Feb 1, 2013

One on One: Miriam Elder

Karen Leigh – February 01, 2013

As part of our series of interviews with journalists covering the Syria crisis, we reached out to Miriam Elder of The Guardian. Elder, the newspaper’s Moscow correspondent, discusses Russian media’s coverage of the war in Syria, its longtime ally. “The last report I can remember seeing from Syria,” she says, “was at the beginning of September.”

News Deeply: How does local media cover the events in Syria?

Miriam Elder: When a top official – usually President Vladimir Putin or the Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov – comes out with a statement about Syria, those are reported straight up. There aren’t there aren’t these colorful pieces from the ground that you see from Western media. I haven’t seen one of those in a very long time here in Russia.

When those 77 Russians [expats who were evacuated from Syria to Moscow this month] came back, that was definitely reported on the nightly news and in the papers. It’s whenever a Russian is involved.

But then there are things that are interesting – there was a Ukrainian journalist who was kidnapped in mid-December, and you would think that would be a subject that the Russian press would love, because she was ostensibly taken by rebels – who they like to demonize 100 percent. And in the end there have been so few reports about that. So the coverage is kind of strange.

The Russian line is pretty clear and has been from the beginning, which is, they’re against any kind of Western intervention, and they fear the chaos that would potentially come after the fall of President Assad. Particularly, they fear Islamists coming to power. So it’s always presented – I’m talking mainly now about state-run television, which is where most Russians get their news – but it’s always presented in that kind of a context.

ND: How many Russians actually pay attention to the state-run Russia Today (RT) channel, to which Assad gave a big interview in November?

ME: None. I mean, it’s an English language channel [which is a barrier.] It’s not really shown anywhere. Some people will watch it online, but it’s not really part of the conversation.

ND: So why would Assad choose to give them an interview?

ME: Their angle is pretty clear. I like watching RT and just sharing what RT is covering, because it’s as close an approximation as you’re going to get in English to what we see here on Russian-language Russian television. In particular, their coverage of Syria has been very similar to their coverage of Egypt, to their coverage of Libya, and now starting with their coverage of Mali, that everything that’s happening is part of some greater Western plot to reshape the world in America’s favor. And that’s a friendly view to what Assad would want to present.

He knew he wouldn’t get any critical questions, and he didn’t get any critical questions.

ND: Are there any Russian journalists who have really stuck their neck out in supporting the opposition?

ME: Russia is a very inward looking country. For example, the Foreign Minister, Lavrov, had a press conference this week, his big annual press conference, and I’m sitting on Twitter and trying to monitor what people are saying, and none of the Russian journalists, no one was live Tweeting it, no one was commenting on it, it was just a big non-event in the Russian independent media.

If someone’s going to stick their neck out here, as they do regularly, it’s going to be for human rights in Russia, or domestic issues.

ND: How do regular everyday Russians feel about Syria? Is the coverage influencing them? Or do they have their own opinions regardless?

ME: It’s holdover from the Cold War, this way of thinking that’s been revised in recent years. It’s the idea of this all-powerful West trying to reshape the world. And Russians love a good conspiracy theory. The average person that I’ve spoken to in Moscow kind of believes that, yeah, there’s ‘crazy America’ doing whatever it wants and throwing its violent means wherever it can to achieve its goals.

ND: Have you received any censorship on your reporting on the Russian government’s dealings with Assad during the conflict?

ME: I’ve covered Syria and Russian actions and statements on Syria. But there’s a real split here in the way Russian journalists are treated and the way foreign journalists are treated. We don’t get censored, we don’t really come under threat.

ND: What’s been the biggest story the local papers have covered as regards Syria? What’s gotten the most press?

ME: When you turn on the TV news in Russia what you see is an official, usually Putin, sitting at his desk, giving a monologue on what he thinks. So what we’ve had over and over again is usually Putin or Lavrov spelling out the Russian position, and it’s almost robotic. It’s just the same thing over and over again.

So to speak of a main story, like some of the bigger bombings, or the human rights situation – which I haven’t seen any coverage of – it’s really hard to say.

The last report I can remember seeing from Syria was at the beginning of September, that it was the first day of school, there were some kids who were going to school anyway even though they were in the middle of a civil war and life goes on.

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