutality through attacks on their own towns and villages, neighbors and families. Many observers say more than 19,000 people have been killed since the beginning of the uprising.
Analysts say that defections from public officials further erode any trust that the citizens might have had in official sources of information, as has been shown elsewhere since the start of the Arab Spring.