Author: Lizzie Phelan
Irish free-lance journalist Lizzie Phelan shares her recent interview by New York Times reporter Robert Mackey, discussing the skewed Western media coverage of Syria and Libya. Phelan says “grasping a complex reality does not depend on the amount of information accumulated in favor of any one side, but on the diversity of informed points of view reflecting a given situation.”
Otherwise, as Phelan says, the first casualty of war will always be truth.
Robert Mackey : Since your impressions of what is happening in Syria seem to be strikingly different from those of many foreign reporters who have worked there recently, I wanted to ask you about how you found your sources and what you think accounts for the different picture painted of the conflict by other journalists.
Lizzie Phelan : First of all I hope that you will give me the opportunity to answer all of your questions in full, so that the context which is always lacking can be provided. I also hope that you will ask all the questions that you proposed when I agreed to do this interview. If not I will myself publish the full questions and my full answers.
This question is flawed, because what you really mean is that my impressions of what is happening in Syria seem to be strikingly different from those reporters from the NATO and GCC countries which have a vested interest in destabilising Syria. Of course my impressions are actually shared by the majority people of this world, from those countries outside of NATO and the GCC and particularly those which are victims of these powers. But because they do not own a powerful media their voices are drowned out by the impressions of the minority reflected in the mainstream media of the NATO and GCC countries.
So in relation to my sources, I find my sources through a number of different means, but my main means is I talk to ordinary people every where I go and in Syria this is not difficult because people are really keen to speak about the crisis in their country, especially to foreigners who they feel strongly have a false impression about their country and current events. This was overwhelmingly, but of course not exclusively, the point of view that I encountered. And this is reflected in my reporting.
In fact, like in Libya, I was so overwhelmed by the volume of people that wanted to talk about their anger at the fabrications in the media of the NATO and GCC countries that my colleague Mostafa Afzalzadeh and I decided to make a documentary so that we could reflect what ordinary Syrian people are really saying. This documentary will actually expose how if it was not for such media the crisis in Syria would have been over before it started and the people of Syria would be living in peace now.
The difference with journalists from mainstream media in NATO and GCC countries is that they come with an agenda, and that agenda is to cover what they call is a “revolution” happening inside Syria and to give substance to the false claims that the Syrian government is a threat to the Syrian people. So if for example they walk down the street and they have 10 people telling them there is no revolution happening in Syria and actually the people want the army to protect them from the terrorists that are flooding the country, and then they have one person who tells them that there is no democracy in Syria, they will discard the 10 as government spies and run with the one person who said something different, I witnessed this myself.
If they were to do the reverse and reflect the majority view on the street, then this would undermine the coverage of their media organisations over the previous 10 months that have painted a picture of a government hated by its people, and in turn it would undermine their own credibility as journalists working for those organisations.
But in time they will not be able to supress the truth. However, like in Libya the danger is that the truth only comes out when it is too late, when a country has been successfully destroyed by the NATO and GCC countries, with the vital help of their media. Then the western media can afford to be more honest, although never entirely, because the aims, for example of regime change, of their paymasters have been achieved.
I on the other hand am not concerned about towing a line in order to “make it” as a journalist working for one of the world’s most respected media organisations, I became a journalist in order to reflect the truth at whatever cost that may come. The only thing I am loyal to is my conscience.
RM : Since you have appeared on Press TV and Russia Today, as well as Syria state television, do you have any concern that you might seem to be endorsing the governments that finance those channels, or do you see your role more as that of an activist, opposing the policies of the US and UK, than as a neutral reporter?
LP : This question in itself is a very deceitful and loaded question, and it is taken out of all context. It implies that BBC, CNN, Al Jazeera etc and the journalists who work for those organisations are independent from their financiers. If I worked for BBC does that mean that I am endorsing the British government which funds it and that government’s centuries long and present abuses across the world?
Why is the NYT concerned about my work for Russia Today and Press TV? I challenge you to find me specific examples of journalists that work for these organisations that have engaged in bad journalistic practise. Why are you not concerned about journalists who work for Al Jazeera that is funded by and reflects the foreign policy of the Qatari emir and royal family. Al Jazeera has been proven many times over in the past few months to have published false reports about events in the region, not least Libya.
How can their journalists be neutral when their employer hosts the largest US military base in the region, and has been responsible for sending thousands of fighters, weapons and a lot of money to kill and destroy in Libya and is now doing the same in Syria in addition to having called for Arab troops to invade the country. Likewise, I have yet to hear the NYT question the “neutrality” of journalists who work with the British state funded BBC, or journalists who work for the Murdoch Press which is well documented to have strong connections with all the major western powers which are responsible for the greatest violations of international law.
So the question should start from the premise that no news organisations are neutral, and each represent a certain ideology. So if you ask me if I feel more at peace working for news channels which reflect the ideology of states that are defending themselves from constant attack by the west, that is an ideology that opposes foreign interference in their affairs and promotes their own independence, or would I feel more comfortable working for media organisations that reflect the arrogant ideology that western civilisation is superior and should be imposed across the world by any means necessary, then I think any person with the slightest understanding of global politics and at least recent history would say the former.
An additional deception in this question is that there is such a thing as neutrality and that journalists are able to separate their own beliefs in what they choose to cover and how they cover it, or indeed the pretence that journalists do not hold an opinion.
As I said, I am not concerned about others perceptions of these things, because anyone who perceives that because I have worked for Russia Today or Press TV it means that I am in someone’s pocket, whereas if I was working for a western organisation I would be “neutral,” is deceiving themselves and choosing to look at a tiny portion of a whole picture.
