White House propaganda



When Bashar al-Assad joined Instagram last week, US media waged an intifada lambasting the embattled Syrian president for his “propaganda” effort.

“Instagram becomes latest propaganda tool for Syria’s embattled president,” read the headline in the Washington Post.

“This Is What It Looks Like When A Brutal Dictator Starts Using Instagram,” said BuzzFeed.

“Syrian President Assad’s Desperate Instagram Feed,” wrote the Daily Beast.

“Syrian president recruits Instagram in ongoing propaganda war,” said The Verge.

“Bashar Assad’s Instagram Is Every Bit The Propaganda You’d Expect From The Syrian President’s Social Media Minions,” said the always elaborate Huffington Post.



Around that same time White House photographer Pete Souza, a former photojournalist with Chicago newspapers hired by the president in 2009, also joined Instagram.

Here’s how some of those headlines read:

“White House photographer debuts Instagram account,” said the Washington Post.

“White House Photographer Joins Instagram And It’s Amazing,” said BuzzFeed.

“Turning Politics to Art: WH Photog Launches Instagram Account,” said Time magazine, which was lucky to land an interview with Souza soon after.

But Time didn’t ask the former news photographer how he feels now that he’s surrendered all independence and is getting paid to disseminate images of the president that the US government wants us to see. Instead Souza was asked about Bo, the White House dog.

“The Instagrams of Bo are excellent – how is he as a subject?”

Followed by this hard-hitting question:

“Are you going to do any selfies?”

There’s a very simple explanation for why we’re not going to see Obama signing his secret weekly kill lists or operating drones over civilian areas in Pakistan, just as we’re not going to see images of Assad  shelling homes in Aleppo or the underground detention centers where opposition activists are held. Both men (and their respective staffs) control what is allowed to be published on these social media platforms.

I don’t disagree that Assad’s Instagram account is propaganda, it clearly is. But let’s not kid ourselves that Obama’s account is anything different. So why aren’t US media calling it that?

The story of a Syrian refugee

Originally published as a blog post for Al Jazeera English

Before becoming a journalist I did human rights work in the occupied West Bank. I first visited as a naïve 21-year-old with little knowledge of the Middle East, or really anywhere outside my hometown Chicago.

During my travels through various refugee camps I was shocked learning how almost every single person I encountered had an unimaginable story to tell.

One man served 25 years in an Israeli prison, another woman’s husband was killed leaving her to raise their five kids on her own, a young boy would fearlessly gather stones to throw at tanks invading his camp.

The stories were endless. And the fact that I was unaware of them before I heard them myself is what drove me to become a journalist. I needed to record them so other people could also know.

I felt this same way walking through the Islahiyeh refugee camp in southern Turkey on Saturday.

Home to almost 8,000 Syrian refugees, the camp’s residents have, like Palestinians, endured the most horrific crimes before abandoning their homes in search of refuge. And as I work on a larger story on their plight, there is a story of one person in particular that I feel compelled to tell in full.

As we walked through Islahiyeh I waved to a man sitting at his cigarette stand outside a tent that I later learned he lives in with his family.

His face was covered in bandages and he responded warmly to my greeting so I approached him to say hello and wish him a speedy recovery for what I assumed was a war-related injury. It turned out my assumption was correct.

His name was Mohamed Ayman al-Ezz, and he’s a 43-year-old court reporter from Taftanaz, a part of Idlib province in northern Syria.

On April 4, during a Syrian army raid into Taftanaz against fighters from the Free Syrian Army, al-Ezz says he was taken from his home by the government troops.

He said the soldiers accused him of feeding the rebels inside his home, a charge he firmly denies.

“I wasn’t a fighter, I had nothing to do with the fighters, I was only a civilian,” he told me.

He said the army detained him for a few hours before handing him over to six masked men he described as “shabiha,” the notorious pro-government militia.

He expected to be interrogated, but instead was taken to an empty home with three other local men who he knew quite well. Their hands were bound behind their backs.

Al-Ezz said that one of the masked men standing only metres away took aim with an AK-47s and shot each one of the detainees with a single bullet to the head. Al-Ezz was the fourth to be shot.

He was eager to tell me the names of the other three men: Awad Abdel Kader, Ahmad Jaafar, and Eyad Ghonim. Al-Ezz estimated the ages of the first two men to be around 70 and 60 respectively, and Ghonim he said was only a few years younger than al-Ezz.

He told me that the masked men said very little to the detainees. Only to Jaafar, who had served time in prison accused of belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood, they asked, “didn’t you learn your lesson by now?”

Al-Ezz said when it was his turn the shooter pointed the gun at his face and asked, “What were you thinking trying to go against a government that has an entire army at its disposal?”

He doesn’t remember what happened after that, but he said people in the area later told him that from inside their homes they had seen the badly injured al-Ezz stumbling in the streets of Taftanaz before he fell down just 50 metres from his home.

They went to his aid, but seeing him unconscious and his face completely disfigured from the bullet that entered under his left eye and exited under his left ear, they left him for dead covering his body with a sheet. He said it would’ve been too dangerous for them to do anything else as the army was still around and anyone in the street could be captured or killed.

