In this interview with Samira Sammer, Sharif Nashashibi, co-founder and chairman of Arab Media Watch, discusses the difficulties of reporting on the Arab Spring in repressive states, the situation of minorities in Syria and the question of Western involvement in the Syrian civil war
Mr Nashashibi, what role did pan-Arab news channels like Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya play in the Arab Spring? Do you think they influenced the Arab uprisings?
Sharif Nashashibi: News coverage may influence foreign perceptions of the Arab Spring, but these revolutions have largely been influenced by events on the ground. Indeed, the media has generally found it very difficult to report these revolutions adequately.
The governments of Arab Spring states stopped journalists from getting into countries or, in those countries where journalists were already active, stopped them doing their work. That makes news coverage very difficult, and this has considerably raised the profile of citizen journalism and made social media such as Twitter and Facebook very important.
So would you say that social media has influenced news coverage of the Arab Spring?
Nashashibi: Social media played an incredibly important role because mainstream media were not able to do their job properly because of these restrictions and also because of the physical danger. Journalists became dependent on these information sources. But the problem with these sources is that it's hard to verify them.
Governments shoot themselves in the foot with their press constraints because they are giving opposition movements the ability to use other channels that are much harder to control. Now we are watching – just like in any other conflict – a propaganda war between the government and the opposition; there is misinformation on both sides.
Some Western media say that Assad is the protector of Syrian minorities. Do you think that minorities like the Christians and Alawites would be in danger after Assad's overthrow?
Nashashibi: The rich history of co-existence between the various communities in Syria was not created by Bashar al-Assad or his father, but the regime has cynically played on sectarian fears to maintain its rule. My mother's family belongs to two of the country's numerous minorities: Christians and Armenians. I grew up on heart-warming stories of my mother being raised in a tolerant and secular society. She speaks with nostalgia of helping her Jewish neighbour in Aleppo during the Sabbath, and of her marriage to my late father – a Muslim – during which religion was never an issue between them or their families. This inclusive childhood predates the Assad dynasty.
In a post-Assad Syria, under no circumstances should minority rights be hindered. However, while it must be acknowledged that support for Assad is not limited to minorities, and opposition to him does not come solely from the Sunni Muslim majority, there are those who resent what they see as minorities' complicity or silence regarding his crackdown.
At the same time, one cannot ensure minority rights by repressing the majority (as has happened to Syria's Sunnis). So it is incumbent on the opposition to reassure the minorities, and incumbent on minorities to stand with their revolutionary compatriots. The rights of all should be considered, respected and treated as equal.
The Western media is reporting the strengthening of the radical Islamic opposition, like Jabhat al-Nusra, who are assuming power in many places around Damascus. Do you think there is a real danger that these groups might assume power next in Syria?
Nashashibi: These jihadist groups are intent on imposing the draconian will of a tiny minority on the vast majority, but despite their military prowess, they have scant support among Syrians. Those who worry about al-Qaeda and its ilk dominating the country should bear in mind that wherever they have taken hold (Algeria, Iraq, Somalia, Mali, Yemen, to name just a few countries), they are quickly rejected by the local population because of their repressive, medieval rule.
For all their talk of Western disregard for human rights, they are no better at winning hearts and minds. With such a diverse society, there would be little support in Syria for such extremism, whether religious, sectarian or ethnic.
NATO ignored the Syrian opposition coalition's request for help and refuses to intervene in the conflict. The Syrian people don't want foreign involvement. Do you think it is right to stay out of this conflict?
Nashashibi: Assad's brutal reaction to the revolution made its militarisation inevitable: with the continued killings of peaceful protesters, calls for reform became demands for regime change, those who preferred a peaceful transition saw the need to defend themselves, and an insistence against foreign help turned into pleas for assistance.
The weaponry that Syrian revolutionaries possess – whether they got this weaponry from within the country or outside it – is light in nature; they don't have the tanks, heavy artillery and air power that Assad's army is using. Apart from the disparity in quality, there is also a quantitative difference. Assad regularly receives heavy weaponry from his allies (mainly Russia and Iran). Recent improvements in the rebels' military capability have not fundamentally changed this imbalance.
The arms embargo during the Bosnian civil war hurt the country's Muslims the most – the very people who bore the brunt of it – because the Russians were readily arming Bosnian Serbs, who could also rely on the Serbian army, as could Bosnian Croats on Croatia's. This enabled atrocities such as the massacre of more than 8,000 Muslims in Srebrenica at the hands of Bosnian Serbs. The same is true in Syria.
The argument by Assad apologists that he is entitled to receive foreign military support because his regime is a "sovereign government" is absolute nonsense. No sovereign government in the world has the right to oppress its own people, let alone receive arms from other countries to do so.
Interview conducted by Samira Sammer
© Qantara.de 2013
Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/Qantara.de
Sharif Nashashibi is co-founder and chairman of Arab Media Watch, an independent, non-profit watchdog set up in 2000 to strive for objective coverage of Arab issues in the British media. In 2008, he received the International Media Council's Breakaway Award, which is given to promising new journalists, "for both facilitating and producing consistently balanced reporting on the highly emotive and polarized arena that is the Middle East. He is a regular contributor to Al Arabiya English, The Middle East magazine and The Guardian, and a frequent interviewee on Arab affairs.