'Bad' Countries and Bad Reporting


Media feeding frenzies are never pretty, even less so when they are passed off as serious journalism.

The coverage following Israel’s latest attack on Syria has once again highlighted the grave deficiencies of the Western press in covering the region. Speculation passed off as fact, the use of unnamed and compromised sources, a lack of any real evidence, sensationalism and a steadfast refusal to engage in debates that may get in the way of a good story has typified much of the reporting.

Whatever we eventually learn about what happened in the Syrian desert, the double standards which apply to covering countries the mainstream media deems as ‘bad’ expose fatal flaws in the world’s most free media establishments.

What we do know is that on 6 September, Israel, purportedly using F-15s and F-16s, attacked a military facility in the northern province of Raqqa. News of the strike, in which Israeli planes violated Turkish airspace and dumped spent fuel tanks, first emerged from Syrian Arab News Agency some 12 hours after the raid. Initial reports in US and European newspapers said the attack was carried out to test Syrian radar reactions or destroy an arms cache bound for Hezbollah.

The nuclear angle did not emerge until 12 September when the New York Times wrote in paragraph six of a 12-paragraph article: ‘Israel had recently carried out reconnaissance flights over Syria, taking pictures of possible nuclear installations that Israeli officials believed might have been supplied with material from North Korea.’

An article in the Washington Post the following day again pushed the North Korean nuclear angle albeit cautiously and mentioned that the new information had been restricted to a few senior officials under the instructions of national security adviser Stephen Hadley, a leading neo-con who has previously pushed for war against Syria.

The story soon progressed. No possibility — except of course, that Syria may not be building a nuclear bomb — was too far fetched. On 22 September, the London-based Times splashed with: ‘Snatched: Israeli commandos ‘nuclear’ raid.’ The article breathlessly relayed a daring raid in which:

Israel commandos from the elite Sayeret Matkal unit,almost certainly dressed in Syrian uniforms [and]made their way stealthily towards a secret military compound near Dayr az-Zawr in northern Syria. Before the Israelis issued the order to strike, the commandos had secretly seized samples of nuclear material and taken them back into Israel for examination by scientists, the sources say. A laboratory confirmed that the unspecified material was North Korean in origin.

The article was written entirely from unnamed US and Israeli sources. No evidence of this North Korean-supplied nuclear material has even been produced. No independent analysis regarding the likelihood of such a raid, or the reasons why American and Israeli sources might leak such information to the media was ventured into. Instead, unnamed sources from governments opposed to both Syria and North Korea are given free space in a major international newspaper to air serious allegations without the provision of any evidence and, characteristically of the media’s coverage surrounding the event, seemingly without question.

By 13 October, the New York Times had concluded that Syria was running a nuclear program. In an article headlined ‘Israel Struck Syrian Nuclear Program, Analysts say,’ reporters David E Sanger and Mark Mazzetti write that the attack ‘was directed against a site that Israeli and American intelligence analysts judged was a partly constructed nuclear reactor, apparently modelled on one North Korea has used to create its stockpile of nuclear weapons fuel’. The analysis, according to the article, answers one of the ‘central mysteries’ surrounding the purpose of the attack. In all, unnamed ‘officials’, ‘intelligence analysts’ and ‘senior policy makers’ are mentioned 19 times.

The third paragraph compares the Israel raid with its bombing of the Iraqi Osirak nuclear plant in 1981, further cementing the impression Israel did indeed strike a nuclear facility.

By the fifth paragraph, the usual qualifiers ‘suspected’ and ‘alleged’ are dropped altogether and the authors write: ‘Many details remain unclear, most notably whether the Syrians could make a plausible case that the reactor was intended to produce electricity.’ What is no longer in doubt is that the site was a nuclear reactor. The only question now in need of answering is if the Syrians would consider using such technology for anything else other than the destruction of the Jewish state.

It takes the reader until paragraph nine to learn: ‘Even though it has signed the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, Syria would not have been obligated to declare the existence of a reactor during the early phases of construction. It would have also had the legal right to complete construction of the reactor, as long as its purpose was to generate electricity.’

Most telling of the NYT‘s mindset is the journalists’ attempt to prove their unwavering objectivity: ‘The officials who described the target of the attack included some on each side of the debate about whether a partly constructed Syrian nuclear reactor should be seen as an urgent concern, as well as some who described themselves as neutral on the question.’

Not included were those on the side of the debate that said it remains unclear if the facility was a nuclear reactor at all. These opinions have been deemed news not fit to print by the NYT in the realm of conspiracy no less.

The ‘central mysteries’ of the opening paragraphs, the reader can assume, is not why newspapers like the NYT give Israel the right to attack her neighbours even when, as the article admits, they are in no breach of international law. The media’s use of unnamed sources, particularly from an Administration that has a track record of skewing intelligence, is also not open for debate. The possibility that the ‘intelligence leaks’ are part of a disinformation campaign is also too far fetched a proposition for serious news agencies to explore. After all, only axis-of-evil governments lie.

The publication of commercial satellite images of the questioned site dating back to 2003 and a subsequent report by the Institute for Science and International Security which said the buildings were ‘similar in shape’ to the Yongbyon reactor in North Korea have also been promoted as definitive proof that Syria was building a nuclear arsenal.