Incidentally, when I was stuck in the Rixos Hotel in Tripoli with those 35 other journalists, one of the days, two American journalists rushed into the hotel and swiftly exited when they realised that the hotel was being defended by Gaddafi supporters. Actually one of the two in particular was worried about the Gaddafi supporters harming him, but they requested that they just leave. Why was he so worried? Because he said he was related to somebody senior in the NTC no less. I have never seen his neutrality being called into question by the mainstream media.
Finally, what is an activist? If it means that the role you play has the effect of agitating events, then I would say that we are all in some shape or form activists. For anyone to think that their actions are benign and have no repercussions, is at best naïve. This is particularly true for all journalists, whose actions as reporters have greater repercussions than other ordinary citizens of this world. And this is of course because their voice is afforded a special platform, and when you study journalism you are taught that a reporter should act as the eyes and ears of the general public, and thus you have greater influence than the ordinary citizen.
So you either use that platform to promote justice and the principles of international law which are fundamental for everyone’s well being, or you bury your head in the sand about the responsibility that comes with that platform and you use it to promote your own personal career or interests.
RM : I also wanted to find out more about your reporting from Libya, and ask how you respond to allegations that you supported the government of Col. Qaddafi? All in all, I’m trying to get a better understanding of what drives you to speak out against Western governments but apparently lend your support to governments, like those in Iran, Russia and Syria now, that have been accused of serious human rights abuses.
LP : Again this is another deceitful question and epitomises the manipulative approach of the world’s powerful media, such as newspapers like the NYT.
Here you are asking me this question because the west’s major powers and media criminalised Muammar Gaddafi, Iran etc by accusing them of abusing human rights.
So you are trying to put me into this trap by saying that if I support Muammar Gaddafi, and Iran I also support abuses against human rights.
But first of all this question of human rights is an absolute fallacy and is at present the number one stick used to bash leaders of independent developing countries in order to provide a moral justification for the imposition of the western system upon those countries.
My colleague Dan Glazebrook did an interview on Russia Today last week following the decision by Doctors Without Borders to stop their work in Libya in despair at the appalling torture against tens of thousands of pro-Gaddafi Libyans by those rebels who have been cheered on for the past year by the western media. He reminded the public that according to HRW reports from the past 5 years, there were three possible cases of deaths in custody in Libya over 5 years, which is really exemplary, but in Britain there were 4 cases last month alone. So I would be far more concerned about being associated with the British government and thus its appalling human rights record. And that is just Britain – the rest of the NATO countries, particularly the US and also Israel and the GCC countries fare no better.
Factually speaking Libya was a paradise for human rights and Muammar Gaddafi was due to receive a human rights award prior to the NATO onslaught. And of course Libya had the highest standard of living in Africa and much of the region, including a much higher standard of living than Saudi Arabia which hardly ever is in the spotlight in the mainstream western press.
Nonetheless, you wouldn’t dream of implying that a journalist who works for the Sun or the Guardian in Britain, both of which take a position of supporting one way or another the Conservative party or the Labour Party, of supporting abuses on human rights because they work for papers which support parties that have committed some of the greatest injustices known to man throughout history all across the world and up until this present day. Injustices which far outstrip any injustices that have occurred at the hands of any leader of a developing country.
So why the two-faces? This is all part of the prejudice in western media that western civilisation is superior to anything else and therefore those responsible for the injustices committed by the west need not be held accountable, and anyone who speaks out against that should have their name dragged through the mud.
Malcolm X famously said “if you are not careful, the media will have you hating the people who are being oppressed and loving the oppressor”, and that quote rings true more than ever today most recently in the way that the western and GCC media has covered events in Libya and Syria.
But to respond to your question directly, as I have stated, what I support is respect for international law, and the most important principle in international law, and one of the main stated aims for the body that was set up to uphold international law, the now redundant UN, is respect for the sovereignty of nations and non-interference in the internal affairs of states. Recent history shows that the root of the greatest injustices known to man is the violation of these principles and so anyone who violates these principles is a criminal and should be treated as such, and anyone who is a victim of such violations should be defended.
Now not only these principles, but all relevant international laws and norms were violated in the case of Libya and the west’s treatment of Muammar Gaddafi, and this has been well documented. The same violations are playing out against the Syrian government.
How is it that one can moralise about human rights, but not give a second’s thought to the fact that a senior member of the US government, Hilary Clinton called for the death of another head of state, Muammar Gaddafi, just two days before he was assassinated. I hope I don’t need to tell you that that was entirely illegal and abhorrent.
I am wholly against such violations, just as anybody who believes in international law and justice would be, and therefore I will support the right of anyone to defend themselves against this violation by any means necessary.
I have been accused by some of being a mouthpiece for the Libyan government but now the truth is coming out, we know that the essence of the former Libyan government’s analysis has been proved correct, whilst almost everything reported by the mainstream Western media has been proved wrong:
The rebellion WAS indeed armed from the very first day of the uprising (this was confirmed in Amnesty’s in-depth report from late last year) – not a peaceful movement
The rebels WERE working hand in glove with Western intelligence agencies to facilitate a NATO blitzkrieg
The NTC ARE disunited and incapable of governing the country.
The rebels DO have a racist, even genocidal, policy towards sub-Saharan African migrants and the third of the Libyan population is dark skinned
Gaddafi’s government WERE NOT conducting aerial attacks against protesters or mass rape (or indeed ANY rape, according to Amnesty)
There HAD NOT been 10,000 people killed in Benghazi by Gaddafi’s government during the uprising (as the NTC claimed), but 110 (Amnesty figures again) killed on both sides prior to NATO’s attack
On every major issue, the Gaddafi government’s analysis and figures have been proven far far closer to the truth than the NTC’s and the western media’s initial and unequivocal position. So ANY journalist telling the truth about these issues would have “sounded like a mouthpiece of the regime”, because the government’s analysis was essentially correct, and has now been proven correct.
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