On Monday, EA Worldview may have been the first major news outlet to feature a video that claimed to show pro-Assad "thugs" throwing the bodies of protesters into a river in Hama. The Daily Beast and The Guardian picked up on the video. Syrian State TV then released what appeared to be a doctored version of the footage, claiming that it showed protesters throwing the bodies of soldiers into the river. Now the opposition group Hama Coordinating Committee is saying that the bridge isn't even in Hama. So who are the victims, who them, and where did the dumping of the bodies take place?
See the description, translation, and analysis in our entry, Syria Video Essay: 1st Day of Ramadan was a Day of Chaos
First, we start with the video claiming to be from Sunday's massacre. This is a (Warning: GRAPHIC AND DISTURBING IMAGES). The clips claims to show pro-Assad "thugs" throwing the dead bodies of protesters into a river near Hama. It raises obvious questions --- who is videotaping this, and why are they taking the video? (It should be noted that is not the first time, however, we've seen up-close video of alleged human rights violations on the part of Assad's supporters or his security forces.)
The Guardian's Paul Owen links to EA's coverage and provides a translation for the video:
Some of (the bodies) seemed to have had their throats slit --- (are) being thrown into the Al-A'assi river by Shabiha ("ghosts" –-- pro-Assad militia). The dead people are described in the caption as "heroes of Hama". The people around the Shabiha can be heard encouraging them, and insulting and cursing the dead people. The Shabiha shout "God is greatest" as they throw the bodies in the river. "Don't film" is also heard.
The video was uploaded on 31 July. The Arabic caption reads: "Is there any crime worse than killing someone and then throwing the body in the river? Where are human rights? Where is world opinion? Where is Amnesty International?" There is no way to properly verify the clip. Many thanks to my colleague Mona Mahmood for translation.
And now, the first twist...
This 11-minute clip from Syrian state TV starts with footage which claimed to be of gunmen in Hama shooting at military from the streets and rooftops.
It is the final minutes, however, that are of particular interest. The clip uses the same footage as we've posted above (starting at about 08:22). On state TV, however, the footage is protesters throwing dead troops over the bridge --- the sound has the men talking about the bodies as "soldiers".
If you compare the audio from the original to the audio of the State TV version, the State TV version is worse. They have added a low-level buzz, and then the audio drops out and the buzz swells. As an audio professional, I can testify that a battery operated camera will not get an audio buzz like that --- only a broadcast camera will produce it.
So a first question about State TV's presentation of these events --- why is there an audio buzz on their broadcast, but none on the original video that was posted BEFORE their broadcast?
Note also that the sound of helicopters can clearly be heard on both versions of this video. Activists have been posting video of helicopters flying above, and they have been working hard to avoid the gaze of the helicopters. The activists fear the helicopters. Would they really commit such a brazen crime, with the security helicopters flying overhead?
It is our assessment that the Syrian State TV is obviously, and clumsily, doctored.
Now, the opposition Hama Coordinating Committee muddies the water even further, by claims that this video may have been taken in Jisr al Shughour (summarized by activist Edward E. Dark):
1) The Assi river has been dry for a month and a half now because the dams at Rastan have not been opened to allow water to flow. br>
2) There is no such bridge in Hama. br>
3) There is no background noise whatsoever in the video Not even a splash. Nothing. br>
4) the way this video was distributed by unknown sources and the timing, suggests that it was released by the regime to justify an attack on Hama. This video was most likely taken in Jisr el Shughur, and shows pro-regime militia disposing on civilian bodies.
The Committee asserts that, after four months, the regime can come up with no valid accusations against Hama, so they have resorted to making some up.
This analysis is shaky. First, there is plenty of background noise in the original footage, including splash sounds. Secondly, Foreign Policy has produced a picture of a bridge that is similar to the one in the video. The Hama Committee, under attack as they wrote this response, seems overly keen to dismiss the video altogether, perhaps out of fear that it will only be used as a weapon against them.
Despite this wayward reply from the opposition, the initial challenge should still be to State TV's version of events and to those who too easily pass it on. CNN, for example, suggests that "armed gangs" could have been responsible for reprisal attacks against the military:
In the end, it is very difficult to determine who is responsible for these acts. The entire city of Hama, the 4th largest in Syria, has been cut off by the military campaign, its Internet, telephone, and cell phone communication suspended. Still the question can be put: facing tanks and troops, wouldn't the people of Hama be a little busy trying to stay alive, rather than by driving out to a remote bridge and dumping bodies in a river, under the watchful eye of Syrian military helicopters?
There is another problem with this conversation, however. Some in the media seem to be too quick to accept that there is any controversy at all. Neither CNN nor Foreign Policy took the time to send the footage to a video or audio specialist. They did not pause to consider carefully the circumstances of the video. They did not take the time to interview someone who has recently been to Hama, or someone who might be able to pinpoint the location of that bridge. CNN's Jim Clancy did ask, "How can we ever verify these videos?", but he then made no effort to answer his own question.
And so, despite mystery and controversy around the video, the mainstream media --- instead of investigating the situation --- has given airtime to the lie of Syrian State television. That is not a sin of supporting the Syrian regime, of course; rather it is one of acting too quickly and too easily in a situation which demands caution. In the last few days, mainstream journalists have posted videos clearly labeled with the wrong dates, and there have been too many articles and analysis with insufficient understanding of the political and military situation.
Stories like this are clearly outside everyone's comfort level. It would be far easier to post a live Al Jazeera camera feed. But repressive regimes ensure that is not possible, because they have kicked out, banned, arrested, or killed those who have attempted to cover the news. So it is a case of working to the best of one's ability, avoiding propaganda from either side, providing the best evidence that can be found in the circumstances, remaining sceptical and asking questions, even if there are no immediate answers.