The joke's on Syria

"France 24 hoaxed".


There's the snappy, Twitter-friendly headline. And then there's the more subtle reality.


A reality that speaks volumes about the shambolic state of "official" Syria - the sclerotic police state of President Bashar al-Assad - three months into one of the most chilling Arab Springs to date.


Strictly speaking, my news channel was, indeed, "had" this week when a woman purporting to be Syria's ambassador to Paris abruptly resigned during a live prime-time phone interview, in protest at the "cycle of extreme violence" in her country.  My colleague François Picard, the presenter of France 24's nightly Debate show, described "shock" on the set.


Except, as we now have strong reason to suspect, it almost definitely was not the ambassador after all.


France 24 enlisted an independent outside expert to conduct a voice analysis. It showed a mismatch between the woman who spoke to us, and the real-life ambassador, Lamia Shakkour.


The latter subsequently issued an angry, on-camera denial to another French news station - accusing us, in the process, of spreading "disinformation". France 24 is pressing charges with the Paris Public Prosecutor for "identity theft and impersonation".


In the wake of the incident, France 24's first reflex was a natural one: it sought to defend its journalistic integrity. This meant avoiding getting dragged into a polemical tit-for-tat with the Syrian embassy, and opting instead to give viewers a straightforward, factual account of the sequence of events leading up to the apparently bogus resignation. (At the time, we were not yet certain the voice on our air was not that of the ambassador, though many of us had growing doubts.) Our guest booker, following France 24's standard journalistic procedure, contacted the embassy press office via a number listed on the embassy's website. Once the embassy granted our request - which it did relatively quickly, unlike in the past - she finalised the details of the interview through an exchange of emails. 


 At no time was there any reason to suspect foul play - though one could, of course, endlessly debate the lengths to which TV journalists should go to verify that guests who "appear" on a show via telephone are who they say they are. 


An absolute purist might insist on stricter screening. But short of dispatching a monitor to the guest's home or office to ascertain the veracity of their identity, such mishaps are, it seems, sadly inevitable. No media outfit, no matter how big or iron-clad its ethical guidelines, is entirely impervious. 


The newsroom is rife with hypotheses as to what transpired, and why. They range from the grandiose and Kafkaesque (were we the target of a nefarious plot by Syria's intellgence services to discredit and defame us?), to the more mundane (it was a hoax hatched by a small group within the Syrian embassy, who had an axe to grind with France 24's coverage of the Syrian uprising).


One initially popular theory - that the ambassador, the real ambassador, actually did resign on our air, and then did an abrupt about-face after receiving threats from unnamed sources - lost credibility when the voices didn't match.


We may, perhaps, never know the precise truth.


But I do have a theory of my own - and I caution that it's just a theory - which, if true, suggests that the real headline here is less about whether or not France 24 was "hoaxed", and more about the growing dissension and schisms that we are seeing in Syrian society itself.


There's growing speculation that the so-called "armed gangs" that the Syrian government accuses of slaughtering 120 of its security forces this week are actually Syrian soldiers who have mutinied. That is, soldiers firing on fellow soldiers who either refused to shoot protesters, or who defected to the protest camp. Syria's current regime is congenitally unable to report such a possibility since, as many observers have noted, to do so would be to acknowledge dissension not only against Assad's regime, but within its most sacrosanct institution, the army. And that just isn't done in an authoritarian regime where protecting its own power is paramount.


All embassies are, to varying degrees, microcosms of the societies they represent; Syria's embassy in Paris is no exception.


I think it's entirely plausible that a rebellious staffer within the Syrian embassy - a sort of rogue element appalled at what's happening back home, or perhaps just resentful of the ambassador herself - may have orchestrated the impersonation. It would be a humiliating breach of trust for any ambassador to acknowledge such a thing publicly. All the more so the ambassador of a country that's been in a virtual free-speech lockdown for several decades.


Ultimately, this week's fake resignation on our air is less a hoax at France 24's expense - though we are, unfortunately, left to deal with the fallout - than a telling sign of the widening faultlines in Syria's fragmenting society.


It may just be one embassy run amok, for now, but it may be an omen of a bigger reckoning to come, back home in Damascus.


The hoax, in other words, may be on Syria. And it's no laughing matter.

Comments or opinions expressed on this blog are those of the individual contributors only, and do not necessarily represent the views of FRANCE 24. The content on this blog is provided on an "as-is" basis. FRANCE 24 is not liable for any damages whatsoever arising out of the content or use of this blog.
This is not the first time a a group in dissent has done misinformation. It is sad to see in these days of 'instant" 24/7 media the effects of it. All you can do as a journalistic group is move ahead and redouble your efforts to verify,verify and verify again. Any more than that and the rest is our of your control.

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