When the army left late that night, al-Ezz’s wife went out searching for her husband and found a man covered in a sheet near their home. He was unconscious, but still breathing.

Because of the severe wound and the blood covering his entire face, she didn’t recognise her husband at first. But after taking the man inside she found al-Ezz’s identity card in his pocket and realised it was her husband.

Al-Ezz said that his wife and neighbours, knowing he needed urgent medical care, discussed what options they had to help him. The only medical centre in the area was a government hospital, and going there could be risky if they thought he was an FSA fighter or supporter of the opposition.

In the end they decided on the government hospital, and when they arrived they told staff that he had been shot by armed “terrorists,” the term often used by the government for the opposition forces.

After a three-hour investigation, al-Ezz said intelligence agents in the hospital found no evidence that he was connected to the FSA or opposition groups and so he was admitted for treatment and operated on soon after.

A week later, while still in the hospital recovering and awaiting additional treatment, al-Ezz said that local men he thinks had links to the shabiha visited him in the hospital. He suspected their visit was to investigate whether rumours were true or not that one of the four men that were supposed to have been executed days earlier had somehow survived.

Almost immediately after they left he fled the hospital, fled Idlib, and fled Syria altogether coming to Turkey and arriving in the Islahiyeh camp where he remains today, six months later.

The entire left side of al-Ezz’s face is completely paralysed and he’s unable to close his left eye that he covers in bandages. He said that he still needs specialised treatment, including surgery, but that the procedures would cost tens of thousands of US dollars, money that he doesn’t have.

And Mohamed Ayman al-Ezz was just one person in one refugee camp whose cigarette stand I happened to pass.

Al-Assad in Hamra

The chants of “with our souls, with our blood, we will redeem you oh Bashar,” have become as regular as the ringing of the bells at St. Francis church on the main strip in the Hamra area of Beirut. Every Sunday the upscale neighborhood where Lebanese and foreign tourists can be seen sipping coffee in one of the many sidewalk cafes is transformed into a rally in support of Bashar al-Assad and his embattled regime.

The mood was different today. The hundreds of protesters, both Syrian and Lebanese, were angry and more defiant than normal. Yesterday, the Arab League suspended Syria and called on the regime to stop the violent crackdown against ongoing anti-government protests that began in March. Many protesters in Syria have called for action and solidarity from foreign governments, while the government and its supporters claim the eight months of demonstrations are a “conspiracy” by Western powers.

The weekly protests, that I’ve written about before, happen while Syrian activists seeking refuge in Lebanon say they’re under attack and don’t feel safe. (For more read this report on AJE: Syrian activists’ dangerous haven in Lebanon)

Lebanon: al-Assad in Hamra – Images by Matthew Cassel

Beirut Solidarity with Syria

A pro-Bashar protester carries a Syrian flag outside the Syrian embassy in Beirut. (image: Matthew Cassel)

In Beirut, showing solidarity with Syria is easy as long as it’s with the regime and not the people protesting in the streets.

Today, a call went out by activists in Beirut for a 5:00PM demonstration in solidarity with protesters in Syria. I arrived right on time thinking there would be a small group of solidarity protesters gathered. As usual, there were plenty of plenty of uniformed Lebanese security forces, along with plainclothes officers, Lebanese and also Syrians from the embassy. I heard a demonstration coming from around the corner and thought maybe it was the solidarity demonstration that had been called for. But as the demonstration neared I heard, “God, Syria and Bashar [al-Assad] only!” A group of around 75 Syrians, mostly workers in Lebanon, came carrying pictures of their president and marched to the front of their embassy like they’ve been doing regularly over the past few weeks.

Wondering where the solidarity protesters were, I looked around and found a dozen or so activists who I recognized off to the side. Some told me that people in civilian clothes were calling them “agents” (meaning Israeli agents) when a few of them tried to gather outside the embassy minutes earlier. As I stood with them, three men carrying cameras and wearing civilian clothes walked up to us. Two took still pictures and a third shot video. The activists were clearly offended, some walked away covering their faces and others shouted at the men to stop taking their picture. After one of the men persisted, a female activist went up to him and demanded that he delete her picture.

The man walked away into the crowd and the woman chased after him, at one point even kicking him in his ass, literally, as he tried to get away. He eventually tried to make his way into the embassy when she grabbed him. She called for the police to intervene, but none of them did. Finally, she made a big enough scene that a high-ranking officer came over and took them both off to the side where she made the man delete the images he had taken of her.

At one point three activists (see below) were brave enough to pull out signs and were immediately shouted against by the pro-Bashar crowd. After ten minutes or so they left, and so had the others who had come out for the solidarity demonstration. Walking away one of the protesters told me, “that’s the last time we’ll try to demonstrate outside the Syrian embassy.”

Pro-Bashar Syrians chant against three people demonstrating in solidarity with protesters in Syria. (image: Matthew Cassel)

Two of the demonstrators in solidarity with demonstrators in Syria. Sign on left reads, 'No to violence, No to repression, No to extremism.' (image: Matthew Cassel)