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July 2, 2012

Syrian regime TV reporter defects

Ghatan Sleiba, from the pro-Assad al-Dunya channel, says he has been providing intelligence to the rebels for months

Ghatan Sleiba

Ghatan Sleiba, says opposition fighters are in control of much of eastern Syria. Photograph: Guardian

A presenter from the Syrian regime’s main television channel has defected to the opposition and revealed he has secretly provided intelligence to rebels for the past seven months.

Ghatan Sleiba, a long-time anchor and reporter for the al-Dunya channel and a contributor to the state-owned station al-Akhbariya, is believed to be the first high-profile defector from Damascus’s powerful propaganda arm. “I am the first and I will probably be the last,” he said in an interview with the Guardian in southern Turkey.

“There are some others who also want to run, but there are more who love the regime from the depths of their hearts,” he said.

Turkey’s state-run news agency reported that nearly 300 Syrians – including 85 soldiers – defected to Turkey on Monday.

Sleiba, 33, arrived in Turkey last Wednesday after a long journey from Hassaka in eastern Syria, where he had been responsible for coverage of the east of the country. He is now being hosted by rebel groups.

He claimed opposition guerillas were now in quasi-control of much of the east, especially the countryside surrounding major towns and cities.

“This is one of the things that they never wanted us to talk about. What we were doing was not reporting. It was simply acting as the tongue of the regime. I stayed as long as I could to help the revolutionaries, but I couldn’t take it any more.

Al-Dunya is part-owned and supervised by Bashar al-Assad’s maternal cousin Rami Makhlouf, a key member of the inner sanctum. It has pushed the official narrative that the Syrian uprising is a plot by the west and key Sunni Arab powers to use al-Qaida-linked insurgents to overthrow the regime.

Sleiba said that before interviews he regularly gave people answers to questions he was about to ask them. “Those answers and the subjects of things to talk about were given to us by the head of the Ba’ath party in the area, or by the political security division.”

He said he first developed doubts about the official version of events about two months into the uprising, which started in March last year. “Many of us knew then that it wasn’t terrorists they were fighting. It was people wanting their rights. But it was very difficult to do anything about it. We have families and we need to protect them.”

Last November he made contact with the Free Syria Army, first near Hassaka and then in Turkey, telling both groups that he wanted to flee. “They told me that I was more use to them if I stayed in my job. And so from then on we talked on Skype and I told them what I could about regime and military movements.”

Sleiba accused regime intelligence units in the east of sending a gang to maim him with a knife and rob him of more than $2,000 (£1,300), then blame the attack on the rebels. “I know who did this to me,” he said pointing to a deep gouge on his forehead. “The Free Syria Army needs to win people’s confidence in our area and they have done that. We know who their members and their commanders are and they did not do this, no way. It was the regime.”

Sleiba said he was now looking for a job with an opposition television channel, something he concedes will be difficult, if first contact with suspicious reporters is anything to go by.

“When I got here, I met a guy from al-Jazeera and he said I was a government spy with a psychological problem. But people will soon learn that the truth is a powerful thing and that is why I am here.”


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