Syria and the NY Times: Two Languages, Two Versions

January 07, 2004

[Note by Tom Gross]

I attach today's dispatch from MEMRI (The Middle East Media Research Institute), as an example of how dictatorial regimes, including the Palestinian Authority, regularly send one message to the Western media, and another to their own state-controlled media.

For those of us who believe in democracy in the Middle East, it is refreshing that this criticism comes from a Syrian journalist Subhi Hadidi, who lives in Paris (even though he wrote this article for Al-Rai, the website of the Syrian Communist party.)


January 7, 2004

Assad Tampers with New York Times Interview: One Message to Americans, Another to Syrians

In an article posted December 5, 2003 on Al-Rai, the website of the Syrian Communist party, Syrian journalist Subhi Hadidi [1] criticized the omission of extensive segments in the official Syrian Arabic version of President Bashar Al-Assad's lengthy November 30, 2003 interview with The New York Times. The interview was conducted in Arabic and translated into English by Assad's office for publication by The New York Times, and an Arabic version was published by the Syrian government news agency Sana and by the London Arabic-language daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat. The following are excerpts from Hadidi's article criticizing Assad in Al-Rai: [2]

Two Languages, Two Versions

"The Syrian president granted a lengthy interview to the American paper The New York Times, which revealed the mentality of Bashar Al-Assad directing all his words, deeds, and ways. This is Al-Assad's most important interview to the American press, as it gives a good example of the philosophy that prevails in the presidential palace.

"Is it conceivable that the president makes statements for quoting to the American press (which is the international press, since the interview was published in English), but that these statements aren't exactly the same as the ones published in the Syrian media? And if so - and this is more than the sick mind imagines - how can this president be young, modern, and a reformist (even in a very remote sense), and how can he possibly be seen as a president who is in charge?

"Let us begin with the numbers: The English version, as published on The New York Times website, had 11,280 words. The Syrian news agency Sana and the official Syrian press published what it called the 'full version' but this had only 5,500 words. The London paper Al-Sharq Al-Awsat published the 'full Arabic translation' of the interview, which was 7,667 words long.

"Where did the 2,200 words vanish to, if, as the American press said, it was the president's office that prepared the English translation? What did Al-Assad tell America and the entire world yet at the same time thought not fitting to tell the Syrians?

"The part that was omitted included questions and answers regarding [Syria's] domestic situation, Iraq, Hizbullah, normalization with the Hebrew state, and U.S.-Syrian security cooperation. These are topics that require special advancement, but I will point out in brief a surprising statement made by President Al-Assad, which was showcased in both the Western and Arabic press:

"'During that time [i.e. the 1980s], Saddam Hussein would send large railroad cars loaded with explosives in order to kill hundreds and thousands of Syrians. He killed more than 15,000 over the course of four years.'

"Is this true? Did Saddam Hussein kill 15,000 Syrians over the course of only four years? When did Saddam carry out these terrifying massacres, and where? Why are we hearing about them for the first time [only] now? How did the government keep silent all this time in the face of such a frightening number of victims among its citizens?

"Isn't this statement surprising if it is true, and even more surprising if it is false, [or] if it turns out that it is a slip of the tongue, more embarrassing than stumbling due to inexperience and slip-ups due to lack of skill?"

Assad: Syrian Opposition Loyal to Syria on the Issue of the U.S.

"What the Syrian media omitted from the interview dealt with the domestic situation, and it is divided into two [categories]: embarrassing questions asked by the interviewer, with, it must be admitted, threatening pressure, and the answers to the questions . omitted [by the Syrian news agency].

"One of the President's answers was: '. The Syrian opposition inside and outside Syria does not support the Syrian regime, the constitution, or the Syrian government. However, it opposes what the Americans are saying about bringing democracy to Iraq. I mean that it is against importing democracy by force or by other means. This is its clear opinion and this can be seen on television or in the newspapers.'

"If Al-Assad sees this compliance in the Syrian opposition, and speaks of it to the Americans almost with pride, why does he conceal it from the Syrian people? Is this miserable people so backward that even these facts are hidden from it - although they reach it anyway via television and newspapers, as the president himself says? And if the Syrian people is so backward, how does Al-Assad praise it generously when he speaks of the people's 'love' for the president?."

