History of a media campaign: The Geneva affair around the Syrian white helmets

by Guy Mettan*, Managing Director of the Swiss Press Club in Geneva and President of the International Association of Press Clubs

The recent bloody conflicts all over the world, from Donbass to Syria, from Afghanistan to Libya, have made the term “hybrid war” popular. In today’s world, wars are no longer limited to a “banal” military conflict, but take place at all levels, at the military, the civilian, the media, the economic, the social and the religious one. The classic war with its helicopters, remote-controlled drones and Kalashnikovs is always accompanied by an information war, which is about informing the public of the countries that operate the conflicts from a safe distance, far away from the front, and this especially in our Western democracies.

The war in Syria, which has been going on for seven years now, is taking place at all hybrid war levels, so it can serve as its model. Last December, this war also suddenly struck Switzerland, on occasion of an incident which at first appeared to be banal, a press conference on the organisation of the so-called “white helmets” in Syria. The NGO (non-governmental organisation) was founded in 2013 by a former British officer and generally is regarded as an aid organisation providing first aid to wounded and victims of bombings in the rebel areas. It was a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize, was awarded an Oscar in Hollywood and is presented in the Western media as a model of humanitarian virtue.
The organization is based in London and has financial resources of tens of millions of dollars per year, the majority of which come from the US and UK governments and from other NATO members. Thanks to the cooperation of professional communication consultants, it has a strong media presence in the West as well as on the Qatar-based al-Jazeera television channel.
It is quite clear that the rebels, whether Islamists or not, have the right and even the duty to assist the wounded and victims of the combat operations amongst the civilians, and that an organization such as the “White Helmets” is therefore justified. In this case, however, its neutrality is strongly questioned by local observers, by analysts of the Syrian conflict in the USA and of course also by the official Syrian and Russian media, who accuse it of sending its aid solely to the rebel organisations and of acting as a propaganda tool to promote rebel concerns in Western countries. In addition to that they are to serve as a cloak for armed groups who have no inhibition at all to exchange their Kalashnikovs and grenades with their white helmets whenever this is useful and when the cameras are directed at them.
Other arguments such as the lack of any women in their troops and the practical impossibility for recognised aid organisations, such as MSF and ICRC, to intervene in their areas of operations also feed doubts about their impartiality, neutrality and independence, qualities being requested of all humanitarian NGOs in the West.

Press conference with critics of the Syrian White Helmet Organization

Against this background, a polemic developed at the end of November 2017 that has put the “Swiss Press Club”, which I head in Geneva, in dire straits and which deserves to be presented/outlined in this article. Despite their anecdotal nature and limited significance, this affair is symptomatic of the functioning of the media, especially when they position themselves on the dividing line between different powerful international forces.
In mid-November 2017, the Permanent Representation of Russia in Geneva contacts the “Swiss Press Club” to organise a press conference with three critical speakers on the question of the real role of “White Helmets” in the Syrian conflict. After this had been discussed, it was agreed to hold this press meeting on Tuesday afternoon, 28 November. This was the day of the resumption of the UN negotiations on Syria. Three people should have their say: Richard Labévière, former SRG journalist, former editor-in-chief of French radio station RFI (Radio France Internationale) and Arabic-speaking recognised Middle East specialist; Vanessa Beeley, English research journalist, daughter of a former English ambassador in the Middle East and Syria reporter for Russian television Russia Today (RT); and the president of a small Swedish non-governmental organisation of doctors of humanitarian ethics.

“It is important to know that the media, as in a hunt, hunt in packs, everyone trying to be the first to bring about the deadly end. This imitation effect is typical for how media work. Each medium copies the other, for fear of reporting too positively about the target object and therefore being attacked or because a competitor takes the trophy.”

