Images: People in Syria who are rarely given a voice in the Australian mainstream media
Formal Complaint to Audience and Consumer Affairs, Australian Broadcasting Commission,
Program: ABC, Radio National, AM
Presenter: Chris Uhlmann Reporter: Matt Brown
24 September 2014
Dear Audience and Consumer Affairs,
The above-mentioned AM program breaches the ABC Code of Practice in regards to Accuracy, Impartiality and Diversity of Perspectives.
The United States with support from Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Qatar, has begun airstrikes on Syria, ostensibly to target IS forces. To enter the airspace of Syria without the authorization of the Syrian government is an illegal act. Also, last week the American Congress voted to train and arm ‘moderate Syrian rebels’. These rebels are fighting both the Islamic State and the Syrian government, and there is reason to believe they see the Syrian government as their principal target. Under international law, it is illegal for countries to fund and supply weapons to insurgents intent on overthrowing the government of a sovereign state.
The Australian government will have enormous pressure on it from the U.S. Administration to support their military actions in Syria. It is, therefore, imperative that Australians are as well-informed as they can possibly be about the war in Syria and the so-called moderate rebels that America and its allies are arming. Decisions which will determine the history of the 21st century are being made.
What is more, the conflict in Syria impacts on communities in Australia and on people’s sense of security and well-being. We can all be disorientated by the mixed messages and the hatred stirred up in biased, imprudent reports and commentaries on the war. It should be the responsibility of the ABC, our national broadcaster, to inform us fully and impartially on Syria and the region. However, its Middle East correspondent, Matt Brown, is not doing this.
ACCURACY and IMPARTIALITY
In his report on AM (18 September 2014) Matt Brown presented a biased portrayal of ‘moderate’ rebels in Syria. He described the rebels as ‘moderate’, as if their being moderate was a fact, not an opinion.
Furthermore, emotive expressions that could elicit sympathy for the rebels were used. These included, concern, hope, congratulated, thankful, and a welcome gesture.
There was no suggestion that these rebels might be opportunists, who happily wear the label ‘moderate’ today as it entitles them to receive military hardware from the U.S. and its allies, but who have aligned with terrorist groups, including ISIL, at times in the conflict when it suited them. Also, in coming days, months and years, there are already signs they will choose Al-Qaeda affiliated groups over the U.S. and their allies. .
Unlike Brown, BBC’s Jeremy Bowen expresses serious reservations about ‘moderate’ rebels.
I have met many FSA fighters and they do have moderate views, certainly in comparison with jihadist groups. But the fighters are often religious and see no problem with building up alliances with the jihadists against a common enemy. Fighters also move from one group to another.
Also, it’s been reported that the family of Steven Sotloff, one of the American journalists beheaded by ISIL, accused ‘moderate rebels’ of selling Steven to the extremists.
Does a ‘moderate’ rebel kill differently to an ‘extremist’ rebel?
Ahmad Al-Rahal, a ‘moderate rebel’ introduced in the AM report, declared in an interview in March 2014,
There is no sectarianism in this revolution. Syria only has two sects: that of the regime and that of the revolution.
It is difficult to see how such a crude uncompromising approach to a ‘revolution’ differs from the Khmer Rouge’s, whose ideology was just as black and white and led to the killing fields in Cambodia. It is therefore shocking that Brown reports on Al-Rahal totally uncritically.
Given the lethal qualities of the ‘revolution’ in Syria and its attraction to young Muslim Australians, the ABC has a heavy responsibility to both the general public in Syria and in Australia to ensure ‘rebels’ in Syria, no matter what their name-tag today, are neither glamorized nor sanitized by ABC journalists.
The other ‘moderate’ rebel commander Brown introduces to the AM audience is Jamal Al Maa’arufe (also spelt ‘Ma’ruf’ and ‘Maruf). Currently, Maa’arufe is said to head a coalition of insurgent groups called the Syrian Revolutionaries’ Front. Dr As’ad AbuKhalil, a professor of political science at California State University has written the following about Jamal Maa’arufe on his blog, Angry Arab:
A Syrian leader of rebel thugs, Jamal Ma`ruf, having been groomed by Saudi intelligence, announces in the media that he is now ready and willing to fight ISIS. Let me translate: he has just received a large supply of weapons and cash from American and Saudi intelligence. Let the thuggery begin.
