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October 27, 2005

The Washington Post's Odd Language from Syria

Behind a Damask Screen: The Washington Post’s Odd Language from Syria
October 26, 2005

The Washington Post’s Anthony Shadid won the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting last year for his coverage of the war in Iraq. But two of his recent dispatches from Damascus should win no awards.

Inaccurate, even peculiar word choice compromises “For Syrians, a Siege Mentality Sets In; U.N. Inquiry, Iraq War Feeding Anxiety Among Assad’s Backers and Foes” (October 25) and “Assad Says Accused Syrians May Face Trial; Letter Is First Substantive Response to U.N. Reporting Implicating Officials in Hariri Killing” (October 26). As a result, both misrepresent in important ways recent Syrian history and current events in a capital under pressure as a result of the international investigation of the February assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

In “For Syrians, a Siege Mentality Sets In,” Shadid writes – or perhaps a misguided copy desk rewrites – “Since 1970, the state has weathered a revolt by Islamic activists, conflicts with Israel, crises with the United States and the collapse of its historic ally, the Soviet Union.” This journalistic short-hand wrongly conflates events.

To be accurate, the same material should have been conveyed in two sentences reading something like: “Since 1970, the state brutally suppressed a revolt by Islamic fundamentalists and prolonged its declared state of war with Israel by rejecting several peace initiatives and sponsoring anti-Israeli Lebanese and Palestinian terrorist organizations. It also obstructed U.S. Middle East policy and maneuvered through the resultant crises while weathering the collapse of its historic ally, the Soviet Union.”

Shadid also states that, among other things, Washington wants Damascus to end its “accommodation of militant Palestinian factions and the Lebanese Shiite Muslim movement Hezbollah.” As noted above, Syria is not “accommodating” Palestinian “militant factions” including Islamic Jihad, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine - General Command, and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, plus the Lebanese Hezbollah. Rather, it hosts and/or shelters, helps fund, arm and train, and employs these terrorist organizations as surrogates.

Shadid correctly notes that “Syria is one of the region’s most authoritarian states,” but asserts that “its repression pales compared with the relentless brutality in Iraq during the rule of Saddam Hussein.” The pairing as well as the wording is misplaced; a comparison would have been not the current Syria under Bashar Assad to the former Iraq under Saddam Hussein, but of Syria under Bashar’s late father, Hafez Assad, to Iraq under Saddam.

The elder Assad’s 30-year police state did at retail what Saddam’s regime in Iraq did wholesale. The annual State Department Country Reports on Human Rights dealing with Hafez Assad’s Syria made that clear. And the elder Assad, like Saddam, could massacre his own people en mass, as he did at Hama in 1982, slaughtering between 10,000 and 25,000 residents, mostly civilians, in a stronghold of the Islamic Brotherhood. Syria today under Bashar Assad should be contrasted with post-Saddam Iraq, which despite a bloody insurgency, might be evolving toward something better while Syria’s police state under Bashar more closely resembles “Hafez-Lite.”

In his next-day dispatch, “Assad Says Accused Syrians May Face Trial,” Shadid commits only one word choice foul, but it is major, and peculiar: “There were at least two slightly different [emphasis added] versions of Assad’s letter, diplomats said. The one with the pledge to bring to trial any Syrian implicated in Hariri’s assassination was delivered to the United States, Britain and France, among others; another version, omitting the pledge, went to other Security Council members, the diplomats said.” Omission of the pledge to try any Syrian implicated in the murder might be a deletion of only a few words, but it most definitely is not a “slight difference” – it is a major change. Why introduce such confusion at all, when merely dropping the adverb “slightly” increases accuracy, as in “there were at least two different versions of Assad’s letter, diplomats said”?

For years, The Post’s slogan was: “The Washington Post: If you don’t get it, you don’t get it.” We got it, but we don’t get it. – by Eric Rozenman, CAMERA Washington director.

Posted by ER at October 27, 2005 05:30 PM

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