Western media’s principles blinded by anti-Turkey bias

 30 Aug 2016 - 0:00

By Akif Emirhan Akyel

Topping the list of significant problems facing news organisations reporting on the Syrian civil war are the limited number of news sources on the ground, their reliability and the degree to which they can be corroborated.
The dangers to journalists have left few non-Syrian reporters within the country and many media outlets now rely on resident sources in Syria. In addition to a lack of sources, frequently changing alliances or hostilities make the reporting landscape even tougher to navigate.
Into this void has stepped the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), a UK-based group that has become a go-to source for much of the media. Often the group’s reports on attacks and casualties in Syria are taken at face value with no real scrutiny or fact-checking by both the media and prominent non-governmental organisations.
At the weekend, the SOHR reported that 35 to 40 civilians were killed in an airstrike by the Turkish Armed Forces as part of Operation Euphrates Shield. The report was carried by news agencies AP, Reuters and AFP and, in turn, appeared in newspapers and on TV screens around the world.
SOHR Director Ossama Soleiman shared the claims on his Facebook page and the organization’s Arabic Facebook page. Soleiman claimed that 15 civilians were killed in Al Amarna, and 20 in “Jab Al Qussa” (he probably means Birr Al-Qussa) in airstrikes conducted by the Turkish Air Force.
So, what gives the SOHR so much credibility? How can so many TV channels, news agencies and newspapers report the information shared by any organisation without and corroboration?
Soleiman says he was imprisoned three times by the Syrian regime while working because of his anti-regime stance. He claims he settled in England for fear of further imprisonment following the death of Hafez Al Assad, the father and predecessor of Bashar Al Assad.
Now living in the English East Midlands, Soleiman has declared he will not return to Syria before Assad dies.
He claims to have founded the observatory and to run it with just one assistant helping with translation into English. Soleiman also claims to be in contact with around 200 activists in Syria and says that he collects and edits the information he receives before posting it online.
He has been accused of being bias against the regime — a claim he denies, pointing to criticism of the SOHR from both regime-supporting Alawites and Sunni Muslims as proof of his impartiality.
However, this is the biggest problem with the SOHR — it simply takes advantage of a situation in which there are no authorities to prove or disprove its claims.
Examining the history of the SOHR provides some clues as to its credibility, which has occasionally been questioned by some media organisations.
The observatory emerged in 2006 in London but is now based in Coventry, a provincial town in eastern England, where it is run by Soleiman.
According to a November 2012 article by Suddeutsche Zeitung’s London correspondent Jonas Schaible, the first founders of the SOHR slowly became estranged from the organisation and were eventually expelled.
During this time, there were often separate operations run by rival members of the original group who all styled themselves “Rami Abdullah” on different Syrian Observatory for Human Rights websites.
Therefore, in 2012, many media outlets, for at least six months, apparently received reports from two different SOHRs and published them.
An earlier article in The Guardian in July 2012, written by Charlie Skelton, took a look at the structure and reliability of sources reporting from Syria. Skelton criticised the fact that information received and reported by a single person on the phone received such a high degree of credibility and questioned how major media outlets could use every piece of information coming from the SOHR with no scrutiny.
Russia Today also questioned the reliability of Soleiman. A report from October 2015 demonstrated that Soleiman falsified his English and Arabic sources. According to the article, the SOHR’s English website reported that 30 civilians had died in a Russian airstrike while the Arabic report put the figure at 27 and attributed the attack on Syrian regime planes.
At the start of the Syrian conflict, a dispute between the SOHR and CNN provided a bizarre example of the group’s relationship with the media. Based on information from the SOHR, CNN reported on August 7, 2011, that the regime had cut off the electricity to a hospital and eight babies died in incubators.
Following CNN’s broadcast, the SOHR posted information from the CNN report on its website, citing the broadcaster as the source. As proof it used a photo taken the previous April in Egypt. Despite this, CNN persistently claimed that its source was the SOHR.
To return to the present day: Even media outlets that have in the past maintained a skeptical approach to the SOHR and have questioned its credibility now leave aside this critical attitude when running reports that accuse the Turkish Armed Forces.
When it is Turkey in question, the claims of an organisation allegedly run by a single person — claims that are impossible to verify — are published despite past mistakes. Those spreading these reports around the world are among the most noted news agencies of the West, not marginal news outlets.
This leaves many with the opinion that when it comes to Turkey, the long-established moral principles of the most prestigious outlets of the Western media can be easily shelved.

The writer is a Germany-based news analyst.