Why did PBS let Martin Smith serve as a mouthpiece for the Assad regime?

The idea of an American journalist going inside Assad’s Syria might sound courageous. It presents the possibility for a much-needed counterbalance in a conflict that has overwhelmingly been reported from one side. After all, how is the outside observer to gauge how much genuine support the Assad regime really enjoys if our only interlocutors are its opponents?

This is how Martin Smith frames his decision to report on those part’s of Syria that remain under regime control:

“You will be killed.”

“Excuse me.”

“You’re going to be pilloried, lambasted. Yeah, you’re going to be unpopular.”

That was the conclusion of a colleague, someone with a lot of experience in the Middle East after watching just the opening minutes of my new FRONTLINE documentary, Inside Assad’s Syria.


“It’s the very idea of it — going into regime-held territory. Too many people have a view of Syria that this will inevitably challenge. This is an invitation for abuse.”

Another colleague told me before I left, “You will get the charm offensive. The regime’s best dog and pony show. Potemkin village.”

Of course I went anyway.

Was the end result, as predicted, just an invitation for abuse, or was it on the contrary a heroic piece of journalism?

After Smith’s report aired last week, some viewers were bubbling with praise:

Let’s be clear: No one would have taken this report seriously if it was demonstrably lacking in objectivity — if, for instance, regime insiders were presented as ordinary Syrians who freely support their government.

Yet this is exactly what happened as Smith misled PBS viewers.

As Syria became too dangerous for most foreign journalists to risk entering, citizen journalists uploading videos onto YouTube became one of the primary windows on the conflict. These images have been a cry for help from ordinary Syrians reaching out to an often indifferent world.

This medium of grassroots reporting is the iconic voice of an uprising that refuses to be crushed by the regime’s barrel bombs.

But what if the regime has its own grassroots supporters, taking the same risks. Wouldn’t that change the way the world perceives the regime?

In the figure of Thaer al-Ajlani, Smith seems to present just such an individual.

Ajlani is described as a “pro-regime journalist” who for the last four-and-a-half years “has chronicled the war.” Smith underlines that Ajlani is partisan: “He wants me to see things from the regime’s perspective.” And yet we are led to understand that this is because Ajlani supports the regime — not because he works for the regime.

There is no question that Smith views Ajlani as having a pivotal role in telling this story. As Inside Assad’s Syria aired, Smith live-tweeted his intense interest in Ajlani’s work:

Every brutal regime has support from ordinary people who align themselves with power because they are too fearful to do otherwise. Closer in comes the support of those who benefit from that power. And then there is the power structure itself — the regime in its many branches permeating the military, intelligence, security services, militias, government agencies, media outlets, and a variety of informal accessories.

To understand how or if Thaer al-Ajlani had an important story to convey, we would need to know what exactly was his relationship with the regime.

When Ajlani is killed, shortly after Smith’s arrival, the filmmaker is shocked and ready to leave:

Having lost his chosen guide, Smith is offered an alternative by the Syrian Ministry of Information but he declines:

Ostensibly, Ajlani was independent. He might speak in support of the regime, yet he did not speak for Assad. Or did he?

After the Syrian’s death, Smith says: “I wanted to get to know this man better and to understand his Syria. The next day, I attend the funeral. I had expected a quiet family affair, not this.”

This, is a large funeral parade. “As the procession makes it way across town, crowds build. It’s clear al-Ajlani is a regime hero.” Smith concludes: “The regime has lost a defender.”

But why would Smith say he expected a quiet family affair, when Ajlani was from no ordinary family?

Ajlani was employed by two pro-regime media outlets: Sham FM Radio and Al-Watan, a Syrian daily newspaper owned by one of Assad’s cousins, Rami Makhlouf.

Moreover, according to the Syrian American Council, Ajlani’s ties to the regime ran much deeper.

They report he was a regime official who headed military propaganda for the Damascus area and that he previously ran Assad’s parliamentary press office.

So why was Smith presenting him as a “hero” and a loyal citizen who gave his life for the regime?

Did Smith know enough about Ajlani to understand that as a filmmaker he was making himself complicit in a fabrication? Or had he become so over-invested in this particular source that he preferred not to vet him more thoroughly?

Print Friendly, PDF & Email