23.3.18

Some thoughts on Syria war reporting through the lens of the Edmonds-Beeley-Bartlett controversy

Preliminaries

 It is a particularly distressing time for Syria.  After seven years of war and a military victory for the Syrian government over the terrorists, securing most of the territory and major cities, we, in the anti-war camp, find ourselves facing what is probably another more dangerous phase of the war, this time between regional and international armies on Syria's territory.

During the last five years, the Syrian government worked hard to carve out a message to their people, something that didn't exist during the first year or two of the war because the government was taken by surprise by the early ferocity of the assault and the weaponization of the opposition. 

The first two years of the war caught the Syrian government off guard but around 2013, after the first victory over terrorists in Qusayr, the government started rolling back the gains of the armed opposition, slowly, with major setbacks, but surely.  This is when many Syria watchers had to revise their stance.

Along with the first victory, came also a victory on the information front whereby the Syrian government was able to control the narrative inside the country.  But this wasn't/isn't the case when we look outside Syria where the narrative has been dominated by the opposition, despite some breakhroughs that came only last year after the victory in Aleppo.  Aleppo made some alternative and mainstream news sources in the West realize the excesses of their one-sided narrative and how it wasn't telling the whole story as it forced many to a paradigm change to explain the Syrian government successive military victories.  Some started to reconsider their sources and sometimes their stance in this war. And with the Syria gov victories, exhibiting a pro government stance in blogs and on social media wasn't stigmatising as much as it was during the early days and months of this war.  

Edmonds, Bartlett and Beeley and alternative reporting on Syria

I was very present on Twitter from day one of the Syria war.  Having lived through the Lebanese civil war, I watched with horror as this war unfolded.  However, I wasn't aware of the reporting of Vanessa Beeley, Eva Bartlett and Sibel Edmonds on Syria until late.  I can't recall exactly but I remember discovering Sibel Edmonds' blog first, and knowing her story about blowing the whistle on the FBI.  I then became aware of Eva Bartlett as she was reporting on Gaza.  And only later on I became aware of Vanessa Beeley.  It was probably somewhere around 2014 for Edmonds and Bartlett and only 2015 for Beeley. I followed the three as I was looking to learn from people who were against the war on Syria.

It was a daily daunting task for me to extract information on the events in Syria. My mind was fixated on the country and the evolution of the war with an obsession to see an end to this war.  The sheer amount of information, propaganda and counterpropaganda on Syria tests the human capacity.  In this context,  identifying reliable sources is of primary importance and concern as it helps decide what is important on any given day and paint a truhful picture of the evolution of the war on a daily basis.

So I was surprised when Sibel Edmonds questioned the reporting of Beeley and Bartlett and I was interested to hear what she had to say.

Observations on Sibel Edmonds' investigative piece on Bartlett and Beeley:

Yesterday I sat and watched the video that Edmonds posted on Newsbud on this subject.

Here are my observations in the hope that they may elucidate issues beyond or outside the current feud because I hate taking sides between persons whith whom I share one concern, get out the truth and prevent further war on Syria and Syrians.

On the form, Edmonds' expose is unnecessarily lengthy.  She questions Bartlett and Beeley's integrity, knowledge, past statements, interactions on social media, interactions with people who met them or former 'colleagues', financing, and bias. The ratio of material to her presentation is very meagre but she promises more. What I found interesting are the interviews with people who interacted with Beeley and Bartlett.

The tweets she posts on Beeley as proof of her change of stance on Syria are nowhere near to be conclusive.  They point to retweets Beeley made of anti-Assad headlines from the mainstream press. There are accusations that Beeley may have tried to conceal them, something that Beeley's defenders say she didn't do .  However, retweeting from the mainstream press headlines that challenge the point of view you are defending requires sometimes a little comment, otherwise it could be seen as an indication that a simple retweet is amplifying the message. In any case, I do not think they reveal any malice on Beeley's part, only maybe some confusion as to where she stands firmly, but this is emblematic of many who tried to cover the Syria war only to find themselves changing stance only because of lack of sufficient earlier knowledge, and Beeley here appears to have been more careful than others.  

As Edmonds states in her introduction, the Syria war is confusing, it requires a deep knowledge of the country, its history, its language and its political landscape, as well as a deep knowledge of the region.  I do not think Beeley and Bartlett in their work exhibit this knowledge, but they do not pretend to do so.  This is where the interviews of the people who encountered Beeley and Bartlett are significant in my opinion and tell another story than the one Edmonds tried to tell about them.  The Syria war has allowed the rise of freelance reporters/journalists activists, call them what you want, because of the lack of and the severe control of access in both government and opposition areas. And one of Edmonds collaborators on NewsBud expresses this well in the video: if you go to oppostion areas, you can't say anything against the rebels because they control your movements and your security depends on them, if you go to government areas, there also your security depends on the people who take you from one place to another and you can't say anything against the government. 

I think what happened to Beeley and Bartlett is that as freelance reporters, they found a niche, reporting on the government point of view, and it happened that the Syrian government liked the message, but probably more than the message, the medium, explain your message to the west with western voices. As we see in the video, this seems to have hurt many Syrian activists, and others too, who knew Beeley and Bartlett and could not understand their rise.
I am not against this, because the Syria gov message is buried under westen prejudice and hostility and they need to get out their message, but I am uneasy that they build on this existing prejudice, by chosing a western medium, over others. But this is how things are.

Personally, I do not like Beeley and Bartlett's style of reporting, but I admit that amid severe shortage of the gov point of view, their reporting is welcome. I do not like their interactions and attacks on social media of people who criticize them.  I strive to be argumentative when interacting.  People are never my enemies.  Actually I believe if Beeley and Bartlett were to take Edmonds' questioning less personally, they may have arrived at some understanding with her.

Now to return to Edmonds' piece, I question her portrayal of doctors in Syria.  She takes as example her dad, but her dad was bound by the Hyppocratic oath.  Doctors in Syria like Shajul Islam went there to fight, by doing so they renounced their Hyppocratic oath. Also, Doctors Without Borders support personnel and hospitals in Syria operated by doctors like Shajul Islam.  I am sure that doctors trained by Doctors Without Borders respect the Hyppocratic oath but Syria war field doctors working with the rebels were not trained by Doctors Without Borders, only materially supported by them.

I also question the reference to Oz Katerji. He has smeared everyone who questions the oppostion as Assadist. He is not a reliable honest source. 
  
In short, Edmonds did a poor job attacking Beeley and Bartlett the way she did, but I think the video and the testimonies raise some interesting issues. The Syria war has attracted a curious lot fighting for recognition and self promotion. I personally believe there is no malice about Beeley and Bartlett, just naïveté, lack of manners on social media and in their argumentative exchanges, and lack of in-depth knowledge on Syria.

To conclude, Nancy Hammond says the truth at the end of Sibel Edmonds' video report: activism shouldn't be divisive, activism should bring people together.  The war on Syria is not finished yet, this country and its people need all our energies.  We need to bury our egos and come together to support Syria and Syrians, and, most importantly, let them speak in their own voices.

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Since March 29th 2006