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E-mails show Syrian regime's efforts to handle the media

By Salma Abdelaziz, CNN
updated 10:35 AM EDT, Sun March 25, 2012
Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and his wife Asma pictured in Paris in 2010.
Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and his wife Asma pictured in Paris in 2010.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • A cache of purported al-Assad family e-mails paint a tense relationship with the media
  • Journalists within al-Assad's inner circle appear engrossed in media relations
  • An interview with Barbara Walters was hailed as a victory
  • A journalist whose e-mails are included in the cache says they are authentic

(CNN) -- The Assad family's relationship with the media reads like a romance gone sour.

The young Western-educated couple initially received praise from the foreign press for attempts to reform the decades-old police state, only to be relentlessly criticized starting in early 2011 for a brutal crackdown on demonstrators.

Thousands of recently leaked e-mails purportedly taken from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's inbox, and subsequently obtained by CNN, paint a tense relationship between the regime and the media.

The Syrian first lady, Asma al-Assad, once described as "a rose in the desert" by Vogue magazine, encapsulates the issue in an e-mail to Al-Mayassa al-Thani, daughter of the emir of Qatar, during the August 2011 government raid of the flashpoint city of Hama

"Contrary to media reports, the army did not enter Hama (yet), though the place is rife with violence," writes the British-born former investment banker. She then mentions attempts at negotiations and adds, "Of course debate and dialogue is not the language that attracts the media these days, so little is mentioned, but the impact on the ground is significant."

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While the Syrian government consistently dismisses Western media as part of a conspiracy to destroy the stability of the nation of 22 million, al-Assad's inner circle, among them journalists, appear very much engrossed in media relations.

Former Al-Jazeera correspondent Luna Chebel often seems to provide public image advice to the president, and she wrote in early January: "Martyrs' funerals are held in poor ceremonies, everyone wears a different colored suit and they look very sad. In my opinion, we should have massive funerals with drums. This might help build momentum and boost morale."

Chebel quit the Arabic news channel along with four other women in 2010 over a dress code conflict with senior management, according to local media reports. In April 2011, in a controversial interview on state-run television Al Doniya, Chebel claimed Al-Jazeera "fabricated news" and warned Syrians not to watch foreign satellite channels.

In December, the regime's press aides appeared totally consumed with al-Assad's upcoming interview with the American TV correspondent Barbara Walters of ABC, sending a flurry of e-mails to advise Assad on his tone, language, and even dress.

"It would be worth mentioning how (your) personality has been attacked and praised in the last decade according to the media. At one point (you) were viewed as a hero and in other times (you) were the 'bad guy.' Americans love these kinds of things and get convinced by it," an e-mail forwarded to the president by himself said. It did not mention the original sender.

Once the 46-minute interview aired on television, members of al-Assad's inner circle hailed it as a victory and worked quickly to disseminate the video.

Sheherazad Jaafari, a Syrian government press officer in New York and daughter of Bashar Jaafari, Syrian ambassador to the United Nations, wrote: "I am being updated by my father and through the embassy and Barbara's team. (It's) extremely positive. The whole U.S. is talking about this. ... I just received the full unedited interview and I sent it to Luna so she can translate it and use it locally."

As the Syrian government attempted to utilize the media to enhance Assad's image abroad, advisers attempted to keep tabs on journalists violating government restrictions by illegally crossing the Syrian border to report inside the conflict-ridden nation.

"The journalist Nir Rosen got into Baba Amr (which is closed) and told me that several groups of Western journalists are entering illegally through Lebanese borders -- including a French and German delegations," Khaled al-Ahmed, a man with strong ties to the Assad regime, wrote in November.

The government's feud with international journalists took a deadly turn in late February when seasoned war correspondent Marie Colvin and award-wining photographer Remi Ochlik were killed during sustained shelling in the western city of Homs.

Al-Ahmed told CNN Wednesday the cache of e-mails obtained by the network are "all nonsense" and denied the authenticity of what appeared to be his correspondence with al-Assad.

Al-Ahmed appears to be a chief facilitator between the regime and the media, though he claimed he was a publicly accepted opposition figure. He often offered reporters, including CNN, access to opposition areas to "see the armed gangs" and interviews with high-level government officials. CNN declined al-Ahmed's offer in November.

E-mails from freelance journalists Nir Rosen are included in the cache, and he contradicted al-Ahmed's statement, telling CNN Wednesday, "All my e-mails are real, and while I cannot speak for all 3,000 e-mails, I recognize at least four of the e-mail addresses, including my own, to be authentic."

In an online statement, Rosen states, "I never communicated any information to the authorities that was not already in the public domain by that point. It was normal for journalists to receive visas by communicating with the Syrian government back in November and I was not the only one."

Another media personality, Hussein Mortada, head of media offices for Iranian outlets Press TV and Al Alam in Damascus, instructed the president after twin explosions rocked the Syrian capital in December

"It is NOT in our interest at all to say that al Qaeda is behind the attack because this exonerates the American administration and the Syrian opposition because (the Americans) as well are fighting al Qaeda and the United States will condemns the attack." Mortada wrote.

"Western news channels were trying to falsify facts and fabricate news in order to embroil Iran and the Lebanese Hezbollah in Syria's events." Mortada said in a Press TV story denying the authenticity of the Assad e-mail leak. CNN made repeated attempts to contact Mortada for comment but received no response.

Citizen journalists also fell victim to the Syrian government's deadly restrictions on media. Many were injured and even killed by Syrian forces. Among them were amateur videographers Basil al-Sayed and his cousin Rami al-Sayed. The young men were killed in separate incidents just weeks apart, both while filming the Syrian army's brutal siege on Homs.

"The (Syrian) information ministry has threatened Arab and foreign media that are 'illegally' in Syria, while Syrian journalists and bloggers continue to be arrested," Reporter without Borders said in a mid-March statement published online.

The leaked e-mails indicate that as more and more journalist dared to face Syrian army tanks with cameras, the Assad regime applied a "with us or against us" policy, rewarding media personnel who joined the president's inner circle while implementing a strict crackdown on reports critical of the Syrian government's yearlong repression of dissent.

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