Australian Communications and Media Authority.
12th February 2020
This complaint to ACMA relates to the failure of Australian public broadcasters SBS and ABC to satisfactorily present an impartial, accurate and balanced view of the Syrian conflict over the last nine years, a failure which is now reflected in the gross ignorance of the public about the true state of affairs, and their consequent acceptance of multiple war crimes and crimes against humanity that have been and continue to be committed by NATO-allied forces against Syrian defence forces and their allies.
I have complained many times about the reporting of events in Syria by both ABC radio and SBS TV news since 2011. While some of these complaints, including telephone conversations with ABC presenters, have been answered sympathetically, or at considerable length, there has been no perceptible change in the reporting, nor presentation of the alternative “point of view” – based on the verifiably true information and evidence from the local and non-Western media sources on which I rely.
It is important to stress this point at the start, as the almost total absence of reporting from Syrian Government controlled areas or interviews with Syrian Government officials by Australian journalists or those of English-speaking allies has been a primary cause of this one-sided coverage of the conflict. The constant reference by our broadcasters to what Syrians call “the war on Syria” as “the Syrian civil war” is the most basic reflection of this bias, along with the enduring description of Syria’s elected government as “the Syrian Regime”. The constant and continuing reference to “pro-regime forces” or “loyalist forces” is also deeply offensive to the Syrian Arab Army who have lost around 100,000 of their brothers defending their country against foreign-backed terrorists. Those few Western mainstream journalists who have actually gone to Damascus – like Robert Fisk – have invariably spoken highly of Syrian soldiers, and noted the respect that Syrians have for them.
The problem that I and others who understand this Syrian perspective face is that the demands of ABC and SBS codes of practice do not allow for serious discussion or criticism of their “editorial perspective”, limiting complaints to criticism of specific points in broadcast reports. This problem is well illustrated by the history of my series of complaints to SBS over their reporting of the alleged Chemical Weapon attack on Douma in 2018, and it is these complaints which I am asking ACMA to investigate. It includes SBS’ failure – along with all other mainstream media – to report the latest revelations about the OPCW’s fraudulent report on Douma and the criminality that it sought to conceal.
Background to the Complaint.
On the evening of Saturday 7th April 2018, as the Syrian Arab Army’s campaign to liberate the last insurgent-occupied area of Eastern Ghouta reached its final stages, video reports appeared in the Western mainstream media via social media and Opposition media sources claiming that the Syrian army had used chemical weapons in Douma city, with victims being treated in Douma hospital and scores of civilians killed in nearby apartments. These deaths were attributed to gas canisters allegedly dropped from a Syrian helicopter and suspected of containing Sarin or Chlorine.
As is well-known, the claims of a gas attack made the pretext for joint missile strikes by the US, UK and France on several Syrian sites a week later, and before any investigation had established whether the claims were true or any physical evidence presented to responsible authorities. The attacks also took place despite the testimony and denials by Syrian and Russian representatives at the UN Security Council that any such chemical weapon use had taken place.
All Western mainstream media organisations accepted the – now proven false – story of a lethal chemical attack, embellishing it with emotive videos of children being hosed down in Douma hospital’s emergency ward – a treatment that constituted serious child abuse and would have been ineffective against victims of a real chemical attack. The source of these videos was the White Helmets, whose role in the war on Syria is probably the most critical point in the conflicting narratives. Despite these so-called “Syrian Civil Defence volunteers” being created and directly funded by the UK Foreign Office, and tasked with supporting and assisting anti-government insurgents, our national broadcasters continue to present their fake rescues and propaganda claims as if they were impartial news.
While these media may sometimes refer to “Russian claims” that the White Helmets only rescue “their own”, they have shown no interest in reporting on the many well-documented reports of criminal operations conducted by the White Helmets and their associates. These include the staging of “chemical weapons attacks” and barbaric treatment of child prisoners – as well as collaboration with extremist and terrorist militant groups like Jaish al Islam in Douma and Hayat Tahrir al Sham in Idlib.
As noted above, questioning of the White Helmets’ activities and allegiances is not accepted as a legitimate part of ABC and SBS reporting, as if it were somehow not relevant; what I regard as an unacceptable “pro-Western” bias is seen by these Western media as automatically validated and accepted as close to the truth. Equally, my criticisms and those of independent commentators and non-Western media is a criticism of ALL the Western mainstream media, including particularly the BBC and Guardian in the UK, and CNN and the NYT in the US, as well as France 24 and Deutsche Welle, whose English language news reports are broadcast daily on SBS 1. All these media present and promote the White Helmets as “civil defence” and “life-saving heroes” and continue to broadcast their latest propaganda videos without question and in unison.
