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Syria’s revolution has yet to capture the world’s imagination

April 4, 2011 3 comments

 

It may sound cruel but over the past few weeks Syria’s pro-democracy revolutionaries have been pushing and shoving for headline space with their Libyan and Yemeni counterparts. It’s not hard to see why. Getting the West interested in your particular revolution is a sure way of maximizing the potential for its success, for every Arab knows that the US and the EU who have long accepted dictators as a fact of life (and therefore legitimized them) can de-legitimize them with a press conference or two. Getting the Western media to talk about your revolution will lead to public pressure, which leads to leaders making statements, paving the way for policies to be formulated and political pressure exerted.

The Libyans have so far received the lion’s share of interest. To be fair, they did get in first when they sparked their uprising against Gaddafi back in mid-February. Their column inches is impressive, if not the present course of their revolution which has stalled on the battlefields of Brega and Ras Lanuf.

The Yemenis have so far followed the rather more peaceful Egyptian model, remarkable given the amount of weaponry in ordinary citizen’s hands. However, lack of economic incentives, the relatively low number of dead and injured and the real threat of Al-Qa’ida has made the Western media somewhat wary of embracing the Yemeni revolution. In many ways its a less “sexier” revolution than Libya’s: there’s no Dr Evil-type villain, no African mercenaries, no perfect Mediterranean backdrops, no oil fields; just thousands of Yemenis in traditional garb squatting in the centre of the capital San’a.

The Syrian revolution took everyone by surprise. I say everyone; some did foretell what was to come but these voices were drowned out by the well-informed experts who assured us that the Syrian regime was ‘immune.’ How the mighty have fallen. The problem as far as the Syrian revolutionaries are concerned was that their timing was awful. By mid-March the Western media was enthralled by the images of NATO jets taking off on bombing runs in Libya, and terrified by the threat of nuclear meltdown in Japan; both stories easily relegated Syria to the back pages.

Remains of the day: Hafiz Al-Assad's statue torn down by protesters in Deraa.

Not for long though. Hundreds of protesters turned into thousands, and inevitably, dozens of dead and injured. Syria is at the crossroads of converging political interests; it is a police state par excellence run by a militarized mafioso family; it’s beauty and romance tempered by undercurrents of danger and extremism. The world just had to take notice.

Take notice it did; the problem was that the debate was being framed within the context of reform, not revolution. This has meant that news editors are giving Syria less attention that it deserves. In part this is the fault of the protesters themselves who initially went out onto the streets demanding reform, not regime change. The media as a whole however, Arab and Western, did not pick up on the subtleties of Syrian doublespeak, which inevitably develops in a totalitarian dictatorship of 48 years. When Syrians say they want “change”, they mean regime change, not just a change in the law, and when they talk about “freedom” they mean freedom not to be ruled by the Assads. The culture of fear still permeates Syrian society, and many still prefer to skirt on the edges of the hated “red lines” rather than dare cross them. All this has meant that there is a great deal of confusion as to the real aims of the revolution. The body count is there, but not the clarity of purpose.

In Tunisia it took several weeks for the protests to solidify into a popular, coherent and nationwide anti-Ben Ali uprising. Syria will take longer; the adversary is more sophisticated and considerably more brutal. If the protests continue, which they will, and Libya-fatigue begins to set in, Syria will feature more prominently in newspapers and on news channels. Glad tidings for the revolution as it seeks to find its deserved place in the media limelight.

On Sky News: World’s attention needs to focus on Syria

March 19, 2011 4 comments

Sky News called me this morning and asked if I would comment on what has been happening in Syria these last few days. Understandably, I jumped at the opportunity. As far as 24-hour rolling news networks go, Sky News is a big player, and for them to take an active interest in Syria when Libya and Japan have been dominating the headlines must surely be applauded and encouraged.

That got me interested in Sky News’ take on Syria so I started following their hourly news bulletins. To my pleasant surprise, I found their foreign affairs editor Tim Marshall’s take on Syria refreshingly frank and to the point. He understood the Sunni/Alawi issue and he correctly noted that Syria was the most repressive Arab dictatorship out there (that’s right, not Saudi!) Dr Omar Ashour of Exeter University was also there in the studio and he offered an incisive look at the nature of Middle Eastern dictatorships. I found it all very interesting so well done Sky News team.

At around 6:40pm it was my turn to appear live on Sky News as a “spokesman for the opposition.” I am nothing of the kind of course, but there is a saying in Syria: “Better to be known as a rich man than a poor man”. Here’s how the interview went:

I tried to convey two important messages in what little time I had. One was that Syria is the one to watch because regime change there will have widespread regional repercussions, more so than Yemen or Libya. The second message was related to the situation in Dar’a which is critical given the very real risk of massacres by the army and security forces that were descending upon the city in frightening numbers.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to get hold of a good quality recording. The best I could manage was this mobile phone footage from my niece who watched the interview on her laptop. It’s not even the whole interview but you get the idea.

If any of you were wondering, that comfortable-looking chair I’m slouched on is a POÄNG armchair from Ikea, available for £90.90.

Categories: TV appearance

On BBC Arabic TV: Facebook decision “meaningless”

February 9, 2011 Leave a comment

BBC Arabic TV called me this evening to comment on Bashar’s magnanimous decision to unblock social networking sites in Syria.

I couldn’t say no, especially knowing that regime sympathizers in Europe and the US will jump at this opportunity to market this headline-grabbing decision as “reform”.

It was actually my first time in front of live television and I was slightly nervous. Ironic given that I work in a TV channel.

For those whose Arabic is still developing, what I said was that the move to lift restrictions on Facebook, YouTube, et al was long overdue. It was, if anything, a white flag by the regime which has palpably failed in its battle against young Syrians to censor and control the Internet.

Asked by the presenter why Syrians had not responded to the 5th Feb “day of rage”, I said that it was a matter of fear, plain and simple. Repression is very harsh in Syria and the memory of the horrific Hama massacre (29th anniversary this month) is proof that the regime is prepared to kill thousands of its own citizens to remain in power.

I then made the point (the same point I made to the Guardian’s Ian Black who quoted me on it) that allowing people to access social networking sites without the use of proxy servers will only make it easier for the censors to know who is doing what. I therefore urged users of the Internet in Syria to continue using proxy servers in order to surf the net safely.

Finally, I stressed that unblocking a few websites while maintaining the apparatus of internet censorship, is totally meaningless.

Categories: TV appearance
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