DIVERSITY of PERSPECTIVES
Although rebels control quite a large area in Syria, the majority of Syrians still choose to live in government controlled cities and towns. These people include up to two million Syrian Christians as well as Muslims of all sects who do not support a militarized opposition or an Islamised political system, similar to Saudi Arabia’s or Iran’s. Yet, their voices are not heard in this AM report. It is as if they do not exist, yet they are people Australians would feel great empathy for if only we knew their stories and views.
Ironically perhaps, James Foley, the American journalist whose beheading became part of the pretext for U.S. military strikes on Syria, did diligently seek the views of civilians in Aleppo who were critical of the Free Syrian Army, supposedly moderate rebels. This may have cost him his life. In an October 2012 article titled Syria: Rebels losing support among civilians in Aleppo, Foley wrote,
The rebels in Aleppo are predominantly from the countryside, further alienating them from the urban crowd that once lived here peacefully, in relative economic comfort and with little interference from the authoritarian government of President Bashar al-Assad.
“The terrorism here in Syria is spreading, and the government has to do something about it,” said Mohamed Kabal, a 21-year-old university student.
Foley also presented the perspective of a disillusioned rebel.
He said he’s seen civilians executed after rebels recklessly accuse them of being mercenaries for the regime.
“I saw one beaten to death,” he said. “The FSA didn’t check their facts, and now he’s dead. I know the man. He was 46. He has five children.”
Unlike some media outlets, such as the BBC, Channel 4, and the Telegraph, the ABC has not sent a reporter into government controlled cities to seek a diversity of perspectives in regards to the war. The ABC has maintained it hasn’t been able to get a visa for a reporter. But this is no excuse for the lack of balance in Matt Brown’s report. In June, tens of thousands of Syrians in Lebanon voted in the Syrian presidential election. Brown could travel to Beirut to seek out their views.
TRUTHS vs INACCURATE & BIASED REPORTING
In 2011, on an ABC community webpage, there was an account of the violence and terror then being committed by armed gangs across Syria. However, despite challenges, the mainstream narrative on the crisis in Syria has been consistent: a minority sect is oppressing the Sunni majority and a brutal dictator is killing his own people. Matt Brown promotes it in this AM report, as do print journalists, NGOs, human rights organizations, even UN bodies. When prominent Malaysian peace activist, Dr Chandra Muzaffar, writes on what might attract young Muslim men the rebel cause in Syria, we in Australia should pay heed. He is a ‘moderate’ Muslim exploring truths.
Unfortunately, through repetition, the narrative has become an embedded ‘truth’. Hence, although a well-regarded M.I.T. professor, a doctor in pharmacology, a US intelligence expert, a veteran investigative journalist; have all challenged the claim that Assad used chemical weapons against his people in August 2013, ABC presenter Waleed Aly can still insist Assad did, without thinking it necessary to substantiate the accusation.
So Matt Brown’s recent AM report continued the tradition of this narrative. It began with a discussion of the Sunni IS forces and ended with damnation of the ‘torture chambers’ of Bashar Al-Assad, who, as Brown says, is the ‘main target’ of ‘moderate’ rebels. (NB: Alternative sources question the ‘Caesar’ claims of ‘torture chambers’, but a mainstream journalist is highly unlikely to be instructed to probe deeply once a convenient ‘truth’ is embedded.)
On AM, rebel claims were presented without challenge by Brown; thus, they easily become ‘truths’. So Jamal Al Maa’arufe speaks about the fight against the “unjust Bashar’s illegitimate state”. Belief that the Syrian state is illegitimate may be what prompts rebels to brutally murder state employees, including bakers. post office workers, doctors and teachers. But how can a state that has been represented in the U.N. since its inception be ‘illegitimate’?
Brown says a government airstrike ‘reportedly’ killed Jamal Al Maa’arufe’s wife and daughter. Brown acknowledges it is a claim. However, apart from this AM report, a tweet and a Facebook entry, It is very hard to find support on the internet for it. An article in SYRIA: direct, reports on the airstrike, but it claims Maa’arufe’s deputy was killed; there is no mention of family members. Already Brown presents a sympathetic portrait of rebel leader Al Maa’arufe. Suggesting that he has lost his wife and daughter in a government airstrike further reinforces that portrayal. That may be the purpose of it. as to repeat what seems to be merely a little chatter on the internet seems irresponsible journalism, especially when the stakes are so high when there is misinformation presented on Syria, high for the people of Syria and the region, and high for Australians, as we are now learning.
