This July, I travelled to Syria, with the purpose of finding out for myself the origins of the present political conflict.
I was able to roam the country at liberty, from Dera, Damascus, Homs, Hama, Maraat-an-Numan, Jisr-al-Shigur, on the Turkish border, even Deir-ez-Sor, all places where the media had signalled outbursts of violence.
I was able to witness the different internal struggles, some of which were violent and had completely different objectives from those of the democratic pacifists. The Muslim Brotherhood, for example, seeks to bring about an Islamic republic, which in turn terrifies the Christians and most other minorities.
Yet, outside the scope of my research, I was surprised that the image of Syria, portrayed by the Western media as a country undergoing full scale revolution, does not correspond in any way whatsoever to the reality of the situation.
Indeed, the large-scale protest movements have run out of steam, this due in part to the repression, so that these days the protests only number a few hundred at most, usually focused around mosques, bearing the mark of Islamist influence.
Therefore, it is only in the city of Hama, cultural stronghold of the Muslim Brotherhood, under a state of siege, that full scale protests are to be found.
Centre of a violent revolt, in 1982, which was crushed by Hafez al-Assad, father of the incumbent President, Hama is today surrounded by heavy armor. This said, the government have decided against a bloodbath, for fear of repercussions from the international community.
On Friday 15 July, I entered Hama. Very quickly I found myself surrounded by the youths in control. Upon presenting my Belgian passport the situation calmed down: ‘Belgicaa! Belgicaa!’; as the only foreign observer on the ground, they escorted me through the protestors. The highlight of which was reaching the top of a high rise, from which I took a series of snapshots, revealing the extent of the debacle.
On Asidi square, at the bottom of the large El-Alamein Avenue, prayer had finished, to the sound of thousands of people appearing from all across the city, uniting under a shout of defiance ‘Allah Akbar!’
That same night on July 15, I received news feeds from the AFP announcing a million protestors all over Syria, of which 500,000 in Hama alone.
In Hama however, they could not have been more than 10,000.
This ‘information’ was even more absurd due to the fact that the city of Hama counts only 370,000 inhabitants.
Of course, there will always be a margin of error and numbers do vary with sources, estimations are never quite so straightforward.
Yet, in this case, it was not a simple estimation: this is blatant disinformation, propaganda at its finest. 500,000 protestors can shake the very foundations of a regime, 10,000 however are of no consequence.
Furthermore, all the ‘information’ regarding the Syrian situation has been twisted similarly for months now.
So what sources does AgenceFrancePresse (AFP) cite?
The same which crops up systematically throughout the media and has now become a monopoly in its own right, regarding the Syrian protests: the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR).
Behind this superficial veneer of respectability and professionalism, hides a political organisation based in London, its president none other than Rami Abdel Raman, a man who has consistently sided against the Baath regime, who is loosely linked to the Muslim Brotherhood.
Therefore, for many months now, the Western media have diffused an edited reality, corrected by a single source which nobody has deemed it necessary, it seems, to question.
This portrayal of a Syria in full scale revolution and of a Baath party on the brink do not correspond in any way whatsoever to the reality of the situation; that the government hold control and what is left of the protests have in effect splintered and become considerably marginalized.
However, the consequences of this latest case of disinformation regarding Syria are far reaching: the lessons of Timisoara, the Gulf War or events in Yugoslavia haven’t been learned. Still, European media continue to be lured into basing reports on loosely assembled news reports and risk depicting a virtual reality for their readers/viewers.
Yet, when the media fail their duty of assembling genuine information, it is democracy itself which is in danger.
Pierre Piccinin is a professor of history and political science in Brussels.