Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

When everything changes except the regime | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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With monochrome shades twinkling on the screen of the “Syronics” black-and-white television set, silver camera flashes are seen reflecting on gloomy faces, whilst confessions are given by a so-called criminal gang responsible for intimidating the people and assassinating leading national and [Baath] party figures, [according to the Syrian regime].

A little girl with panic-stricken eyes sits and keeps an eye on the television screen, her heart beating with every single comment or whisper she hears from the others in the audience, who look out of the window for fear that someone may be secretly eavesdropping in on their conversations.

The ten-year-old daughter shivers and clings to her mother’s body, and the more the whispers intensify, the more she tries to hide her face behind her mother’s back. From time to time, she glances at the television screen before she is again gripped by fear, traumatized, and she can feel her small heart beating like a sparrow breathing its last.

After every one has gone, the girl tries to ask her father about what she saw on television, but he simply responds: “Never talk about this”. The mother rushes to soothe her by suggesting that what was screened was not real, but merely acting. The father withdraws into a corner of the house to isolate himself from the curiosity of his children, and listen to the news on his transistor radio. He holds the radio directly against his ear so that no one else can hear what is being broadcasted from Baghdad. He only does so after drawing the curtains and asking his wife to take the children to bed. All the lights are switched off except for a little lamp with a dim glow, further intensifying the climate of fear. Amidst the gloom, the father sits alone and listens to the radio broadcasting news about the situation in Syria, as if he is doing something highly secretive and illegal. It is the 1980s, Hama is currently besieged, and a state of uncertainty prevails. Tensions rise at a time when the circulation of information is forbidden, except for official news bulletins broadcasted from Damascus radio and Syrian state television.

The daughter tries to eavesdrop on what her father is listening to, and [after he is finished] she steals the radio, positions the antenna, and tunes into the forbidden station. She discovers that the station is opposed to the Syrian regime, and it is broadcasting rhetoric that anyone would be punished just for listening to, let alone uttering. When she hears these words, she becomes strongly gripped with the desire to hear more. What she heard was certainly different to what was being broadcast by Syrian state radio and television, despite her relative ignorance of what is going on. The alternative rhetoric is a great lure to the girl, and it seems credible to her because it contradicts what she usually hears.

The relatives and neighbours of the “criminal gang” are watching in anxious secrecy as confessions are screened on Syrian television. In fact, the confessions are of little significance, and the relatives do not care if they have been fabricated or not. What is more pressing on their minds is the magnitude of torture the “gang” has been subjected to [at the hands of the regime], and the execution sentences awaiting them. The relatives and neighbours are aware that the gang members are likely to have died long before their confessions were screened. The families can only express their grief in their minds, for they are not allowed to show any sign of sympathy for the gang members or their relatives. There is only one official account of events, and the people must accept this with a muzzled mouth and a closed mind.

I remember the girl who was ten years old in the 1980s, and today I am witnessing something similar to that. The “official” version of events still exists, as does Syrian state television and radio, and all the official and semi-official media outlets are still acting in a similar manner. The same regime remains unchanged, but the reality, the people, and the means of communication have changed. The process of acquiring a piece of information has transformed from a passive act to a fully interactive one. The “Syrionics” black-and-white television has become extinct, even the color television seems out-dated after the dawn of the digital world. Numerous innovations have emerged; now a 10-year old child can watch confessions given by an accused criminal gang whilst eating chips, and then press his remote control to search for action movies, in a quest for entertainment. Meanwhile, the father is perhaps busy searching the internet for information posted by activists on the ground. Even the act of watching television is not as it was in the past, for one can hardly stay watching one news bulletin for 15 minutes without moving between limitless channels to follow up other versions of events regarding the same story. Eventually, the viewer settles on his own version of events that is commensurate with his own convictions and ideas.

Everything has changed except the mentality of the Syrian regime and its media, still harbouring the unilateral mind-set that could only be successful in the black-and-white period. But in the age of color television, the digital world, and a global internet network, the official version of events has lost its immunity, and now it is subject not only to suspicion, but also to contempt and ridicule. A 10-year-old boy today can confidently question the validity of the official version of events, he can ridicule the official account without his father having any authority over him, or preventing him from talking about politics. In fact, the father may even be intrigued and learn from his son. This is happening in front of my eyes in the houses of my relatives and friends; I see a father bewildered and unable to find convincing answers to the questions raised by his sons, as the son may know more than we do. There is an old joke that goes as follows: A boy once asked his grandmother how he came to be alive, and she tells him the traditional story of the stork which carried him in its beak, and then placed him outside the front door. The boy then turned to his youngest sister and asked her: Shall we tell our grandma how we really came to be alive, or shall we leave in the dark?

It is incredible that the world has changed so much in 30 years thanks to the information revolution, and nevertheless police regimes have failed to change the manner in which they deal with their citizens, or their means of suppression. Such authoritarian regimes are blindly determined to continue fabricating the same official version of events, without the slightest change or improvement. Even modern visual technologies have been exploited to further blind the populace, and promote the official version of events, even if it completely defies logic. This happened when a local [Syrian] television channel dared to accuse an Arab news outlet of constructing a studio with huge scale models of Syrian squares, with the aim of orchestrating false demonstrations through the use of visual tricks and professional actors! This channel even claimed that the Libyan capital had not fallen, and that the scene of rebels arriving in Green Square was fabricated and was all acting!

The question to be raised here is: Has it occurred in the minds of such people that even if everyone was convinced that the events in Libya were all fabrications and movie tricks, how would they convince everyone that Muammar Gaddafi did not escape to the desert? That this was just a lookalike brought in from Hollywood, and that the real Gaddafi is still ruling Libya from his tent? Can you convince people that the influx of world leaders into Libya was meant as a visit to Gaddafi? Or that the Transitional Council members who have arrived in Libya are mere actors?

This concocted version of Libyan events somewhat reflects the Syrian media’s delusional belief that the same must be taking place in Syria, or else the regime would have anticipated [the uprising] before it happened. By doing so, the Syrian media is only lying to itself. In this endeavour, it has disregarded everything that has happened throughout Syria, claiming that what we see and hear is taking place inside indoor studios, a story they think people will be fooled into believing.

Whether the Syrian official and semi-official media’s accusations [about the Syrian uprising being fabricated] are serious or a joke, it is no wonder that parents, along with the regimes, have lost control over their children. The youth have opened the windows and relinquished their fears once and for all. They take to the streets to express what is on their minds day and night.