Unchallenged rebel slogans, misinformation and distortions can only further entice young Muslim Australians to Syria to fight the ‘Alawi dictatorship of Bashar Al Assad’, as James Carleton described it on RN Breakfast (22/9/14) in clear contradiction of the true demographics, which are that the Syrian government, army, and business elite are dominated by Sunni Muslims. Young Australian Muslims who aspire to becoming martyrs in Syria or Australia can inadvertently become the victims of lies.
Syria is a conflict we all contribute to if we do not demand the highest standards of reporting. Not only do we risk being victims of our own naivety and gullibility, but by ignoring the voices and suffering of millions of Syrians – people like us – we compromise our basic beliefs and values, and we risk being complicit in heinous crimes.
Image: Syrian TV interviewer with Dr Kinda Shammat, Minister in Syrian government (Screen shot taken from Syrian TV)
Image: Screen shot of image of a tweet showing ‘moderate’ rebel Jamal Ma’ruf, presented in Matt Brown’s report.
OFFICIAL RESPONSE FROM ABC’S AUDIENCE AND CONSUMER AFFAIRS
From: ABC Corporate_Affairs8
date: 21 October 2014 11:46subject: Re: Formal Complaint to ABC re Matt Brown’s AM Report on ‘Moderate’ Rebels: Important mainly because of the people in the conversation.
Dear Ms Dirgham
Thank you for your email of 25 September regarding a recent edition of AM.
In keeping with the ABC’s complaint handling procedures, your concerns have been considered by Audience and Consumer Affairs, a unit which is separate to and independent of program making areas within the ABC. The role of Audience and Consumer Affairs is to investigate complaints alleging that ABC content has breached the ABC’s editorial standards. We have reviewed the broadcast and assessed it against the ABC’s accuracy and impartiality standards which are explained in the ABC Code of Practice: http://about.abc.net.au/reports-publications/code-of-practice-2014/
Please note that Audience and Consumer Affairs can only review clear and specific complaints about particular ABC content which relate directly to the Corporation’s editorial standards. Your reference to a number of other media and sources are noted; however, these were largely not relevant to this review.
It is important to recognise that the subject of this short report was the rebels reaction to the US-led war on IS; it was not relevant or necessary for the reporter to seek the views of those who support al-Assad as you seem to suggest. Overtime, ABC News has featured a variety of views on the US-led war against Islamic State (IS), which has included the position of the government of Bashar al-Assad; this approach is in keeping with the ABC’s requirements for impartiality.
With regard to your concern that the use of the descriptor “moderate” for the rebels interviewed by Matt Brown demonstrated bias, the context and basis for this description was made clear in the story. A local commander, Jamal Al Maa’arufe, was featured in the story denouncing both the government of Bashar al-Assad and the Islamic State led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Another commander expressed support for Australia’s involvement in the conflict against the IS.
We are satisfied that the use of the term ‘moderate’ was supported by the public statements of the rebels interviewed and was in keeping with the ABC’s editorial standards. Furthermore, the use of language by the reporter was suitably neutral and impartial: words such as “concern” and “hope” were used appropriately and in context.
As you note, the reporter correctly stated that a rebel commander’s wife and daughter were ‘reportedly’ killed.
Audience and Consumer Affairs is satisfied that this story was in keeping with the ABC’s accuracy and impartiality standards. Should you be dissatisfied with this response, you may be able to pursue your complaint with the Australian Communications and Media Authority http://www.acma.gov.au .
ABC Audience & Consumer Affairs
PURSUING THE COMPLAINT WITH THE AUSTRALIAN COMMUNICATIONS AND MEDIA AUTHORITY
Mr Lachlan Habgood, Broadcasting Investigations Section, ACMA
P.O. Box Q500, QVB Post Office
Sydney, N.S.W. 1230
21 October 2014
I rang you today about pursuing a complaint that was not upheld by the ABC’s Audience and Consumer Affairs. You advised me on how to submit a complaint to the ACMA.
The report which I contend breached the ABC Code of Practice was broadcast on Radio National’s AM, 18 September 2014. It was titled, Mixed response from Syrian rebels to American-led war on IS.