Assad: Minorities' Demand for Rights Has Nothing to Do with Opposition to the Syrian Regime

"It is the same for the other omitted parts, which could be called 'a dialogue of the deaf'. For example, this exchange between the American journalist and the Syrian president:

"[Question:] 'There is a period where dialogue was open, people were going to forums and there were discussions. It has all stopped. Why is that?'

"Al-Assad: 'No, nothing has stopped. You can go to Al-Atasi Institute and we have many others.'

"Question: 'Just two months ago, they tried to have one in Aleppo and the men were arrested when they showed up.'

"Al-Assad: 'That had to do with speaking about certain ethnicity. They didn't criticize the government; they talked about the rights of the Kurds. The Kurds are Syrians so what rights of the Kurds? It is something related to the national unity if you talk about ethnicities. We have Chechens, Armenians, and you are not allowed in the law of Syria to talk about this. This is our law. I don't know them, but they make demonstrations for things related to this issue, which is not allowed in our law. It is not related to the regime.'

"The truth is that the people understand why the Syrian media refrain from publishing this segment. There is no Al-Atasi Institute; the only thing there is is a club. The Aleppo residents were not demonstrating, but came to a political symposium whose topic was not Kurds' rights - but even if they had been [demonstrating] - what's the crime?

"Does the president know that hundreds of thousands of Syrian Kurds have no citizenship, to this very day? Does he know that their situation is worse than the situation of the Bedouin in Kuwait?.

"Another example of an omission exposes one of two aspects of the philosophy of President Al-Assad: . [Assad] believes that the state and the citizens are in a healthy democratic [reality], and therefore praises excessively the reforms that are slowly taking place.

"On the other hand, he does not attribute the reforms' slowness to opposition by the 'old guard,' the Ba'ath party, or the corrupt ones at the upper edge of the regime, but boils this down almost into a single cause - that is, a shortage of skilled people [to manage] the reform.

"The following dialogue goes thus:

"Question: 'Two years ago, in Damascus, you could hear any kind of discussion about democracy, law, and economic reform, but it is gone now.'

"Al-Assad: 'No, it is not gone. I will give you the address of Atasi, which is opposition.'

"Question: But this is just one person. There used to be dozens.'

"Al-Assad: Let me ask you a question: What is the ideal number?'

"Question: It is not a question of a number. It is a question that people no longer feel free to have an open discussion.'

"Al-Assad: Why don't you go and see for yourself?'

"Question: I have looked around for them. It is very hard to find.'

"Al-Assad: We can give you the names.??'

"Does Al-Assad want to say that the clubs still exist, as in the past? Is it enough to give the address of the Al-Atasi 'Institute' in order to prove his claim that there is freedom of speech, not to mention full implementation of democracy?"

Assad's Corruption Cover-up

"The second aspect is even more astounding, as it is based on the classic model of evasion, that overflows with modern political language and the art of refinement, deception, and evasion.

"[The interviewer] asks about the corruption of those 'around' the president, and Al-Assad asks: 'Why around me? What do you mean?' [The interviewer] does not hesitate; he mentions the president's cousin, who was entangled in a mobile phone business deal, and says, 'The list is long.' The president answers, 'He is a Syrian like all Syrians, whether he is my cousin, my brother, my friend, or anyone else. There is Syrian law."

"Is this [the same] law that punished Riyadh Seif [3] because he exposed the marvels of the mobile phone deal? Is it due to the spirit of this law that the president hints that Seif is in jail for tax evasion, while others tried to threaten the unity of the state by 'harming the pluralistic Syrian regime?.'

"The art of evasion turns into silence regarding the cousin, as he is a Syrian like all Syrians, and into accusation against Riyadh Seif, who is perhaps not a Syrian and who is harming unity when he deals with ethnic matters.

"Who was it then who edited, amended, or censored the President's interview? Is it the hero of the interview himself? Is it another body, better versed in the doctrine of magic and secrecy? Why wasn't the translation that was given to The New York Times also censored? "Does the [presidential] palace wish to persuade the American press that the regime is being run with integrity and transparency, and [thus] gave the newspaper a full, not abridged, translation - but at the same time denigrated the minds of the Syrians and gave them selected grains?"


[1] Hadidi currently lives in Paris, and also writes, inter alia, for the London daily Al-Quds Al-Arabi.

[2] Al-Rai (Syria), December 5, 2003. .

[3] A former Syrian MP sentenced in July 2002 to five years imprisonment for "attempt to illegally change the constitution."

All notes and summaries copyright © Tom Gross. All rights reserved.