Intimidation campaign by the umbrella organisation of White Helmets

As early as the 21 November, before the public media invitation to the conference had been issued, a tweet from Syria Civil Defence (SCD or Syrian Campaign), the umbrella organisation of the White Helmets based in London, asked me to explain about this event and to indicate who organises it and with what aim. After the exchange of various mails, our refusal to respond to these demands (we have no reason to justify ourselves, as our platform is open to everyone, including White Helmets if they so wish), and the proposal to come to Geneva and represent their views here, the SCD extends its campaign of intimidation to all members of the board of the Swiss Press Club. For several days, the Twitter accounts of the board members, are being served with dozens of tweets by members of the SCD and related parties, with the demand to cancel the conference. How Syrian Campaign came to know about this conference at a time when no information about it had been made public remains its secret.

Pressure by Reporters Without Borders

Finally, as the pressure continues to rise, the Press Club spreads its invitation on Thursday, November 23, afternoon. Two hours later, Reporters sans Frontières Suisse (RSF) [Reporters without Borders] publishes a communiqué in which it declares its dissociation from this event (RSF is a member of the Swiss Press Club) because it considers it inappropriate and simply demands its cancellation. RSF addresses this letter to all board members of the Press Council and to the local press.
In the early evening, the announcement appears on the homepage of the daily newspaper “Tribune de Genève” and is distributed in several other media. In the course of the evening I send an answer in which I express my astonishment at this action by an association of journalists who are committed to ensuring that people “all over the world have the right to have free access to information and to pass it on”. I also point out that such demands are usually made by dictatorial governments and not by organisations working for freedom of expression and that the cancellation of this meeting is a censorship that is incompatible with our mission of providing a neutral and open platform for international actors.

International support campaign for freedom of expression

The “Tribune de Genève” publishes this answer. This makes the controversy public and increases in intensity. Fire-fighting initiatives are developing in the form of an international support campaign to organise the conference. Solidarity mails and tweets are piling up at the Swiss press club with the admonition not to give in to the pressure and to maintain the meeting. They come from university professors, researchers and defenders of freedom of expression from the United States, Sweden, the UK, Canada, even Australia and New Zealand, and of course from Switzerland, too. Even a prominent member of the funding committee of Reporters Without Borders Switzerland sends me a message of solidarity to condemn the pressure of his own association!

Press conference takes place within the planned framework

On November 28, the press conference  takes place within the planned framework, bringing together around 60 people. After reading a statement in response to the censorship attempts and the support campaign, the three speakers present their arguments and answer the questions of the journalists present, mainly concerning the credibility and legitimacy of the speakers.

Certain media launch new attacks on the press club and its director

The next day, French-speaking Switzerland radio reports on the affair with the title: “Guy Mettan is again confronted with the charge of supporting Russian propaganda.” And “Le Temps” overwrites its five-column report, titled “Swiss press club in Syrian witch´s chauldron. His director is increasingly criticised for lack of transparency.” The White Helmets are mentioned only marginally or not at all. The Geneva authorities are being called upon to justify their support of the press club, as its director is playing a “double game” by giving a platform to “extremely questionable” speakers without disclosing the clients of his press conferences. After all, it can be noted that the Geneva media: the “Tribune de Genève”, the “Courier” and  “Léman bleu”, stick to the facts and refrain from commenting.

Attempted cancellation of State subsidy for the press club

Later in the afternoon, a member of the Cantonal Council’s Finance Committee refers to this polemic and demands a change in the adoption of the cantonal budget in 2018 in order to cancel subsidies of  the Swiss Press Association (100,000 Swiss francs). His request is accepted by a slight majority.
The following day, the polemic continues to be dynamic on Radio Suisse Romande and in “Le Temps” by taking up the cancellation of cantonal subsidies to reinforce criticism of the director of the Press Club and his decision to hold the White Helmets press conference.
The pressure on the board and against me continues to grow, but the majority remains firm. The international support campaign and the defamation campaign continue to make big waves as the new developments are immediately spread on all social networks and translated into English.
Due to the abolition of subsidies, the situation becomes tricky. A friendly specialist in issues of crisis management in media defamation campaigns advises me to pursue the American strategy of “staying behind” and not to be in the forefront, otherwise I will risk being isolated and serving as a target. From now on, the President and the Vice-President of the Board will answer the journalists’ questions. “Le Temps” refuses to publish my statement under the pretext that everything has already been said …
The following week, the Board writes to the President of the Geneva Government Council, François Longchamp, requesting that he submits a motion to withdraw from the subsidy at the Cantonal Council meeting. After confirming that the Press Club has performed its duties under the terms of reference with the Canton of Geneva without undermining it, he agreed to submit an amendment to the budget.