Worthy of special mention also is Al Jazeera, whose reports on events in the Middle East and North Africa from their local correspondents are frequently used by SBS World News. Very early in the war on Syria, the Qatari broadcaster was ejected from Syria following a revolt by its Beirut bureau over the spreading of “false news” that supported the anti-government insurgency. Qatar’s affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood – outlawed in Syria – and its financial support to armed jihadists was no secret, and Al Jazeera’s unbalanced reporting of the Syrian conflict continues to reflect this political and sectarian allegiance. It is no coincidence that Peter Greste, who reported for Al Jazeera during Mohammed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood affiliated government in Egypt, was subsequently charged with “spreading false news” following Morsi’s ouster and the banning of Al Jazeera from Egypt. Greste’s current views on Syria and Iran continue to reflect Al Jazeera’s pro-NATO bias, and contribute to Australian media’s similar bias.
The history of my own dispute with SBS and correspondence with Government MPs is relevant to this case, as I visited Damascus in May 2018, including a visit to Douma on May 16th, and interviews with displaced residents from Eastern Ghouta in a Government relief centre south of Damascus. I had viewed and recorded SBS news broadcasts covering the alleged chemical attack and subsequent missile strikes, but our imminent departure prevented me from pursuing SBS with a complaint within the six weeks specified. (my complaints to SBS are detailed in notes below)
When I did finally compile a serious complaint, which included close analysis of the April 8th broadcast news report, considered in the light of my own observations in the Douma hospital ward, my complaint was rejected out of hand because it exceeded the time limit. This was despite the fact that new evidence of the staging of the attack had emerged, as well as a cleverly constructed analysis from the Atlantic Council linked Intercept which supported the false claims from Western states and their media.
It will be noted that in my complaint to SBS of February 26th 2019 I stated that:
“The Syrian and Russian move to finally take back control of Idlib from Al Qaeda linked forces must not be allowed to develop into yet another Western-created “humanitarian crisis” by yet another White Helmet facilitated propaganda offensivestreamed through Western mainstream media, with SBS playing its part.”
I repeated this challenge in my subsequent complaint of 25th June, following weeks of reports which built up the idea of just such a “humanitarian crisis” and featured the exact same sort of propaganda offensive I objected to, including White Helmets staged rescues, claims of “barrel bombs” and attacks on “hospitals”. These reports, carried across most Western media platforms, accompanied a renewed push by the Syrian Army against terrorist groups on the southern borders of Idlib province and in Northern Hama province where these groups were launching rocket and mortar attacks on villages in Syrian Government controlled territory. Those attacks were rarely mentioned, thereby portraying the Syrian defence forces as the aggressors, and the terrorist groups – “rebels” – as those defending Syrian civilians – a complete inversion of the reality.
Nine months later, and in response to the Syrian allies’ moves to open the M4 and M5 highways connecting Damascus, Aleppo and Lattakia, we are again facing such a propaganda offensive from the media of the Western allies. They are still blindly supporting the “Syrian Opposition” despite it being effectively eliminated as a political movement, opposed to the legitimately elected government of Bashar al Assad, as well as the “rebels” fighting in Idlib. President Assad’s government now has the overwhelming support of Syrians, including in the areas still occupied by insurgents, and the heroic efforts and sacrifices of the soldiers in the Syrian Arab Army with their Hezbollah and Russian partners have even greater support from the population as they push to liberate the last area of Western Syria from the terrorists’ grip.
Yet this final campaign by Syrian defence forces, supported by Russian aerospace forces and Russian Military Police, is subject to gross misrepresentation in ALL Australia’s mainstream media, being portrayed as a brutal assault on civilian populations that includes attacks on hospitals, schools and markets. Never are the many violent attacks launched on civilian targets by the terrorist groups shown or even mentioned, despite these violent militants being both the cause and target of Syrian shells and missiles and Russian airstrikes. Never is it explained that if hospitals are targeted it is because these buildings are used by the terrorists as “human shields” and bases for their operations, as well as hospitals where wounded militants are given emergency care by Opposition NGOs like SAMS, the Syrian American Medical Society, using supplies and equipment supplied by Western charities.
