Lisa Herden looks at the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the controversy surrounding it and the need to engage with sources critically.
‘FAKE news’ and ‘post-truth’ are the buzzwords of today. In fact, ‘post-truth’ was declared word-of-the-year 2016 by the Oxford Dictionary. Gone are the times when only established newspapers and broadcasters were the sole source of information.
Scrolling through your Facebook feed you are figuratively flooded by news stories from a variety of media outlets: the housing crisis in Ireland, Trump’s first weeks in office and the ongoing war in Syria. Particularly in the case of the war in Syria, which has since its beginning in 2011 become an increasingly complex conflict, obtaining information has become more and more difficult.
One of the sources that media refer to when reporting on the conflict is the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), which was founded in 2006 by Mr. Rami Abdurrahman, a Syrian now living in the UK. According to the description on the organisation’s website, they “are a group of people who believe in Human Rights, from inside and outside the country, documenting the Human Rights situation in Syria”, stating twice that the organisation “is not associated or linked to any political body”.
“Particularly in the case of the war in Syria … obtaining information has become more and more difficult.”
Many established organisations quote its figures. Among these are Human Rights Watch and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. According to an article by Neil MacFarquhar, published in the New York Times, Mr. Abdurrahman relies on a network of more than two hundred activists, reporting to four informers in Syria, who pass on this information to him.
Enquiries to Mr. Abdurrahman as to whether these figures are still correct, have remained unanswered by the time this issue went to print, just as the request for a statement regarding the criticisms that he and his organisation have faced in the past.
Confronted with the reliability of the numbers he publishes, Mr. Abdurrahman is quoted in the New York Times article saying “I make sure nothing is published before crosschecking with reliable sources to ensure that it is confirmed”, but also admitting that “nobody knows the entire reality”. The fact that Mr. Abdurrahman is operating from the UK and does not report from Syria directly himself has been judged negatively. Most prominently, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich challenged the organisation’s reliability. In an article published on the website of The Centre for Research on Globalization in December 2016, author Stephen Lendman went even further, describing the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights as an “illegitimate UK-based, Western supported … one-man operation putting out daily fake news reports”.
“The problem here is that some people see themselves as bloggers or activists first and journalists second”
Dr. Vincent Durac is assistant professor and lecturer in the School of Politics and International Relations at UCD and his field of expertise includes Middle East politics. In his evaluation of such criticism, he says that “the attempt to identify who is doing what and why … provokes very strong responses based on positions regarding the overarching conflict”.
The situation of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights is not unique. Prof. Kalpana Shankar of the School of Information and Communication Studies at UCD highlights the involvement of activists, “often called ‘citizen journalists” in other conflicts. “The problem here is that some people see themselves as bloggers or activists first and journalists second – which raises a lot of concerns about ethics”.
Although the Syrian conflict has been covered by independent journalists in Syria directly, “very few people are willing to do that, especially with the spate of kidnappings and executions”, Dr. Durac says. He points out the differences in comparison to earlier conflicts, which “were at least characterized notionally by the shared belief amongst warring parties that journalists were not combatants. And increasingly what we see in modern conflicts, in the Middle East but also elsewhere, is the disappearance of that consensus that journalists should be allowed to do their jobs”.
How are we then to deal with information that is put forward by organisations such as the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights if not many other sources of information are available? Prof. Shankar and Dr. Durac both see the best strategy in triangulation. Dr. Durac explains what this means: “You basically try as hard as you can not to rely on a single source for your information.”
“Disappearance of that consensus that journalists should be allowed to do their jobs”
At the same time, he points to the problems this entails. “Sometimes, it’s not that easy to see whether or not you’ve got two independent sources verifying the same claim … or whether one is without acknowledging it rehashing something earlier”.
This strategy does not only concern information published by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights or another organisation in any comparable conflict. In fact, it is applicable to all aspects of informed discourse. “Engaging in critical thinking about the information we are presented with about key issues … whether we’re students writing a paper or a high level politician, this is what we all need to do”, Prof. Shankar concluded.