How Robert Fisk became a fair and balanced reporter

Thirty years after Robert Fisk drew the attention of the world to the Sabra and Chatila massacre — a massacre in which the victims had initially been dubbed ‘terrorists’ — it’s ironic that he would have chosen to become a mouthpiece of the Syrian government in its effort to cover up the Daraya massacre where as many as 500 people were slaughtered.

At Open Democracy Yassin Al Haj Saleh and Rime Allaf write: The international media has not always been kind to Syria’s revolutionary people. For months on end, many of the latter turned themselves into instant citizen-journalists to document their uprising and the violent repression of the Syrian regime, loading clips and photos taken from their mobile-phones to various social networks; still, the established media, insinuating that only it could really be trusted, covered these events with an ever-present disclaimer that these images could not be independently verified. Since the Damascus regime was refusing to allow more than a trickle of foreign media personnel into the country, chaperoned by the infamous minders, what the Syrians themselves were reporting was deemed unreliable.

Nevertheless, an increasing number of brave journalists dared to sneak into Syria at great personal risk, reporting the same events which activists had attempted to spread to the world. For the most part, experienced journalists were perfectly capable of distinguishing between straight propaganda from a regime fighting for its survival and real information from a variety of other sources. Overwhelmingly, ensuing reports about Syria gave a voice to “the other side” or at least quoted opposing points of view, if only for balance. In some cases, journalists found no room to cater for the regime’s claims, especially when reporting from civilian areas under relentless attack by Bashar al-Assad’s forces.

It was from the wretched Homs district of Baba Amr, under siege and shelling for an entire month, that the late Marie Colvin, amongst others, testified on the eve of her death under the regime’s shells about the “sickening situation” and the “merciless disregard for the civilians who simply cannot escape.” Like her, most of those who managed to get into Syria have testified about the regime’s repression of a popular uprising, even after the latter evolved to include an armed rebellion.

Robert Fisk, a seasoned war correspondent who has covered the region for decades, surprisingly broke a mould, gradually allowing himself to become a part, and not simply a witness, of the Syrian regime’s propaganda campaign.

On 30 October 2011, Fisk – who works for the Independent newspaper, and whose reports are widely republished – was a guest of Syrian state television for an extended interview during which his legendary directness seemed subdued, as he meekly advised his host that he feared the Syrian authorities were running out of time to turn the situation around. In an article entirely dedicated to Bouthaina Shaban, one of Assad’s advisors, he quoted some of her extraordinary tales without adding one of his trademark comments: thus, he didn’t challenge the claim that a Christian baker in Homs was accused (supposedly by the extremists the regime says are leading the uprising) of mixing whisky in the bread.

Over the last few months, Fisk’s pieces on Syria have consisted more of commentary than of reporting, with a growing emphasis on the conspiracy scenario as he reminds readers that the governments criticising the Assad regime were themselves hardly examples of freedom or democracy. This is indeed true in many cases, but is not directly relevant to the Syrian people’s uprising, which moreover he increasingly reports in the sectarian terminology he had previously criticised when covering the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

But even copious editorialising of this nature could not have heralded Fisk’s shocking decision to embed with the Syrian regime’s armed forces, when he had previously stated (on 22 January 2003) that “war reporters should not cosy up to the military”. In Syria, Fisk embedded first in Aleppo with the commander of operations in the embattled city, and then in Damascus and its suburbs under attack by the regime. In particular, his piece on Daraya’s gruesome massacre has shocked many Syrians. [Continue reading…]

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2 thoughts on “How Robert Fisk became a fair and balanced reporter

  1. Gantal

    I’m guessing that you don’t agree with Fisk’s eyewitness, first-hand account even though you yourself did not witness the events that he did, and despite the fact that Fisk is perhaps the most trusted ME reporter in the English-speaking world.
    Just guessing, of course.

  2. Paul Woodward

    Fisk’s “eyewitness” account came after the massacre and while he was embedded with the Syrian army. He might feel that because the preponderance of Western reporting has come from the other side, he is providing some kind of “balance” by reporting alongside Assad’s forces, yet as Yassin Al Haj Saleh and Rime Allaf indicate the end result seems to have been that he ends up parroting regime propaganda.

    Fisk may once have earned to title “most trusted ME reporter in the English-speaking world”, but times have changed. Like Fisk, I am English — we even went to the same university — but when it comes to understanding what’s going on in Syria, I’m more inclined to rely on reports from Syrians than from an Englishman with stumbling Arabic whose best days as a reporter unfortunately appear to be past.

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