« Previous | Main | Next »

Syria: separating fact from fiction

Post categories:

Robin Lustig | 12:40 UK time, Friday, 10 June 2011

I wonder how you confident you feel that you know what's going on in Syria. Me? I don't feel at all confident.

Maybe I'm just old-fashioned, but I always feel much happier when there are journalists whom I trust on the ground, out there with their notebooks, recorders, and cameras - reporting back to me what they can see and what they can hear.

I'm even happier if I'm there myself - but in Syria, there are no independent journalists operating because none has been allowed in. Local reporters can't work freely, because there are no free media.

And that's why we rely on social network sites likes Facebook and Twitter. Throughout my working day, my computer screen flashes constantly with a never-ending stream of updates from people in Syria and elsewhere, telling me what's going on where they are, now, this minute. It's mesmerising - but it can also be deeply misleading.

If you follow me on Facebook or Twitter, you may remember that six weeks ago I posted a link to a Syrian blogger who called herself "A Gay Girl in Damascus". She wrote unusually vividly and movingly, especially about the day when armed men came to her home late at night to arrest her.

She described how her father stood up to the men, talked to them, lectured them, and shamed them until eventually they left without her. "As soon as the gate shut, I heard clapping; everyone in the house was awake now and had been watching from balconies and doorways and windows all around the courtyard ... and everyone was cheering ... my Dad had just defeated them! Not with weapons but with words ... and they had left ... I hugged him and kissed him. I literally owe him my life."

Then, last Monday, a woman describing herself as the blogger's cousin, wrote that Amina (the "gay girl in Damascus") had been abducted while walking in the streets of the Syrian capital. A huge internet campaign swung into action, mobilising friends and supporters to press for her release.

But here's the point. It quickly emerged that no one actually knew the blogger. No one in Damascus had actually met her, or knew anyone who had. Even her supposed girl-friend in Canada, whom we interviewed in all good faith on the programme on Tuesday, later admitted that she had neither met nor even spoken to her - their entire relationship had been conducted online, via email.

So who is Amina? Is she someone who is hiding behind a false identity, perhaps for her own security, or is she a work of fiction? Does she even exist? (The pictures of herself that she posted online turned out to be of someone else entirely.)

UPDATE: A man called Tom MacMaster has now admitted being the author of the blog.

Does it matter if one blog among millions turns out to be a fake? Unfortunately, it does, especially in an environment where independent reporting is impossible, so that blogs and other online media become the only available substitute.

If Amina does not exist - if she isn't who she says she is, or if the events she writes about didn't happen - then we have learned an important lesson: that we must be doubly cautious when we use the information provided by bloggers and Tweeters as a basis for our reporting. (There's an excellent account of the whole mystery here.)

According to human rights groups in Syria, well over 1,000 people have been killed since the current wave of unrest exploded two months ago, and more than 10,000 people are believed to have been arrested.

Yesterday, more than 2,500 people were reported to have fled across the border into Turkey to escape an expected army onslaught on the town of Jisr al-Shughour, where, according to official media, 120 people were killed last weekend in what seems to have been a partial army mutiny.

I wrote eight weeks ago: "If you want to know what's really worrying Washington as officials anxiously survey the anger sweeping through the Arab world, it's not Libya you should be focusing on. Try Syria." It was true then, and it's even truer now.

More than ever, we need accurate information about what is happening there - and more than ever, accurate information is in scarce supply.


  • Comment number 1.

    Damascus is under huge pressure to surrender to AMERICAN edicts as well as EU. Syrian Regime change or voluntary subordination: one or other is what west wants. This includes subordinating Syrian foreign policy & breaking link between Syria & Iran.
    The riots in Syria, however, are complex. They cannot be viewed as a straightforward quest for liberty and democracy. There has been an attempt by the US & E.U. to use these riots to pressure & intimidate the Syrian leadership. Saudi Arabia, Israel, Jordan, & March 14 Alliance have all played their role in supporting an armed insurrection.
    The Al-Sauds have drowned out authentic calls for democratic reform & marginalized democratic elements in the Syrian opposition. There are elements of Salafist extremists, like Fatah Al-Islam & new extremist political movements being organized in Egypt. They are also rallying cries against the Alawites, the Druze, and Syrian Christians.

  • Comment number 2.

    Money & weapons have been funnelled to elements of the Syrian opposition by the US, the EU, the March 14 Alliance, Jordan, and Khalijis. Weapons caches are smuggled from Jordan & Lebanon into Syria.
    The events in Syria are also tied to Iran. Remember Senator Lieberman demanding Obama Administration & NATO attack Syria & Iran - like Libya. I think a new, broader offensive is being developed against Syria & Iran.
    Syria has important energy corridors.
    1. Turkey & Caspian to Israel & Red Sea &
    2. Iraq to the Mediterranean.
    Control of these as well as gas fields off the Lebanese & Syrian coastline would prevent Chinese access. Aside from the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) Pipeline, the Levantine natural gas fields is reason Kremlin created military foothold in Syria. Moreover, Iran has agreed to explore and help develop these natural gas fields off the Levantine coast for Beirut & Damascus.

  • Comment number 3.

    The United States has expanded its contacts with Syrians who are counting on a regime change in Syria. This was stated by US State Department Official Victoria Nuland: "We started to expand contacts with the Syrians, those who are calling for change, both inside and outside the country."
    Nuland also repeated that Barack Obama had previously called on Syrian President Bashar Assad to initiate reforms or to step down from power.
    Sounds like another Libya...

  • Comment number 4.

    Libya & Syria are the only 2 Mediterranean countries as well as sole remaining Arab states that are not subordinated to US & NATO designs for control of the Mediterranean Sea Basin & Middle East. Nor have Libya or Syria participated in NATO's almost ten-year-old "Operation Active Endeavor" naval patrols & exercises in the Mediterranean Sea. Neither is a member of NATO's Mediterranean Dialogue military partnership which includes most regional countries: Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco and Mauritania.
    To the major upset of US imperialism, Libya’s Gaddafi also refused to join the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), which Gaddafi saw as a vehicle to open Africna Gates to African resources, safeguard western trade & investment markets. When the US formed AFRICOM in 2007, some 49 countries signed on. But one country refused: Libya. Gaddafi must go!

  • Comment number 5.




BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.