Joint discussions between media representatives and press club

Two days later, a meeting with the representatives of “Le Temps” and the publisher Ringier takes place, so that
everyone can express oneself in peace and not through the media. The conversation helps to reduce tensions and to better understand each other’s intents and beliefs. It also makes it possible to re-establish contact, as a few days later, after intensive discussions with the other board members, Le Temps decides to remain a member of the Press Club and participate in the strategic reflections on its future, which will take place in 2018. This is an important decision, because despite the differences and the intensity of the controversy, it is important to maintain active pluralism and open discussion among the members of the Swiss Press Club.

Cancellation of government subsidy will be reversed

On Friday, December 15, after intensive negotiations and an inevitable series of unfounded attacks because of the director’s alleged lack of transparency, nepotism (?) and “Putinophilia”, etc., finally the cantonal council voted by 49 votes to 17 with about 30 abstentions in favour of granting the former subsidies. A very clear majority, which makes it possible to calm down a little. The media provide information; however, “Le Temps” takes the opportunity to re-list the allegations made against the Club and its director.

Resignation from “Reporters Without Borders”

The next stage was Wednesday, December 20, when, after a meeting arranged by Gérard Tschopp, President of Reporters Without Borders (RWB) and former Director of Radio Suisse Romande (?), Gérard Tschopp conveyed a letter to the Press Club, with copies to all board members and the media, declaring RWB’s resignation from the Swiss Press Club with immediate effect. In the evening, the programme “Forum” on Radio Swiss Romande is dedicated to the issue Reporters Without Borders-Swiss Press Club (RWB-CSP). The next morning “Le Temps” headlines “First resignations from the Swiss Press Club”, suggesting that more will follow…  The same newspaper refuses to publish my rectification until today.
The other media ignore this message. It is only published on the website of the newspaper Edito in a largely fair manner. The White Helmets’ website publishes a 46-page report to denounce the journalists who denounce them, without omitting me, of course.
So much for the course of the story, which can be deepened by published articles and broadcasts on this issue.

“One of the main problems of journalists who talk about international politics is their lack of diversity, lack of funds, the missing personal presence and especially the fact that they maintain moralizing attitudes, instead of making an effort to check information, and provide opposing facts and opinions. The culture of doubt has given way to the culture of certainty based on the division of the world into a camp of the good and a camp of the evil.”

Three lessons to remember

At this stage, two questions arise: why has this controversy erupted, although countless other controversial issues have been discussed with much more questionable speakers in the Swiss Press Club without causing no reaction at all from Reporters Without Borders or the media? Moreover, what about the accusations against the press club? Are they well founded? Was it right to hold the press conference? What lessons can be learned from this experience? I think there are three lessons to be learned.

