Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 2 September 2014

Assad’s media man who wants to handle ‘the truth’

Syrian president Bashar al-Assad

When Syrian gunmen stormed Damascus last month, an angry, middle-aged and bespectacled man appeared on state television with a harsh message for Syria's “enemies”.

“They are calling this the last battle,” he roared. “Yes, I agree it is the last battle — and they will lose.”

Syrian viewers were not used to straight-talking of this kind from the voice of the regime, to be sure, but also the voice of a tough new broom at the top of the government's media operations, Omran Zoubi.

The Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad, appointed him the information Minister to turn Syrian state television into a credible source of information.

Want to watch Syrian troops fighting their way through the streets of the capital? Turn to state television. To witness the sacrifice of the government army all you have to do is turn to a young reporter bellowing her live report down a microphone from Aleppo on the non-state (but hardly anti-Assad) Dunia TV.

The Syrians — and Mr Zoubi, who is a political analyst of a rare if rather intense kind within the Damascus government — have learnt a lot from CNN and Al-Jazeera.

“I am one of the believers in freedom and openness,” Mr Zoubi tells me.

But in Syria's darkest hour, a little bit of real truth has bubbled to the surface. Last week, Bashar al-Assad gave his most important interview in months — he would fight on, he said to Dunia.

Car-bombs, body parts, screaming victims, are now a daily part of the evening news.

“Nothing can be hidden,” Mr Zoubi insists.

“There is no justification to hide anything. People are used to the real facts now.”

He has a good deal of contempt for Al Jazeera, suggesting at one point that America's fury with the station's failure to tell the truth might be one emotion he shared in common with the US.

“I make an open invitation to the Syrian opposition to appear on the Syrian screen,” the minister says.

The worst thing, Mr Zoubi says, would be for the television to lie. “The difference between us and the foreign media ... is that we say the truth, but in an ugly, unsophisticated way.”

But you won't find Syrian state television investigating torture by “mukhabarat” intelligence men or the amount of “collateral damage” caused by its military firepower, deliberate murder according to the Free Syrian Army, every Western government and hosts of reporters.

But only this week, CNN broadcast an “exclusive” report on Syria's opposition in which black-hooded gunmen were referred to as “activists”.

On the government ‘side’, there are now seven television channels, one dedicated to news and another to drama, a channel which friends tell me has lost some of its appeal over recent months.

With real drama on the news, who wants the theatrical version?

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