The conclusions drawn by the ISIS are reminiscent of a previous nuclear scandal fearlessly exposed by the NYT. In 1998 early satellite images of the Kumchang-ri military facility in North Korea were presented by US intelligence agencies as evidence of a nuclear reactor. The NYT broke the story on page one. David E. Sanger was again the reporter. Subsequent visits by US inspectors revealed that while Kumchang-ri was a sensitive defence facility, it was in ‘no way’ a nuclear facility. Neither Sanger nor the NYT have felt the need to revisit the incident during their coverage of the latest Israeli strike.

The background regarding US ‘identification’ of the Yongbyon reactor in North Korea is also telling. First detected via satellite images in 1980, the CIA incorrectly described the reactor as a ‘copy’ of a Soviet supplied research reactor ‘not designed to produce quantities of plutonium needed for a nuclear weapons program’. Four years later the reactor went critical and is the backbone of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

It’s not that the findings of the ISIS should not be reported. They simply need to be balanced with the full story. Identification from satellite images is inconclusive, particularly when it involves nuclear reactors. From all that has been presented publicly regarding Syria’s latest nuclear grab, the only thing anyone can say with any certainty is that it remains unclear what Syria was building in the desert. Headlines like that, however, don’t get journalists front-page stories, let alone sell newspapers. Nor do they serve the agenda of leading Bush officials who have long worked to isolate Syria and break off talks with North Korea — objectives both furthered via the promotion of a Syrian-North Korea nuclear angle.

The ‘smoking gun’ for many newborn nuclear experts was the move by Syrian authorities to bury the site. Slam Dunk. Why else would Syria ‘cover-up’ the site if it was not nuclear? Yet Syria admitted the site was military. No country, particularly one as paranoid about security as Syria, would willingly allow details of their military facilities to be revealed by the international media. Burying the site is hardly definitive proof that it was nuclear. It simply shows that Syria did not want something photographed. Any number of tourists who have had their cameras inspected on the suspicion that they had taken photographs of government buildings could have confirmed that long ago.

Syrian critics have also asked why the country simply didn’t allow the International Atomic Energy Agency to inspect the site. But to ask the IAEA to conduct an inspection of the site after it was bombed is hypocrisy of the highest order. Furthermore, to ask Syria to prove her innocence after being subject to an act of war only reinforces the notion that Israel has the inalienable right to attack her neighbours without question — a right shamelessly granted to her by the Western world.

Given the media’s performance in recent years particularly in the lead up to the Iraq War when it parroted unsupported claims which it has been forced, reluctantly, to admit were false, this latest nuclear saga should have been forensically examined by all who reported it. All the more disturbing is that many of the same players who furnished star reporters with such propaganda are the same ones pushing the North Korean-Syrian nuclear angle.

The loudest and most consistent voice accusing Syria of working on a nuclear program is former UN ambassador John Bolton, who has again been pushing the nuclear angle in relation to Israel’s attack. His relationship with Syria is colourful to say the least. On four separate occasions in as many years the well known neo-con has accused Syria of having a nuclear program, generally stemming from some nefarious arrangement with Kim Jung-il’s regime. Each time he has been proven wrong.

The first such claim dates back to the lead up to the US-led invasion of Iraq when Bolton clashed repeatedly with intelligence officials regarding Syrian attempts to acquire unconventional weapons. So alarmed were American intelligence agencies regarding a planned speech before Congress by the then serving Undersecretary of State, that they collectively issued a 35-page report objecting to its contents. Bolton was forced to postpone his appearance.

He was back at it after the fall of Baghdad when he insisted, again with no evidence, that Saddam’s nuclear arsenal had been smuggled into Syria. He was wrong. He later threw Syria’s name into the ring as one of the beneficiaries of a nuclear network run by Pakistan’s Abdul Qadeer Khan. Wrong again. The IAEA’s Mohammad al-Baradei said no indication of such a relationship existed and publicly challenged Bolton, who backed down. Undeterred, he went on to claim that a ship travelling from North Korea to Syria was stopped by Interpol in Cyprus in September 2006 because it was carrying nuclear technology. It was found to be carrying perfectly legal defensive missile technology.

Given his history, readers could expect the media to tread a little more cautiously when reporting on Syrian nuclear threats from Bolton and his colleagues. No such luck. Nor has any major media outlet seen fit to publish background information detailing Bolton’s many false accusations regarding Syria’s nuclear intentions — a historical context that may help readers form an opinion regarding the veracity of the latest claims.

The fact that politicians manipulate intelligence for their own agenda is nothing new. The Bush Administration did not start the trend and it won’t end when Number 43 leaves the Oval Office. We can, however, expect better from the media.

The coverage of the latest Israeli attack on Syria is even more disingenuous given the public hand wringing that much of the media, particularly the NYT, put on display when it became clear their coverage of Saddam’s WMD program was fiction, not fact.

‘Editors at several levels who should have been challenging reporters and pressing for more scepticism were perhaps too intent on rushing scoops into the paper,’ the NYT confessed in an embarrassing editor’s note in May, 2004. ‘Articles based on dire claims about Iraq tended to get prominent display, while follow-up articles that called the original ones into question were sometimes buried. In some cases, there was no follow up at all.’ Earnest pledges by the paper’s editorial board to raise the bar were given. Little, it seems, has been learned.

Regardless of whatever we eventually find out about what Israel bombed in the Syrian desert, the Western media’s treatment of the event again highlights how the burden of evidence is decisively lower for countries it deems as being ‘bad’ — Syria, Iran, Cuba and North Korea to name a few. Until journalists and editors apply the same journalistic norms throughout all their work, regardless of whether the story is covering Washington or Damascus, their credibility will remain severely compromised.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.