‘Trial by media’ on what happened in Douma

By Lasanda Kurukulasuriya
Apr. 23, 2018

It’s not known, at the time of writing, what the inspection team from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) currently in Syria, have to say on what happened in Douma. On the invitation of the Syrian government they are visiting the town near Damascus that grabbed the world’s headlines for the past few weeks over an alleged chemical attack said to have killed dozens of people on April 7. All that the public has to go by are the reports in mainstream (mostly western) media which, on this issue sadly seem to have fallen down on the job of ascertaining the truth and producing accurate reportage. Respected news sources like the New York Times and the BBC and many others have shown distinct bias towards the position of their governments that the ‘attack’ was carried out by Syrian president Bashar al Assad – the ‘gas killing animal who kills his own people an enjoys it’ to use US president Donald Trump’s twitter language. Syria and its ally Russia say the event was staged.  How is one to know who’s is telling the truth?

Apart from the excellent interview given by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to BBC’s ‘Hard Talk,’ where host Stephen Sackur was politely but firmly put on the spot by his interviewee, there has been little to give people a sense of any ‘other’ side to this story in mainstream media. Let’s not forget that the reports and video footage of children being hosed down and having inhalers administered to them by unidentified rescue workers, formed the basis for an illegal, unilateral joint military strike by US, UK and France on targets in Syria, a sovereign state.

Two days before the April 13 strike US Defence Secretary James Mattis, asked by a reporter if he had any evidence went on record saying they were “still assessing the intelligence,” and even after the event, no evidence was presented. The attack was launched despite the OPCW being at Syria’s doorstep.

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It’s worth asking: Did anyone notice that it was the identical set of (unverified) pictures of the alleged gas attack that appeared on all the major TV news channels – in all likelihood supplied by the same source? Did viewers note how the carefully produced footage focused on children (not adults), while the faces of the ‘rescue workers’ were mostly hidden?  And that these rescue workers in close contact with victims of a supposed chemical attack were quite comfortable not wearing any protective gear? Did anyone observe that the two sources quoted in all the reports were the same – the White Helmets (also known as the Syrian Civil Defence) and the ‘Syrian American Medical Society’ – both western funded outfits working in rebel-held areas, with suspected links to them?

Thankfully, amid a fog of unverifiable and misleading reportage there have been a few redeeming voices. One is that of top investigative journalist Robert Fisk, the first western reporter to arrive at the site of the incident. In his exclusive for The Independent, Fisk describes a surreal scene in Douma where the population lives inside vast underground tunnels and basements, barely aware of the turmoil that recent events sparked internationally. The Syrian doctor in charge of the underground clinic where the incident occurred, Dr Assim Rahaibani gave him a very different account of what happened than the version projected in the media:

“I was with my family in the basement of my home three hundred metres from here on the night but all the doctors know what happened” Rahaibani told Fisk. “There was a lot of shelling [by government forces] and aircraft were always over Douma at night – but on this night, there was wind and huge dust clouds began to come into the basements and cellars where people lived. People began to arrive here suffering from hypoxia, oxygen loss. Then someone at the door, a “White Helmet”, shouted “Gas!”, and a panic began. People started throwing water over each other. Yes, the video was filmed here, it is genuine, but what you see are people suffering from hypoxia – not gas poisoning.”

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Fisk wrote that many people he talked to “said they had ‘never believed in’ gas stories – which were usually put about, they claimed, by the armed Islamist groups.”   He said that “Oddly after chatting to more than 20 people, I couldn’t find one who showed the slightest interest in Douma’s role in bringing about the Western air attacks. Two actually told me they didn’t know about the connection.” Fisk also spoke to the Syrian police who, he said, responded to his questions about gas with ‘what seemed genuine perplexity.’  Syria is indeed a ruthless dictatorship, he wrote, “but that couldn’t cow these people, happy to see foreigners among them, from reacting with a few words of truth.”

Reuters separately reported that “Douma hospital workers who stayed in the town after the army recaptured it have said that none of the people injured on the night of the attack were exposed to chemical weapons.”

Interestingly, the Reuters report said it was the White Helmets who pointed out to the OPCW the places where victims were buried. The White Helmets are generally portrayed in western media as heroes, with their videos showing them pulling children out of the rubble in war-torn Syria. However “missing from this unambiguously positive coverage has been the group’s ties to terrorist groups like al-Qaeda, their doctoring of footage, their role in executing civilians and their use of children – both dead and alive – as props for producing pro-intervention propaganda” wrote Whitney Webb whose expose last year was recently posted in Defend Democracy Press. “Also absent is how the White Helmets have received over $123 million from 2013 to 2016 from the U.S. and UK governments, as well as Western NGOs and Gulf state monarchies” she wrote.

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Two former British ambassadors have remarked on the White Helmets’ grizzly affiliations with terrorists. One is Craig Murray, former ambassador to Uzbekistan, and the other Peter Ford, former ambassador to Syria. In his remarks to the BBC Scotland Ford appealed to viewers not to be ‘stampeded’ by unverified images on Douma “which by dint of being repeated over and over again come to acquire a mysterious credibility.” Asked how it could be in the interests of militants to stage these events, he said “Isn’t it obvious? Even a child can see – to produce hysteria – and now the military action. What the jihadists have done is jerk our leash.” He said “Please engage your brain – answer the question – how has he (Assad) benefited from all this mayhem? … Why would he do such a thing when he was already winning, when the battle for Eastern Ghouta is almost over?”

Revelations of media manipulation in relation to the Syria come as no surprise to Sri Lankans who lived through a 30-year civil war against one of the world’s deadliest terrorist groups, whose propaganda skills are legendary. The infamous Channel 4 documentaries, to use just one example, have shown how easily media can fall into the trap of depending on unreliable sources behind the battle lines for their information. It’s a short step from there to using the material supplied by them, which may contain manipulated digital imagery, fake videos and pre-judged narratives intended to mislead the world. The graver danger is that for big powers with their own political agendas, ‘trial by media’ is good enough to deliver punishment!

Source: Daily Mirror. Colombo, 23 April 2018