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Russian media grapples with Syria

Anti-government protesters pray beside bodies of people killed during uprisings in the town of Hula, near Homs (Credit: SRGCommission)

A small group of men armed with AK47s and hand-grenades attacks a government held checkpoint on a road that leads into the Syrian city of Homs.  One of their charges, a 23-year-old mechanic named Fouad Khashan, is shot and rushed to hospital. He dies en route.

This story and the accompanying video came from a report by CBS’s Clarissa Ward in early February. Such images have been playing a critical role in influencing American public opinion about the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad.

So what then of the commensurate reports in Russia? Since Russia’s veto of the U.N. resolution to declare the al-Assad regime illegitimate, Russia’s powerful television and other government-influenced media have maintained a rosier portrayal of the ruling faction and a more dogmatically skeptical coverage of the opposition. Some growing voices of dissent, however, have crept into print and independent Russian outlets.

Behind the mainstream coverage are a number of reasons for the Kremlin’s opposition to international intervention.  Syria is the location of Russia’s only base in the Middle East. The Assad regime buys large amounts of Russian arms. Moscow has a long-standing fear of Western hegemony. And Russia is wary of the Syrian opposition and uncontrollable ethnic tensions. The media coverage reflects all this.

During a week in early March for example  U.S. television and newspapers prominently covered the massacre of 47 women and children in Homs.  Video images were further streamed on the real time video sharing site Bambuser. While editorialists, experts and some political leaders pushed in stories for greater outside intervention to help the rebels, Russian media was covering a vastly different angle.

Voice of Russia, the government’s international radio broadcasting service owned by the All-Russia State Television and Radio Company, focused much of its coverage  on suggestions that Al-Qaeda operatives were fighting with the Free Syria Army and other opposition groups.

“Foreign fighters linked to the Al-Qaeda terrorist network are fighting on the side of Syria’s opposition,” one reporter attributed the information to a presumeably independent analyst from the International Crisis Group, Peter Harling. Yet, Mr. Harling’s work for the ICG has no mention whatsoever of Al-Qaeda in Syria. The Russian media report goes on to say that Arab League monitors claimed that the Syrian resistance movement comprises predominantly militants from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Iraq, Libya and Yemen.

Russian News Agency ItarTass also covered the allegations. Its report read: “It is an open secret for Russia that Al-Qaeda militants are among those who are fighting on the side of the Syrian opposition.”

This coverage is part of an overall immediate and visceral mediascape in the country, according to Russian expert, NYU professor Mark Galeotti, a professor at New York University.

“If you affirm a lie routinely enough, you can defend it,” said Galeotti, who just returned from a trip to Russia to analyze the elections. He found while there that the television coverage in the country remained “ponderous and elephantine with propaganda.”

He added: “The television output [on Syria] is not so much about what is going on, but about U.S.-led pressure to ratify the U.N. resolution as it was presented. They were relating it back to Libya, where Russia felt tricked.”

This Russian media narrative also fits into the portrayal of the opposition fighters by al-Assad himself and perpetuated on Syrian State Television: they are terrorists.

“The role of the media as a propaganda instruments hasn’t changed much since Communist times,” said William Dunkerley, a media business consultant and Russia-commentator who wrote Medvedev’s Media Affairs. Dunkerly  is critical of the ability of Russian media to respond to its users. “The media is generally not consumer responsive and those in charge of media don’t allow for great diversity of opinion.”

Keeping the major media outlets on message helps the Russian government to maintain its no-intervention policy.  In early February, for example, correspondent Lizzie Phelan, in a news story for Russia Today TV, went so far as to allege that attacks on Aleppo were the work of the Free Syria Army and were “directed from London, Tel Aviv, Paris and New York.” The examples pile up.

Media coverage becomes an idiom for politics. In Russia, support for President Vladimir Putin means you praise his policy on Syria and ability to stand up to the U.S.  But according to Galeotti, this viewpoint is looking increasingly rural and insular as the middle class in Moscow and St. Petersburg begin to question it.

Enter the contrarian independent Russian online media. It has been more likely to criticize the country’s veto and is more closely aligned with the mainstream American media perspective. Russia’s media structure, however, does not yet allow these voices of obstruction to gain too much traction, according to Dunkerley. What’s more, the epochal political crisis and re-election of Vladimir Putin as President distracted much of this independent media from the troubles in Syria; they have had bigger concerns.

Twitter and Facebook are still allowing for more critical discussions to take place, however. They have an advantage; whereas it is easier for the Kremlin to punish TV stations like Dozhd, which is very critical of Putin’s policy in Syria, the situation is not the same online. The ecology of Russian independent newsgathering online is such that government blocks on sites or even the use of paid cyber henchmen to guide conversation in chat rooms are easily circumvented.

More Russians are using services like Google Translate to get news from outside the country as well. Russia has the largest population of Internet users in Europe, which means these online voices will only proliferate. Already, the number of blogs and websites run by people like AleksandrMorozov or the politrash_ru live journal are examples of this. Their analysis of Syria trends away from praising Putin and toward the actual minutia of life in the country and horrors that give rise to a more focused push for intervention.

“This independent media has a wide variety and a nuanced coverage,” according to Galeotti. “People are now looking at accounts from Syria and Russia’s position is also being looked at. Ultimately it is good for Russian civil society.”

Whether a political manifestation will come quickly or not depends on whether the independent media can sustain itself and compete with the mainstream Kremlin sympathizers. The question also remains whether the Kremlin will be able to improve its ability to track and control these independent voices. And if they do, how these new media sites will respond.

Nicholas Stone is a student at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He can be reached on Twitter (@NicStone