As has been widely documented by independent investigative journalists on the ground, such as Eva Bartlett and Vanessa Beeley, as well as Syrian authorities, these “health facilities” consistently refuse care to local communities, while doubling as support centres for the armed offensive. It can be found in the Geneva conventions that hospitals in which arms are stored are no longer regarded as protected facilities, and that armed forces using these hospitals are liable for the deaths of innocent civilians in them if they are targeted as a result. The degree of public deception on this issue is nicely illustrated by the awarding of a BAFTA win to “For Sama”, a film about life in the last suburb of East Aleppo to be liberated in December 2016.
The hospital in which Waad al Khatib films her life and the birth of her child is the notorious “Al Quds hospital”, used as a base by Al Qaeda militants and the White Helmets until they were forcibly evacuated to Idlib in December 2016. This was after more than 100,000 civilians were helped to escape to West Aleppo from the militant occupied East through humanitarian corridors set up and policed by Russian forces. Khatib and her husband and child were amongst the most extreme contingent who were not even prepared to take the “Green buses” to Idlib under UN supervision, but smuggled themselves out under cover at night, fleeing the country they claim to support.
At the same time as this “documentary” of political propaganda is heralded and awarded in the West, similarly twisted stories are being told about the current campaign in Idlib, such as this one made by Channel 4 in the UK and just screened, in which the White Helmets are portrayed as the “Guardian Angels” of Syria’s women and children. (#1)
The dangerous and provocative military moves by Turkey, supported by the same false propaganda narratives about “Regime bombardment” and “rebels” who need assistance, also seriously threaten lethal confrontation between major powers, and demand balanced reporting that condemns Erdogan’s illegal invasion of Syrian territory and abandonment of the Astana agreement with Russia.
After nine years of researching and writing about the war on Syria, there is not much left to shock me about either the stories and lies told by the Western allies’ media or about the actual war crimes being committed by the violent extremists that Western governments have armed and supported.
But at the same time there is a limit to such toleration of abuse; a time to call it out finally, and a time to demand action be taken to stop this tide of malicious propaganda, responsible for hundreds of thousands of excess deaths in Syria. Without their enabling propaganda, the White Helmets would have been exposed three years ago for staging the “Sarin attack” on Khan Shaikoun, which also included the gassing of “victims” for their endlessly screened rescue scene. That in turn would have exposed the illegality of the subsequent Tomahawk missile strikes, and started some path towards withdrawal of foreign-backed forces from Syria and the cessation of hostilities.
But the ABC and SBS, in line with other allied media organisations, completely failed to investigate what happened in Khan Shaikoun, or listen to the many respected commentators and analysts who denied the White Helmets’ false story. I personally wrote articles to expose these lies, and made submissions to the Government through my local MP, without result. Yet our story was true, and has now been verified following the Syrian Army’s liberation of Khan Shaikoun last November. On investigation of the tunnel system used by the White Helmets and their terrorist accomplices, facilities including a film studio, interrogation rooms and hospital were found, along with large quantities of arms and arms manufacturing equipment and supplies. (#2) No reporting – or even interest – in these revelations was shown by our media, leave alone discussion of what this meant about the fabrication of the Chemical Weapons story of April 4th 2017.
It was against the background of this false flag attack that the similarly staged “chemical attack” on Douma happened a year later, but this time coming after months of misleading reports about the Syrian army’s campaign to liberate Eastern Ghouta. Thanks to the previously mentioned absence of foreign reporters on the ground in Douma, the stories of a “humanitarian crisis” and calls for intervention to stop the Syrian forces’ advance dominated Australian media coverage and associated public discussion. But in Syria it was different, and few residents regretted the final expulsion of the militants on buses to Idlib. Neither did they have any idea about a chemical weapon attack, as nothing actually happened in Douma, and if it had the fanatics of Jaish al Islam would have been responsible for it.
I have already detailed in my letters to SBS how the OPCW’s final report on the results of the Fact Finding Mission (FFM) did not give a fair account of what happened, and made claims based on prejudicial assumptions rather than any solid evidence. “Very likely” use of Chlorine as a weapon could never be a sufficient basis on which to take lethal military action.
