The media war at Syria peace talks
The tightly packed throng of journalists shouted and jostled, straining to grab the attention of United Nations special envoy Staffan de Mistura at the start of much-anticipated talks aimed at ending the long-running civil war in Syria.
Finally, a correspondent for Syrian state TV, Elissar Moualla, emerged victorious from the scrum.
“Mr. De Mistura, I want to ask about the list of terrorists,” she said in halting English, adopting the Syrian government’s favorite term for anyone who has taken up arms against it. “Did you decide … who are the terrorists?”
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Moments later, the voice of James Bays, diplomatic editor for the English-language outlet of the Al Jazeera network — a fervent supporter of the Syrian opposition — boomed across the hall. What, he wanted to know, was De Mistura’s message to Damascus’ ally, Russia, which was “bombarding groups that want to come here for peace talks?”
As the talks aimed at resolving Syria’s nearly five-year conflict got fitfully underway, new bare-knuckled battles were breaking out in the genteel hallways of the U.N.’s Palais des Nations — and not just between rival delegations. The media often seemed to be spoiling for a fight too.
In the short time that the talks lasted — less than a week before a “pause” was declared Wednesday — the sessions brought a measure of decidedly un-Swiss-like chaos to the U.N. The first days of the “negotiations,” which no one except De Mistura seemed to believe had actually begun, saw the unruly media borrow freely from tactics more often found in the schoolyard.
News organizations generally sympathetic to one side of the conflict or the other most often occupied opposite ends of the press “stakeout” area inside U.N. headquarters, seeking safety in numbers as they bombarded officials with questions, often prefaced by rambling mini-speeches.
To the left, journalists from state-run Syrian news media would stand in a conspiratorial clump with generally pro-Damascus outlets, such as the Lebanon-based Al Mayadeen and Al-Manar networks, the latter the official channel of Hezbollah, the Lebanese group whose militiamen fight alongside the army of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
To the right gathered the correspondents and producers from Al Jazeera and Saudi news channel Al Arabiya, both de facto state news outlets for countries that have given financial and weapons support to the rebels seeking to topple Assad.
They were joined by media representatives from pro-opposition outlets based in Syria, apparently itching for the chance to confront the perpetually scowling Syrian government representative, Bashar Jaafari.
Floating between them were correspondents representing Kurdish channels from Iraq and Syria.
The media rivals eyed each other suspiciously from across the room. They would tally the number of times an official called on one side or the other, bristling at any hint of bias. They fed easy questions to those on their side of the conflict but laid pitfall queries for anyone on the other side. They kvetched about rival journalists.
“Get to the question?” declared one government reporter under her breath when a correspondent for Radio Smart, an opposition outlet, said he was from “liberated Syria.”
Occasionally, open warfare broke out: At a news conference Tuesday, an opposition reporter snapped at the correspondent from the Hezbollah news outlet, complaining that only pro-government media had been allowed to ask questions.
Moualla, the Syrian TV correspondent, was heckled at an earlier news conference by an Al Arabiya journalist for asking why the opposition delegation included a hard-line Islamist rebel group that had been implicated last year in the placement of captive hostages in cages as “human shields” against government bombardment.
“What about Madaya?” the Al Arabiya correspondent shot back at her, referring to the Damascus suburb besieged by pro-government forces, where residents have reportedly suffered from malnutrition and even starvation.
Cameramen sometimes found their shots obscured by a rival who refused to move away in time.
The rival delegations only amplified the hostilities, scheduling news conferences in different locations apparently calculated to conflict with those of the other side. It became a common sight to see elegantly dressed TV presenters and weary producers scurrying with heavy camera equipment across the manicured lawns of the U.N. — where signs admonish passersby “not to feed the peacocks” — to get the latest opposing declarations.
Meanwhile, the opposition’s massive media support team, with professionals from a Washington-based public relations firm, the British Foreign Office and the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, helped coordinate a steady flow of interviews with various opposition spokesmen well into the night. The Syrian government contingent struggled to keep up.
The frantic shuttling and the lack of real news left most journalists in a state of exhausted frustration; one correspondent compared the peace talks to the movie “Groundhog Day,” where Bill Murray’s character is doomed to relive the same day over and over.
Farah Atassi, a member of the opposition High Negotiations Committee, seemed to recognize the media chaos when she was pointedly pressed for a definitive answer on what exactly her side planned to do. The committee had arrived late to the talks and frequently threatened to walk out.
After half a dozen interruptions of her answer, she abruptly stopped and smiled.
“So you guys are playing at being journalists with me now?”
Bulos is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Patrick J. McDonnell contributed to this report.
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