Propaganda: Syrian citizen journalists as a military-political interface
Above all, the link to a military strategy is new; the sums used are also remarkable – as is the gap between reality and cosmetics, which opens up between the formulation of the task and the actual work
British PR to promote the Syrian opposition is nothing new. Documents by the British government that are currently published in part by journalist Ian Cobain have basically confirmed what has been known for a long time. Such documents are no longer so easy to dismiss such as mere assumption.
They show that the British government, along with the United States and Canada, funded a network of Syrian journalists from 2012 to 2015 to shape public awareness of the conflict in Syria.
“Pump out propaganda”
Above all, the link to a military strategy is new; the sums used are also remarkable – as is the gap between reality and cosmetics, which opens up between the formulation of the task and the actual work.
In the documents, the goal is stated politically and hygienically with a “positive change in attitudes and behavior” towards the Syrian opposition. One of the people involved, his work was really about dirtier things – about “pumping out propaganda, inside and outside Syria”.
What is striking is the dual function of those involved, who should not know anything about their client. On the one hand, as “citizen journalists”, they should convince the public of the opposition to Bashar al-Assad. On the other hand, they acted towards journalists from media with an international reach, e.g. Sky News Arabia, BBC Arabic, al-Jazeera or al-Arabiya, as spokesman for opposition groups.
They were “instructed” beforehand. Basic guiding principles had already been set programmatically by the British government. According to the published papers, the key was “strengthening the values and reputation of the Syrian opposition” and, on the other hand, “undermining the Assad government’s narrative and its legitimacy”.
The names of the participants in the “hidden propaganda campaign” (Middle East Eye) are not mentioned. Nine companies are said to have participated in the tender. The wording that included a number of companies founded by former British diplomats, intelligence and army officers lays a trail to the PR networks surrounding the activities of the white helmets founded by a former British intelligence officer.
The contractor should provide material for television, radio, social media, posters, magazines and “even children’s comics” through Syrian journalists. According to Ian Cobain, journalists paid a flat rate of between $ 250 and $ 500 a month, or for individual contributions, between $ 50 for a picture and $ 200 for a short video.
In 2015, the program, with its three strands – “Free Syria, Syrian Identity and Undermining” – was said to have spent $ 540,000 per month. In view of the “fees” just mentioned, a lot could be produced. In the same year, however, the propaganda work ended. After Russia’s military intervention, the matter came to a standstill, said Cobain.
… and strategy
The journalist creates an interesting background based on the documents, which, in short, boils down to the fact that the PR program was a kind of bridging in order to use public relations to prepare for a possible British military operation in Syria. This is supported by the fact that the initiative was launched shortly after the British Parliament decided against a military operation in Syria, and the matter ended up with the Department of Defense.
In addition, the interests of the PR campaign are geared to creating an “effective oppositional political-military interface” that allows strategic expansion if the opportunity arises. For the British government, working with the network of Syrian journalists was an opportunity to maintain a British presence in Syria, which could then be expanded as the journalist reads from the government documents.
Cosmetics and the al-Nusra front
In the campaign, the greatest possible confidentiality was ensured, the hired Syrian citizen journalists knew nothing of the client in the background, apparently not even of the British PR agencies. They thought they were working for an opposition group. That was for their protection, it is argued, since IS militias were known to have murdered journalists for “espionage”.
According to the report, the content of the program and its tasks were largely developed by a British anthropologist. It may be because some of the guidelines do not sound like an outrageous agenda, but in principle reasonable.
It is about the cohesion of a society, about a Syrian identity, which is supposed to be pluralistic, encompasses several groups, for example against denominational resentments; it is about giving space and legitimacy to opposition to the government, and it is against extremism.
On the last point, however – as is explicitly the case with the program “undermining the legitimacy of the Bashar al-Assad government – a political agenda flashes in detail. Extremists who are to be delegitimized mainly mean IS, also known by name.
If it is the other al-Qaida secession, which was then known under the name al-Nusra-Front, its name should not appear. One of the government documents quotes: “ISIL is an explicit focus, which is also named, the al-Nusra Front (given its popularity within Syria) is only mentioned indirectly about its behavior.” [end]
The author of the article is Thomas Pany. Thomas Pany studied political science with Kurt Sontheimer at the Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich, plus modern history and Semitic studies. The original article has been published in Telepolis. Translation and editing by Defenseweek’s team.