I am providing the following documents with this cover letter:
- My initial complaint letter emailed to Audience and Consumer Affairs on 24 September 2014
- A copy of the transcript of the AM report broadcast on 18 September 2014
- A copy of the email response to my complaint from Ms Denise Musto, ABC Audience and Consumer Affairs, dated 21 October 2014
The reasons I am not satisfied with the response from ABC Corporate Affairs response to my complaint include the following:
1. In my complaint letter, I indicated the need in the ABC report for a diversity of opinions and I noted that the voices of representatives of “up to two million Syrian Christians as well as Muslims of all sects who do not support a militarized opposition or an Islamised political system” were not heard at all. It was “as if they do not exist”. However, Ms Musto in paragraph 4 writes that it was “not necessary to seek the views of those who support al-Assad” as overtime “ABC News has featured a variety of views on the US led war against Islamic State (IS), which has included the position of the government of Bashar al-Assad; this approach is in keeping with the ABC’s requirement for impartiality” (my highlighting).
However, Ms Musto has misconstrued the point I made in my letter. My concern was that Matt Brown’s report ignored the voices of the vast majority of Syrian people who do not support the rebels. No doubt the ABC has presented claims by the Syrian government in some of its news reports. The two ‘rebels’ Matt Brown features in his report are two Syrian people; they are insurgents who support the overthrow of a government through the killing of soldiers, police and civilians. Many Syrian people may not support their current government or their president; however, it cannot be inferred that they therefore support the militarized opposition. There is also an internal, peaceful opposition. (On a visit to Damascus in May 2013, I interviewed opponents of the government who nonetheless insisted that they supported the army against the militarized opposition because, as they explained, only the army can keep the Syrian state intact.)
In my letter of complaint, I did not ask for the government point of view, as Ms Musto suggests, or even the point of view of people “who support al-Assad”. The complaint was based on the fact that millions of Syrian people who support peaceful political change (as we do in Australia) were completely ignored by Matt Brown in the report, and I would contend they have been ignored generally in ABC reports since the crisis in Syria began. To ignore the views of millions of peace-loving Syrian people who would oppose the rebels is breaching Standard 4.2 in the Code of Practice that requires the ABC to “Present a diversity of perspectives so that, over time, no significant strand or thought or belief within the community is knowingly excluded or disproportionately represented.” I would like the ABC Audience and Consumer Affairs to demonstrate how the voices of Syrian peoplewho oppose the militarized opposition have been adequately and appropriately presented in ABC news reports overtime.
2. Ms Musto states, “We are satisfied that the use of the term ‘moderate’ was supported by the public statements of the rebels interviewed and was in keeping with ABC’s editorial standards.” Ms Musto does not explain what editorial standards the use of the term was “in keeping with”. On ‘Accuracy’, the ABC Code of Practice states, “The ABC requires that reasonable efforts must be made to ensure accuracy in all fact-based content. The ABC gauges those efforts by reference to:
- The type, subject and nature of the content;
- The likely audience expectations of the content;
- The likely impact of reliance by the audience on the accuracy of the content; and
- The circumstances in which the content was made and presented. “
I made the point in my complaint that the AM report presented the descriptor ‘moderate’ as a fact, not as an opinion. Definitions online of the expression ‘moderate’ include ‘kept or keeping within reasonable or proper limits; not extreme, excessive, or intense’; ‘a member of a political party advocating moderate reform’; ‘a person who is moderate in opinion or opposed to extreme views and actions, especially in politics or religion’.
In my letter, I quote BBC journalist Jeremy Bowen who says FSA fighters he has met have “moderate views, certainly in comparison with jihadist groups. But the fighters are often religious and see no problem with building up alliances with the jihadists against a common enemy”.
In Matt Brown’s report, there is the sound of the so-called moderate rebels shouting “Allahu Akbar” in the background, which confirms Jeremy Bowen’s point that such fighters are often religious. Syria is a secular society with a significant Christian population, so I believe that an Australian ABC audience would not view insurgents who shout ‘Allahu Akbar’ as ‘moderate’ according to the dictionary definition of moderate above.
It also should be of great concern that there are Muslims within the Australian community without familial connections with Syria who might choose to support the insurgency in Syria based on reports such as this AM one. By unquestionably presenting the views of particular insurgents as ‘moderate’ without the context Jeremy Bowen provides in his report , this AM report and all other ABC reports which do not reference the views of mainstream Syrians can have an impact on sections of the audience which could potentially threaten the future security of Australia.
The above is my initial response to the email I have received from Ms Musto. I trust that ACMA will investigate and consider matters beyond what I have presented. I look forward to hearing from your office.