RT vs. Al Jazeera: The Propaganda War Over the Syrian Revolt

Al Jazeera English offers this screenshot as an example of its coverage of the revolt in Syria.

by Rick Rockwell*

For those who aren’t regular viewers of RT (formerly known as Russia Today), the Kremlin-financed information network, or to those who have not visited RT’s YouTube site you are missing some pretty heavy shelling in the propaganda war over Syria.

During the past few days, RT has been banging its drum about the inherent bias in coverage of Syria and most of the criticism has been aimed directly at Al Jazeera.

Before we get to the specifics though, some context is necessary.  First, Syria has been a client state of Russia since the Soviet era with the Russians selling arms to both President Bashar al-Assad, the country’s current dictator, and Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad.  This relationship was certainly behind Russia’s vote on the United Nations Security Council (along with China), preventing the U.N. from brokering a power-sharing agreement and democratic resolution to the conflict.  And who says Cold War politics are dead?  That reads like a diplomatic box score from the 1970s.

The diplomatic tussle over Syria is also part of the wider conflict in the region concerning Iran.  Syria has been a key ally of Iran since at least the 1980s, with both countries financing Hezbollah as a controlling element in Lebanon and as counter-weight against Israel.  Iran’s saber rattling over closing the Strait of Hormuz can be seen as a direct message to the United States and Europe not only about guarding its nuclear program but also about pressuring Syria.  The Middle East is a very complex diplomatic puzzle with many not so obvious connections.  So the Syrian conflict has to be viewed within this wider context.

Clearly, those financing RT have a stake in what is happening in Syria.  And unlike many of the 24/7 English-language satellite networks that have sprung up in the past decade, RT lacks sophistication in hiding its propaganda intentions.  To someone familiar with the propaganda trends of the Cold War, RT often feels like the electronic version of Pravda from the Soviet era, or an English-language version of Vremya:  the focus is on demonizing the West by showing riots and violence in the U.S. and its allies and how the West seems to be in chaos or out for military domination of the world.

On the business-side, RT is competing for viewers in the English-language media sphere with Al Jazeera, which is now rivaling even the BBC for viewers, and some would say verisimilitude.  The network is not only the leader in Arabic-speaking global media but increasingly in English too.

Although competition is fierce, usually the public face of such competition in the media world looks rather chummy, like a casual tennis match.  But RT’s opening salvos against Al Jazeera resembled something out of a bare knuckled rugby scrum.  Part of the story is about how some of Al Jazeera’s staff in Beirut quit, accusing the network of steering its coverage of Syria at the behest of the emir of Qatar who funds the network.  Also, RT broadcast other allegations, including that Al Jazeera used interviews where victims of violence had been coached and used footage (along with other networks, including CNN) that had been manipulated by those involved with propaganda on behalf of the Syrian rebels.  Some of this criticism echoes the campaign of Syrian state media to discredit Al Jazeera.

RT wasn’t the first to break these allegations.  Last week, Al-Akhbar reported that Al Jazeera correspondent Ali Hashem resigned because he felt coverage had been steered and was unfair.  However, Al-Akhbar added that pro-government Syrian hackers had publicized Hashem’s e-mail account where he had sent these criticisms privately to other Al Jazeera staffers.  That publicity almost forced him to take a public stand and resign.  Hackers sympathetic to the rebels have also exposed the e-mail of Syrian government officials to show how they planned to gain favorable coverage on media networks in the United States.  So the information war is just as complex as the diplomatic and strategic situations surrounding Syria.

This isn’t the first time Al Jazeera has been accused of steering coverage.  The network has had defections over differences of opinion regarding editorial philosophies in the past too.  And the network has gone through its own top-down purges (on both the English-language and Arabic services) to put it more firmly in the hands of the family of Qatari Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani.  (The emir’s cousin Sheikh Hamad bin Thamer al-Thani is directly in charge of Al Jazeera.)

However, most casual viewers in the pan-Arab satellite world or the greater viewing public globally don’t know much about Qatar, its financing of Al Jazeera, or its larger diplomatic aims (and how Al Jazeera projects Qatar’s soft power goals).  So when Qatar’s Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani (another cousin of the emir) appears on Al Jazeera commenting about the Syrian situation his statements take on greater meanings.  They certainly resonate beyond Syria to Qatar’s neighbor Iran, just across the Persian Gulf.  Although Qatar has been active in promoting change in Syria (and in allowing the U.S. a major base of operations in the Gulf region) it maintains good relations with Iran and Hezbollah.

So are there propaganda games being played with the information coming out of Syria on these competing networks? The temptation is to default to the slogan of another propaganda network by saying “we report, you decide.” But that would skirt the obvious opinionated stance of this blog.  So in a word: certainly.  Some advice:  pick carefully through the information coming from any source on this story, it all comes with a skew of some type, intentionally or not.

*The author briefly discussed producing a radio program for RT in 2010, but discontinued those discussions after further research about RT and its programming.

(The screenshot of Al Jazeera English is freely offered on the network’s Flickr page and is used with a Creative Commons license. To see a report from RT critical of Al Jazeera, please check below.  To see a report from Al Jazeera about Syria which prominently features Qatar’s prime minister, also, please check below. Caution though:  that video contains images that may be disturbing to some.)

About rickrockwell2011

Rick Rockwell is the Director of the School of Communication’s International Media program at American University. Rockwell is an award-winning journalist and author. His book, Media Power in Central America, won an award from the American Library Association. Please see the additional links for a full profile.
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