  1. At no time the media have been interested in the actual topic of the press conference, namely the role of the white helmets and the video shown, as well as the facts and arguments that the speakers put forward against them. Radio Suisse Romande, for example, did not say any word about the White Helmets. The main focus here was all about my person and my legitimacy as a suspected “pro-Russian” director of the Press Club, and about the legitimacy and credibility of the speakers who have commented on this issue.
        Instead of responding to the possible misconduct of the white helmets as shown by the speakers with concrete examples, the media’s attention focused exclusively on the presumed “misconduct” of the Press Club. Only the “Tribune de Genève” summarized what had been said at the press conference (while maintaining a certain restraint, which is not disturbing). As they could not attack facts and arguments, the attacks were directed against individuals in order to undermine their public credibility and thus to nullify their possible impact.
  2. The simultaneous bombardement of the media empire achieves a dangerous destructive power when performed in a coordinated manner. In this case, the campaign of intimidation mobilised civil society (Syrian Campaign and Reporters Without Borders); social networks, saturated by tweets and mails; the press, represented by the daily newspaper “Le Temps”, opinion leaders in Radio Suisse Romande, a public service with a large audience in the morning. This concerted attack included a great risk of destabilisation for the Press Club – a modest platform without direct access to the public – and for my position as director of this institution.
    •    It is important to know that the media, as in a hunt, hunt in packs, everyone trying to be the first to bring about the deadly end. This imitation effect is typical for how media work. Each medium copies the other, for fear of reporting too positively about the target object and therefore being attacked or because a competitor takes the trophy. In the present case, the risk of losing control was considerable, as witnessed at the same time in the case of the “storm of indignation” over National Councillor Yannick Buttet, which swept him away because he was suspected of harassing colleagues. Once the hype is created, it is impossible to stop it.
  3. In our case, certain media have tried several times to light the wick and stoke the fire. For three reasons the fire did not spread:
    •    The cause was justified, because the Press Club played its attributed role by combating censorship and defending freedom of expression against those who were supposed to defend it. Noting that the White Helmets enjoyed both state support and very broad media support, Reporters Without Borders should have taken the side of the critical voices and should have defended the right of minorities to freedom of expression, as they do when defending journalists threatened by authoritarian regimes. By calling for the cancellation of a press conference reserved for journalists to provide their information activities, they have contradicted their own values, weakening the impact of their arguments.
    •     The extent of external (international support) and internal support (majority of the committee, local Geneva media, support by the Government Council and neutrality of the FDFA [Federal Department of Foreign Affairs Foreign Affairs]) because of the Press Club has fulfilled its mandate, to serve the actors of international Geneva) as well as the psychological very important support of my friends and my family. To be isolated in the face of a bullying campaign by the media will be a guarantee to be lynched.
    •     Holding this press conference the Swiss Press Club carried out its mission, in particularly being available for the actors of international Geneva – embassies, NGOs, international organisations – before the media without distinction from race, religion, social status, nationality or political party. From this point of view the Club was unassailable, regardless of the opinion, the discussed topic, or to the possible speakers.

Finally, it is to be mentioned that it is practically impossible to change the position of the media or the journalists if they put a moralizing attitude over their duty of information. One of the main problems of journalists who talk about international politics is their lack of diversity, lack of funds, the missing personal presence and especially the fact that they maintain moralizing attitudes, instead of making an effort to check information, and provide opposing facts and opinions. The culture of doubt has given way to the culture of certainty based on the division of the world into a camp of the good and a camp of the evil. In this case the vast majority of the media has made very early a black and white presentation of the Syrian conflict on the pattern «Bashar, the butcher of his people and the war criminal” against “heroic, freedom-defending rebels”.
That’s why every fact, every argument, any report that contradicts this thesis, is pushed aside and every critical voice is immediately discredited as «agent of Putin», «supporters of the regime», «enemy of Human Rights and the Syrian people».

How does disinformation work?

The scheme of governmental lies or disinformation follows exact rules and works always in the same way. Based on the basic principles of propaganda defined by the Belgian researcher Anne Morelli, those rules can be summarised in seven points as follows:

  1. We did not want the war, and we did not start it either: Alone our opponent/enemy is responsible for the conflict. That’s what I call the prosecution phase.
  2. The leaders or supporters of the enemy are inhumane and have the face the devil, that is the slander. See Serbia 1999, Saddam Hussein 2003, Syria and Libya 2011, Venezuela since 2013.
  3. We are defending a noble purpose while the opponent only defends his own interests or, worse, his national interests. The cause of the opponent is abominable, unworthy, selfish, while we defend an ideal, human rights, democracy, freedom, free enterprise. We embody the good, they embody the evil. This is the moralization phase.
  4. The enemy systematically commits cruelties. If we fail or make mistakes, it is involuntary and because the enemy deceives or provokes. In his fight the enemy is ready for anything, including the use of unlawful weapons (Gas attacks or attack on a civilian airplane in the case of the MH 17 in the Ukraine). He is also the only one who uses false news (“fake news”), troll attacks and election hacking while we respect the laws of war, the Geneva Conventions, the journalists’ ethics and the effort to be impartial. We would never be able to take part in an information war or propaganda: This is the phase of brainwashing or conditioning of public opinion.
  5. We do not suffer from any or only from little losses, the losses of the opponent however are very high (minimisation phase).
  6. Artists, scientists, academics, experts, intellectuals and philosophers, NGOs and the civil society are supporting us while the enemy is isolated in his ivory tower and cut off from society (expansion phase of the domain of the gentle war).
  7. Our cause is sacred, and those who question it are bought by the enemy (sacrifice phase).