But now it is clearer than ever that the claims made by the OPCW management about the presence of Chlorine and implication of the Syrian Air-force in using it were not based on any evidence at all, as the OPCW specialists who visited Douma did not find any. Since long-time OPCW employee Ian Henderson blew the whistle on the OPCW’s fabrications, other OPCW experts have testified and provided more material on what was actually found on their visit to Douma. This in turn has led to more interest from mainstream media and serious investigative journalists are now pursuing the case.
OPCW whistle-blowers have now presented their material at a meeting in Brussels, and in Westminster on January 22nd, where members of the Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media gave a comprehensive presentation, reported in this paper. (#3) The Working Group members have previously expressed grave concern over the cause of death of the 35 victims whose corpses were shown in the White Helmets’ videos, as they appear to have been tortured and killed with gas of some kind for use in this fabrication. I have also pointed out that those responsible for this egregious crime and the Western agencies who supported them must answer for more than simply making false claims that Syrian forces used chemical weapons. Not only did those false claims serve as a pretext to attack Syrian facilities – attacks which may have killed many people had Syrian and Russian air defences not diverted them – but the staging of this false flag operation involved the brutal torture and killing of defenceless captives – women and children – simply for use as film extras.
It is hard to think of a more disgusting and barbaric crime, even in the context of a war, planned in advance and used as propaganda for an equally illegitimate cause. Those responsible – the White Helmets and their sponsors and supporters in the UK, US, Canada, France and Israel, must be held to account. Australia’s possible involvement or complicity in this operation is unknown, but as a Five Eyes partner militarily involved in the war on Syria it must surely be assumed.
While it is clearly too late for SBS and the ABC and other media to duck responsibility for the lies and disinformation they have passed on and embellished for the last nine years, it is not too late to change course now and start reporting the truth of what is happening in Idlib.
I request that ACMA examine in detail this case, which goes beyond a mere complaint, and demands a prompt response as well as significant action. Most importantly this enquiry should be brought to the public’s attention through the public broadcasters.
1. Channel 4 report Feb 6th 2020.
2. RT report on tunnel system in Khan Shaikoun, Sept. 2019.
3. Presentation by WGSPM to Parliamentary meeting:
Complaints submitted: 1 and 2 on Feb 26th rejected as too late, resubmitted on April 1st with Supplement 3.
- SBS news Douma complaint, two files, sent as code complaint 1st April after rejection in February. (4000 words)
- Appendix to complaint, 26th Feb 2019 analysis of Harkin’s Intercept analysis/propaganda, including my photos of Douma and map analysis. (3700 words)
- Supplement to Appendix includes analysis of AA video of child abuse, (2700 words plus 15 photos)
This main complaint sent on April 1st received no response at all, but was mentioned by Sally Begbie at the end of her response to my complaint of April 14th about the misrepresentation of “Collateral Murder”. This quasi-response was a generic defence of SBS “impartiality” and the credibility of its sources which made no attempt to answer my strongly worded criticism of that very aspect of the news report, as a “gross deception”.
Following the renewal of SBS news attention on Idlib starting on 28th April, as well as the new leaks from the OPCW, I submitted the “successful” complaint on 25th June:
4. “Current complaint” 25th June to Sally Begbie focusing on Ian Henderson’s revelations and the claims of the OPCW report. Answered by Begbie 15th August.
Details of SBS reports beating up the crisis in Idlib from April 28th to mid-June I detailed in a separate document, with frame extracts in an accompanying video file.
I also draw your attention to this statement by the OPCW of February 6th 2020 indirectly refuting whistle-blowers’ claims:
Significantly, while stating that the current Director General Fernando Arias stands by the report instigated under the previous DG Uzumcu, this refutation is limited to the breach of confidentiality by Ian Henderson and “Alex”. It also fails to note that Ian Henderson personally visited Douma, including the apartment blocks, hospital and weapons warehouses, and had his findings assessed and approved by technical experts in the UK before submitting the Engineers’ report to the OPCW management in October 2018. It was their refusal to consider his findings which forced him contact the Working Group of David Miller et al, who had already issued their own highly detailed assessment of the event and drawn similar conclusions about the egregious fabrication of the event and the casus belli by NATO-allied operatives.
The OPCW’s attempted defence of confidentiality, that the recipients of Henderson’s report “had no need to know” is ludicrous and mendacious. The Working Group members and the many independent and non-Western authorities and media already knew what really happened in Douma, so the information Ian Henderson and other OPCW members have provided has given away nothing about the actual event but has provided the vital extra support of OPCW specialists to the Syrian case.