Death and destruction may be sweeping Syria, but precious little of it is shown on Syrian state television, which offers an alternative reality to viewers willing to suspend disbelief.
The Syrian channel is available on cable television in Israel, providing a carefully orchestrated look at developments across the border in a country that - despite the escalating uprising against President Bashar Assad - has remained largely opaque to outsiders.
Videos distributed by the Syrian opposition show plumes of smoke from army shelling, dead and wounded in the streets and rows of shrouded bodies lined up for burial. Meanwhile, Syrian television features scenes of normalcy from Damascus neighborhoods and endless studio discussions of such topics as housing for young people, fuel supplies, assistance to farmers and early childhood education.
According to the narrative of state television, Syria is under physical and diplomatic attack from armed terrorist groups backed by the United States, the Gulf states and Turkey. This coalition is bent on destroying Syria from within by funding and arming insurgents who are terrorizing the civilian population, killing men, women and children, destroying property and sabotaging public infrastructure.
A procession of talking heads in the studio analyzes the crisis, explaining to viewers the machinations of world powers and their attempts to dictate "foreign agendas" to Syria's people and government.
On hourly newscasts, statements by Russian and Chinese officials are given prominence, highlighting the opposition of both countries to external interference in Syria's affairs. American and other Western views are not cited, except in responses by Syrian commentators.
Events across Syria are reported by news anchors reading official accounts, sometimes supported by satellite images of towns and villages. Arrow graphics on satellite maps indicate the bloody clashes taking place between government forces and insurgents far below. There is virtually no reporting from the field.
The announcers reel off descriptions of battles between security forces and groups of "armed terrorists," which always end with the killing and wounding of the insurgents, the destruction of their vehicles and the seizure of their weapons. Video clips of caches of guns and ammunition illustrate the reports.
There are times when scenes of violence and on-the-spot reports are apparently useful enough to air. One day, images of the impact of a blast at a parking lot in central Damascus are featured prominently, punctuated by interviews with panicked bystanders.
After a deadly attack on the pro-government television news station al-Ekhbariya, footage of blown-up buildings and pools of blood are shown in repeated loops, followed by the slogan "Our voice is stronger, our voice is clearer." The attack is described as an ugly attempt by Syria's enemies to stifle free speech and silence a voice of truth.
The battle lines have been drawn between Syrian television and Arabic satellite channels, especially Al Jazeera. Syrian commentators denounce the Qatar-based channel - heavily sympathetic to the opposition - as a tool of a reactionary regime, and dismiss its reports as deliberate distortions.
Following occasional Arab League moves to block Syria's satellite broadcasts, announcements inform viewers of new frequencies on which they can find the channel.
There are also warnings to the public about suspicious objects, illustrated with photos of homemade explosive devices. A cryptic announcement from the Idlib branch of the University of Aleppo announces a change in examination dates. No reason is given.
On a recent afternoon, with international newscasts focusing on a Human Rights Watch report documenting the torture of detainees by Syrian security forces, a Syrian reporter visits a high-end summer camp in Damascus. Children can be seen kicking soccer balls on a lush green playing field and swimming and cycling in a modern sports complex.
In another broadcast from the empty international fairgrounds in Damascus, a presenter discusses plans for upcoming exhibitions with two guests. The mood is upbeat. Fountains in the background spout arcs of water, and an evening breeze ruffles the landscaped shrubbery at the entrance.
A banner at a recently televised pro-regime conference sums up the surreal atmosphere of state broadcasts. It reads, "With tolerance and love we will build a new Syria."
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