Thus a totalitarian idea of the world is created, an idea which forbids any divergent view as a betrayal of the noble and holy task given to oneself: psychiatric institution, social ostracism and work ban are not far away… If she is no longer pluralistic, democracy is no less free-killing than autocracy: last not least there were the Athenians “democrats”, who condemned Socrates to death because he corrupted the youth with his philosophical “propaganda”.    •
(Translation Current Concerns)

White Helmets

jpv. In early 2013, this so-called private civil defence organisation was founded by a former British officer and private security consultant. Remarkably, it only operates in jihadist-occupied parts of Syria. According to various sources, the White Helmets are a creation of Western governments. A PR agency developed them into “heroes”. They advocate US military intervention and regime change in Syria. The largest donors are the American USAID, the British government as well as Japan and various European countries, which have donated about 50-80 million US dollars since 2013.

Geneva Press Club

jpv. The Geneva Press Club headed by Guy Mettan enjoys an excellent reputation: since 1997 he has organised over 2000 events with speakers from Fidel Castro to Henry Kissinger and from Jean Ziegler to Klaus Schwab. In November 2017, a lecture was planned to critically examine the Syrian White Helmets, which are popular in Western media. After that, a political witch hunt began.
The British organisation The Syria Campaign immediately demanded the cancellation of the event. This was followed by interventions by the director of the Syria Institute in Washington, a well-known senior fellow of the Atlantic Council, the Syrian envoy of the German Heinrich Böll Foundation, a British Middle East diplomat and other actors on both sides of the Atlantic.
Finally, the Swiss section of Reporters Without Borders was activated. As a member of the press club, she dissociated herself from the planned event and demanded its cancellation, especially since some of the press club’s speakers had also appeared in Russian state media and were thus „tools of Russian propaganda“.
Guy Mettan, as the director of the „Club Suisse de la Presse“, maintained the event – especially as the press club had already invited prominent Kremlin critics.
The fact that Reporters Without Borders of all people demanded the cancellation of a journalistic event has caused many people to be astonished. But Reporters Without Borders is co-financed by the US government via National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and has already used its alleged influence in the past to attack geopolitical opponents and dissenters at crucial moments.
Above all, however, this incident once again shows the narrow boundaries journalists in NATO countries and even in neutral Switzerland have to deal with geopolitical issues. In the annual reports of Reporters Without Borders, however, one hardly learns anything about it.
Guy Mettan’s fortitude and his commitment to constitutionally protected rights such as freedom of assembly and freedom of the press in the current context of contemporary history are reason enough to thank this fellow Swiss and contemporary.
The text is the revised version of a lecture given by Guy Mettan at the invitation of the Cooperative Zeit-Fragen.

* Guy Mettan, born in 1956, lives in Geneva and is a Swiss-Russian dual citizen. After studying political science, he has been a journalist for the French-speaking newspapers “Temps stratégique”, “Bilan” and “Nouveau Quotidien”. As editor-in-chief, he directed the "Tribune de Genève" from 1993 to 1998. In 2001, he was elected to the Geneva Cantonal Council for the CVP (Christian Democratic People's Party of Switzerland) and was its president in 2009/2010. Later he was appointed President of the Chamber of Commerce of Western Switzerland-Russia and Vice-President of the Swiss-West African Chamber of Commerce. Since 2006 he has presided over the Red Cross Geneva. He has been the director of the "Club Suisse de la Presse" in Geneva since 1998. In 2015, Guy Mettan published the book “Russie-Occident, une guerre de mille ans : La russophobie de Charlemagne à la crise ukrainienne“ (“Russia and the West, a Millennial War: Russophobia from Charlemagne to the Ukraine Crisis").