Front-line reporting in Syria can be as perplexing as the war
London - A German journalist who became the first Westerner to report from territory held by the Islamic State (ISIS) has become embroiled in a controversy with his country’s leading news magazine that questioned the authenticity of his latest front-line reporting.
In late September, Jürgen Todenhöfer had an interview published in a Cologne newspaper that was said to be with a senior commander of the formerly al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra, conducted in no-man’s-land near the battle-torn Syrian city of Aleppo.
Under the headline The Americans are on our side, the masked commander, identified as Abu al-Ezz, claimed that a number of countries, including the United States and Israel, were actively supporting his jihadist movement in its war against the Syrian regime.
Jabhat al-Nusra, which changed its name to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS, or Conquest of Syria Front) in July when it announced it was splitting from al-Qaeda, has been excluded from internationally sponsored peace talks because of its jihadist links.
The interview reinforced a perception, widely shared in some circles, that the West is supporting the most reactionary elements battling Syrian President Bashar Assad’s Moscow-backed regime.
It also underlined the near impossibility of receiving unbiased accounts from any side in Syria’s complex civil war, largely inaccessible to outsiders, in which propaganda regularly trumps straight news.
The day after the videoed interview was published, JFS denied that any such encounter had taken place, hinting that the “fake” commander was linked to the regime.
The German news magazine Der Spiegel followed with a forensic study of the interview, challenging the identity of the alleged commander and even the location where the two men met.
The interview “strangely confirmed the war propaganda being propagated by the Assad regime — that America is indirectly supporting al-Qaeda and that the rebels are opposed to aid deliveries to civilians”, Der Spiegel wrote.
Todenhöfer gave the plausible response that the jihadist group could be expected to deny an interview that might have revealed more than it intended. “The fact that my critics choose to believe the political leadership of a terrorist organisation more than me is messed up!” he wrote on his Facebook page.
“It was clear from very beginning that Jabhat al-Nusra would deny the interview,” he added.
He also contrasted his role as a front-line reporter with that of his desk-bound detractors. “Some things cannot be researched in front of a computer but require moving one’s butt under great risk into the war zones of this world,” he wrote.
Rebel-linked groups joined in the attempted debunking of Todenhöfer, pointing out his alleged sympathy for the Damascus regime. The German conducted an interview with Assad in 2012 that critics charged gave a propaganda platform to the Syrian leader.
Todenhöfer had previously attacked Western media coverage of the Syrian war as hostile to Assad and too sympathetic to his enemies.
Der Spiegel had a debate in July 2012 at which its Syria correspondent, Christoph Reuter, challenged Todenhöfer’s view that Assad was at that time interested in compromise. Reuter was the author of the latest article that set out to debunk Todenhöfer’s JFS interview, an indication that the antipathy between the magazine and the former right-wing German politician-turned-journalist is long-standing.
Der Speigel was also critical of Todenhöfer’s 2014 visit behind ISIS lines and a subsequent book that topped its own bestseller list. “Those who go there… are at the mercy of their hosts and are only permitted to ask subservient questions,” the magazine wrote.
While Todenhöfer has been mauled at home and undermined by a variety of voices among the anti-Assad opposition, he continues to enjoy positive media coverage in Russia, which also subscribes to the theory the United States actively supports ISIS and other jihadists.
The Kremlin-backed Sputnik News carried Todenhöfer’s lengthy defence of what it called his “explosive interview”.
“Speaking to Sputnik Deutschland about the now-famous interview, Todenhöfer explained that he never had any illusions that his journalistic effort, and its shocking revelations about the extent of Western support for Islamist terrorists, would cause a strong reaction ‘both from terrorists and from those who support mainstream Western policy in the Middle East’,” Sputnik News wrote.
As with so much of the information coming out of Syria, the Todenhöfer interview — authentic or not — appears to have added more heat than light to the debate over what can be done to salvage that benighted country.