The British government established a network of “citizen journalists” in Syria that’s been influencing how people perceive the conflict in the country.
According to documents reviewed by the Middle East Eye, this has been going on from the very early days of the conflict.
The documents detailed that by using British, American and Canadian funding, UK government contractors hired Syrians living in Istanbul and Amman, and then they, in turn, recruited citizen journalists inside Syria.
These individuals were then commissioned to produce TV footage, radio programmes, social media, posters, magazines and even children’s comics.
The people who were recruited apparently were also often unaware that they were part of a British propaganda initiative.
The documents were drawn up as blueprints for the initiative by an anthropologist working in counter-terrorism at the foreign office in London.
One says: “The objective of the project is contribute [sic] towards positive attitudinal and behavioural change.”
This was further defined as: “Reinforcement of popular rejection of the Assad regime and extremist alternatives; promotion of the moderate values of the revolution; promotion of Syrian national identity.”
Of course, the documents also underlined that there were some risks for the young journalists, but propaganda can’t be deterred.
“Media coverage of the project will be distinctly unwelcome due to the risks to Syrian employees and to project effectiveness that it would generate,” says one.
“The implementer is not permitted to speak publicly (to the media or at academic conferences) about their work without the explicit permission of HMG [Her Majesty’s Government]. This will be enforced by a Non-Disclosure Agreement.”
The British government’s citizen journalism project was part of a three-pronged propaganda initiative that was developed in London and was, according to the documents, intended to “have a synergistic effect.”
The first strand, named Syrian Identity, sought to “unite Syrians through positive affirmation of common cultures and practices and to restore trust between neighbours, while illustrating Syrians’ strength in numbers.”
The second strand, is called Free Syria and it “seeks to build confidence in a future Syria free from extremist rule.”
It “amplifies the work of the ‘free’ police, civil defence teams and wider public service provision and broader developments in civil society and seeks to unite the moderate opposition (civil and armed) to work for a common future”.
The third strand, is called Undermine, and it “seeks to degrade the effectiveness of VE [violent extremist] networks in Syria by undermining the credibility of VE narratives and actors and isolating VE organisations from the populace.”
“ISIL is an explicit and named focus, Al Nusra Front (due to its current popularity within Syria) is addressed indirectly through its behaviour.
The purpose of the project to directly ‘Undermine’ (degrading the effectiveness of) VE networks in Syria through the delivery of media product, the emboldening and empowering of moderate voices, and supporting community coalescence around a vision of a tolerant, pluralist Syria. Ultimately, active Syrian rejection of VE is the requirement.”
The Middle East Eye also cited unnamed sources who said that the project involved nine companies were involved in the bid for contracts, and most of them were established by former British diplomats, intelligence officers and army officers.
“It was a shady, shady business,” says one person involved in the work, adding that frequently the individual journalist would believe they were working for an opposition group, and have no idea that a British communications company was running their media office, under contract to the UK government.
Other leaked documents, revealed that the British government had awarded contracts to communications companies, which selected and trained opposition spokespeople, ran press offices that operated 24 hours a day, and developed opposition social media accounts.
The propaganda initiative was primarily aimed at Syrians, living both inside and outside Syria. The blueprint explains that “radicalised UK citizens are not an explicit focus (target audience) for this work,” adding: “Those efforts are the responsibility of another government department.”
It adds: “Nevertheless, it is accepted that some C-VE [countering violent extremist] material may reach the UK information space.”
Reportedly all of these efforts have been diminished after Idlib was “surprisingly” overtaken by militants, and the “moderate opposition” was nowhere to be seen. Possibly because the militants were the “moderate opposition” to begin with.
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