Beirut, Asharq Al-Awsat—Al-Mayadeen, a Lebanese pro-Syrian government satellite news channel, has withdrawn its correspondent in Damascus and reduced its coverage of the Syrian conflict in the wake of new restrictions on foreign media by the Syrian government.
The channel’s Syria correspondent, Dima Nassif, has been pulled out of the country, and the channel has ceased broadcast of its Hadeeth Dimashq (“Damascus dialogue”) program, as well as reducing its coverage of Syrian affairs.
Al-Mayadeen’s decision followed new measures imposed by the Syrian Information Ministry and official security authorities on foreign media sources. The new measures affected all non-Syrian media sources working inside the country, including “friendly” channels such Hezbollah’s Al-Manar and the Lebanese Al-Mayadeen.
Asharq Al-Awsat has learned that the Syrian Information Ministry informed the channel of a ban on live broadcasts without prior permission from the Syrian political security bureau and the Information Ministry. The channel’s management, which saw the move as contravening its journalists’ freedom of movement, withdrew their correspondent in protest.
The new measures imposed on the media “restrict the movement of media sources and hinders their coverage,” said a source with knowledge of the issue who spoke to Asharq Al-Awsat on condition of anonymity.
The measures had been in place before the eruption of the Syrian crisis, but a number of pro-regime media sources, including Al-Mayadeen, whose CEO is former Al-Jazeera presenter Ghassan bin Jiddo, and the Al-Manar channel, were able to circumvent the restrictions with the assistance of the Syrian authorities.
The role of both channels became prominent during the battles of Qalamoun in the north of the Rif Dimashq area, when Al-Mayadeen and Al-Manar correspondents were able to file reports before the correspondents of official Syrian TV channels arrived at the scene.
There were conflicting reasons given for the renewal of the security measures by Damascus on foreign media. While some sources said that the Syrian regime wanted “to end the coverage which did not suit its policies,” others said the step came in response to complaints by official Syrian media sources after being repeatedly “scooped” by their foreign competitors.
In particualr, Syrian authorities are reported to have been embarrassed when Syrian state TV used a story from Al-Mayadeen on the recent government offensive in Qalamoun, and by an exclusive Al-Manar report on the Otaibah ambush in Rif Dimashq, where around 170 opposition fighters were killed. While seen as a victory for government forces, Syrian TV did not broadcast any of the Al-Manar footage.
It is also believed that Damascus hopes to play down the role of Hezbollah, which has been fighting alongside Syrian government forces and helped them regain control of areas in Qusayr in Rif Homs and Qalamoun in Rif Dimashq.
In particular, observers speculate that Damascus fears that Al-Manar exclusives have given the impression the channel was reporting from the area where Hezbollah fighters arrived ahead of Syrian government forces.
The issue became more prominent following the publication of quotes attributed to Bouthaina Shaaban, a senior political and media aide to Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, who reportedly “criticized friendly media sources which broadcast interviews and reports which pointed to a prominent role of [foreign] countries and groups in Syria’s perseverance.”
Shaaban issued a denial on Saturday, and said the Facebook page which carried the report was not linked to her in any way.
Despite the denials, live broadcast of Syrian news has disappeared from Al-Manar TV and the Al-Mayadeen channel, which has recalled its correspondent to Beirut, and reduced the number of staff in its Damascus bureau, in addition to removing the Hadeeth Dimmashq program from its schedule.
The channel, which chose President Bashar Al-Assad as its ‘Personality of the Year 2013’ two weeks ago, “broke a number of exclusives which may have resulted in the tightening of the measures, which increased the belief that the privileges which it had gained where in contradiction with the Syrian security system,” a source told Asharq Al-Awsat.
In contrast, sources close to the channel denied the existence of any problems with the Syrian authorities. The sources told Asharq Al-Awsat that the channel “is reviewing the way it films its reports in Syria” and “is reconsidering the way it operates in the country.” The channel stressed that “it conveyed the Syrian official point of view and that of the opposition’s in a balanced way.”
The channel said Hadeeth Dimashq would be back on air after Iraq’s forthcoming parliamentary election, scheduled for the end of the month. “The stoppage of the program was an opportunity to strengthen the channel’s presence on the Iraqi scene, which has recorded very high viewing figures in Iraq,” a spokesman for the channel said.
The clarification by the channel comes in tandem with an announcement by Syrian Information Minister Omran Al-Zoubi on Al-Manar TV, when he stressed that “we respect the Al-Manar channel because it is a resistance channel, and we respect Al-Mayadeen because it is a nationalist channel . . . the issue is merely organizational.”