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How US claims about Syria became media facts

Unwary journalists who repeat US army claims about Syria and Iraq become tools in a propaganda war

By Sharif Nashashibi

November 14, 2008 "
The Guardian" -- -  In any conflict, warring parties strive to convince the public that justice is on their side. The most effective way of doing this is through the media. It is imperative that journalists cast a critical eye on information they receive to avoid becoming unwitting tools in the propaganda war. In particular, they should not report claims as facts.

There were several fundamental failings in the British press coverage of the recent US raid into Syria. For example, Richard White in the Sun and the Independent correspondent Patrick Cockburn both reported as fact that the raid killed Abu Ghadiya, an alleged al-Qaida figure who smuggled fighters into Iraq.

Similarly, the Times diplomatic correspondent Catherine Philp reported as fact that American commandos entered Syria and fought "a brief gun battle with Abu Ghadiyah and members of his cell".

Such news justifies the raid to readers because the target was important enough to violate the sovereignty of another country. However, Abu Ghadiya's death, and the fight against him, were uncorroborated US claims. The news was not identified by the reporters as coming from American sources.

Furthermore, the Independent and Sun did not publish concise, polite letters I had written pointing this out. However, the Daily Telegraph diplomatic editor David Blair responded promptly, politely and commendably to my email questioning why he reported Abu Ghadiya's death as fact:

"Thank you very much for your email. The point you make is entirely valid, and I have amended the web version of my story accordingly. You might have noticed that the print version is entirely different, and did not make the particular claim that you raised. What happened was that the web version was updated by someone unknown to me, who inserted that late at night, so we have corrected that mistake…Thank you for bringing this to my attention."

Reporting of the US raid included reminders of Israel's bombing, last year, of what it claimed was a nuclear site (a claim Syria vehemently denies). Despite Israel's claim being unproved, it was reported by some as fact. Again, this may encourage readers to see the bombing as a necessary means of halting nuclear proliferation in a volatile region. At fault were an anonymous piece in the Daily Mail, and a Guardian editorial. Guardian analyst Simon Tisdall accounted for this, describing the target as "a supposed nuclear facility", though here, too, Syria's denial was absent. The Guardian published my letter pointing this out. The Mail did not.

Worse, the tabloid article stated:

"Syria is believed to have continued with its nuclear programme by following Iran's lead and scattering its nuclear development programme around several sites in order to make it difficult to thwart with a single strike."

The article does not identify who believes this, which would have been very useful because not only is it devoid of evidence, but in the eight years that I have been monitoring British media coverage of the Arab world, including Syria, I do not recall ever coming across such a claim. It certainly did not appear elsewhere in British press coverage of the US raid, nor after Israel's bombing.

Another claim reported as fact, by the Times diplomatic correspondent Catherine Philp, was that the Syrian border is "the route in for 90 per cent of Iraq's foreign jihadists". After I requested her source for this statistic, she cited a report by the Combating Terrorism Center, which analysed documents seized by US forces from the so-called Sinjar cell of al-Qaida in Iraq. However, the document states: "The CTC cannot vouch for the authenticity or accuracy of these records", which are "inherently imperfect". It added:

"Readers should be aware that analyzing data captured on a battlefield is fraught with risk. Some of the personnel records were filled out incompletely or improperly, some may have been lost by al-Qa'ida's personnel in Iraq, and some may have been accidentally lost or destroyed by US forces…Readers and researchers should be wary of conclusions drawn solely on the basis of these records."

Philp herself pasted below her email the following from the document: "Most of the fighters in the Sinjar Records do not explain the route they took to Iraq." She told me she did not state her source "because the number is a very widely accepted one". However, the other mainstream news outlets that reported the statistic at the time of its release (the Independent and New York Times) stated the source.

Philp told me that "al-Qaeda's documents indicate that 603 fighters came through Syria, a figure which accounts for 90 per cent of the estimated total foreign fighters in Iraq". However this estimate came, as she told me, from the US military. Philp did not reply to my email stating all of the above.

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