Adamantly spinning the war in Syria
Damascus - Dozens of journalists were secretly ferried by the Russian Ministry of Defence to Hamim airbase near the coastal city of Latakia to cover Russian air operations in Syria.
The move was part of a detailed and well-coordinated plan in which official Syrian media closely collaborated to paint a picture of high-level cooperation between Russia and Syria in what they are both calling a war on terrorism.
Media stuck to a Russian government blackout before the campaign until a Russian Defence Ministry news conference declared the strikes against militants’ targets had started. Dozens of reports, which appeared to have been prepared prior to the news conference, were subsequently broadcast on Russian and Syrian channels.
A top official in the Syrian state media, who wished to remain anonymous, said: “The official Syrian media were instructed to refrain from producing news reports or disseminating information or images on the Russian operation.”
Distribution would only come from the political office in the Syrian Army, a mouthpiece for the Assad regime, or through the state news agency SANA, the official told The Arab Weekly.
“This is what happened and continues to happen until this moment,” he said. “This is why government papers and TV channels in Syria always wait for SANA’s news releases to simply transmit whatever news is released by the Syrian army command. This is why all coverage of the Russian operation is identical.”
The situation was different for Russian media. “Right from the initial hours of the Russian military operation in Syria, the majority of Russian TV channels and newspapers were transformed into operation rooms, leading campaigns that used all possible means,” said Taha Abdel Wahed, a Moscow-based Syrian journalist contacted on Skype.
Abdel Wahed said the war in Syria was the “focus of talk shows on state and private Russian channels and news programmes”.
During the initial days of the strikes, the main sources of information for the news media in Russia and Syria were news releases from the Russian Defence Ministry.
A close look at the content of the Russian media on the operations in Syria shows an effort to instil a feeling of “grandeur and might” that delivers one message: “A strong Russia will no longer stand silently on the side,” Abdel Wahed said.
The media campaign went hand-in-hand with the official political stance. Abdel Wahed noted that when Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said there was “no such a thing called moderate opposition in Syria”, “the media raced to detail and explain the composition of the armed opposition in Syria to arrive at the conclusion that they’re all terrorists”.
Abdel Wahed added that when Lavrov said “Russia is willing to coordinate with the Free Syrian Army, but where is it?” the media turned its attention to answering this question. “Some have restated that this army does not exist while others described it as weak,” he said.
An official well-informed on Syrian government policy pointed out that an operation room for the media had been set up in Hamim.
“By doing so, they joined the Russian reporters who came for the specific purpose of covering Russia’s military operations,” he said. Equipment was provided to ensure proper coverage of the air strikes.
Mohamed, a reporter from an official Syrian newspaper dispatched to Hamim, said he recently stayed for six days at the base.
“There was nothing for us to do there,” he said. “Aeroplanes take off from the airfield and carry out their missions, then the Russian Defence Ministry issues a report about the targeted areas and the result of the mission.
“Most of the Russian journalists who came to Hamim left it to go to Damascus. Some returned to Moscow because there was not much to do.”
“At first, the media had access to advanced equipment. The Syrian authorities authorised Russian journalists exclusively to use cameras fixed on drones, some sort of flying cameras and to film from specific heights. They shot scenes in a Hollywood style, like filming from above jet fighters firing their missiles.”
The Hollywood style was evident in footage showing the launch of cruise missiles towards Syria from Russian warships in the Caspian Sea.
“They were like a Hollywood movie,” a Syrian Army general said. “They wanted to draw attention to the importance of this phase in the operations so that the United States and its allies in the war on Syria get the message.”