Russian Media In Syria: Organized Propaganda Breaking The Censorship Scissors
Enab Baladi’s Investigation Team
Mourad Abdel Jalil | Reham al-Assaad | Mais Hamad
Conflicting reports about the fall of one of the most important cities, the city of Idlib, have spread recently. Confirming these reports means the beginning of the seizure of the last governorate from the Syrian regime’s control, and denying them means the continuation of battles, bombings and waves of displacement.
The newsrooms of Syrian media outlets had been boiling during the afternoon hours of August 20, 2019, waiting for details that clarify the fate of the city of Khan Shaykhun in the southern countryside of Idlib, after the regime forces’ imposition of a siege on it.
The news did not come on that day via a statement by the Armed Forces of the Ministry of Defense in the Syrian regime’s government, nor via statements by the fighting factions on the fronts of the city. It rather came via two video recordings published by Russian journalist Oleg Blokhin, who works for ANNA Agency, through his Telegram account.
The two videos that were recorded by cameras mounted on steadily moving drones documented the absence of any military presence in the city of Khan Shaykhun, which confirmed that the factions withdrew from the city and that the regime’s forces did not enter it. News about the city’s fate have therefore been built based on these two videos until the same afternoon.
Despite the frequent presence of Russian correspondents reporting the regime’s military operations, the recent incident revealed the level of precedence the Russian media outlets have reached in Syria, and their negligence of considerations of censorship and priority in reporting news that are supposed to have a “sovereign” impact on the Syrian regime.
In parallel with the military coverage, the Russian media are integrated in the coverage of political, service, and local affairs in Syria, outperforming local media outlets or those associated with the regime’s allies.
This file sheds light on the roles the Russian media is playing in Syria and the extent to which it overrides censorship. The file also discusses the Russian media’s extent of professionalism in dealing with the Syrian news and how its institutions divide the tasks of reporting all Syrian affairs.
On the ground and in the field
Russian press outside the restrictions of the Ministry of Information
The Russian media outlets have emerged on the Syrian ground since the beginning of the revolution. Despite their different forms of coverage and angles of dealing with events since 2011 until now, these media outlets have maintained the continuity of their work, and their coverage has often outperformed the Syrian and Iranian media outlets.
Considering that the media work in Syria is controlled by strict censorship by the Ministry of Information, whose strictness is increased by the interference of the security branches in controlling and rationing the state of freedom of expression, the Russian media had to find tools to avoid this censorship first and then break it.
According to Yahya Naasan, a Russian affairs researcher and expert, in 2012 and 2013, the Lebanese media outlets, such as Al-Mayadeen and Al-Manar TV channels, had dominated all the other media outlets accompanying the regime forces. However, after 2015 (the start of the Russian military intervention in Syria), Russia has been dominating the scene. This is because, during the revolution, the Russian media had received routine permissions before moving on the Syrian ground. ”
Taha Abdel Wahed, a Syrian expert on Russian affairs and on the Soviet Union in the past, confirmed Naasan’s statements in an interview with Enab Baladi, through his observations while working as a translator with the Russian media in Syria before 2013.
“No journalist moves without official permission from the authorities. The movement used to be limited in Damascus, such as allowing filming in Al-Hamidiyah Souq, and visits to military hospitals used to be difficultly carried out,” Abdel Wahed said.
On the freedom of photography and interviews in that period, Abdel Wahed continued: “We used to repeatedly interview the same agreed upon figures,” stressing the presence of security escorts to foreign media delegations.
The former translator pointed out that this has changed today, “because a large part of the Russian journalists is now coming from Khmeimim Air Base, and Russia has become the superior force in Syria,” as he put it.
The Syrian Media Law of 2011 focuses on the mechanisms of dealing with foreign media outlets and explains this relationship in 20 items, which revolve around the ways to exercise censorship over them, both in relation to information they issue from and to Syria, and the determination of licensing mechanisms.
Item 2 of Article 18, under Chapter VI of the Law, regulates the affairs of accredited and visiting correspondents from foreign media outlets, through the expression “facilitating the work of correspondents” and “keeping the files related to their work,” indicating a state of non-deliberately expressed censorship in the Law.
With the actual implementation of the Law on the ground, the Syrian regime has increased its restrictions on the public and private media sectors, leading to a decline in the number of foreign journalists entering the country, following the refusal of the Foreign and Information ministries the demands of hundreds of foreign journalists seeking to visit Syria.
According to a well-informed source in Damascus, the Syrian authorities require the foreign media delegation, which is granted a visa to Syria, to be accompanied by a delegation from the Ministry of Information, to lead the foreign delegation’s trip, and determine where it can go and the figures it can interview. This happened with the New York Times team during its recent visit to Damascus.
The source, who asked not to be named for security reasons, stressed that all the media outlets are no longer allowed to carry out photojournalism without security approval, including all civilian and military areas, pointing out that there is no official written decree on this procedure, but it is customarily applied.
The source added that these restrictions do not include the Russian media outlets, which move freely without censorship or control by the Ministry of Information, noting that the local media outlets have become increasingly relying on Russian press and media reports as a source of local news.
The source also clarified that the Iranian media was previously free from censorship and used to move like the Russian media. However, the Ministry of Information has recently imposed on Journalists, correspondents and those working for Iranian media institutions the obtention of approvals before photographing. The correspondent of the Iranian TV channel Al-Alam, Rabea Kalawandi, was arrested in Aleppo, for violating these orders on July 8.
“A lie told a thousand times becomes the truth.”
Russian propaganda: Falsification, fabrication and show of power
Since the first moments of the Russian intervention in Syria, the Russian media outlets started devoting their efforts to justify military operations, both at the political level, by intensifying their efforts to convince all parties of the legitimacy of the intervention, or the military level, behind the mask of fighting terrorism and extremists.
Moscow has not only moved its military fleet in Syria, but also employed its media machine, including agencies, channels and news websites to report its movements and achievements, in addition to its remarkable attempts to “falsify facts” and discredit news and information circulated by the Syrian opposition or international media outlets regarding its military operations.
Russian President Vladimir Putin joined this machine when he confirmed, according to Agence France-Presse, his readiness to “wage a media war” hours after the start of intervention in Syria on September 30, 2015.
His statements came after the Syrian opposition accused Russian aircrafts of committing a massacre in the city of Homs that resulted in civilian casualties.
Putin’s Press Secretary, Dmitry Peskov, rushed to deny these accusations, calling for checking the validity of information about the Russian participation in Syria, and pointing to “the issuance of a lot of misrepresented, lying and false information about the validity of the accusations.”
“Sponsoring legitimacy” and “fighting terrorism”
Russian media policy in Syria has focused on asserting the legitimacy of the military intervention, and that it is carried out in accordance with international laws and in reference to the legitimacy of the Syrian state at the United Nations, as confirmed by the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, on October 1, 2015.
“The mission of the Russian military operation came in response to President al-Assad’s request. Our armed forces are seeking to fight terrorism,” said Lavrov at the time.
Russian media has continued using descriptions that assert the legitimacy of the Syrian regime, such as the “President of the Syrian Arab Republic” and the “Syrian Arab Army.”
In return, the Russian media machine has been used to promote the presence of terrorism in Syria as a means of justification of the military operations and the bombing of civilian sites and vital facilities.
The Syrian journalist and audiovisual science doctor, Riad Moassas, stressed to Enab Baladi that Russia’s justification for its barbaric bombing of cities and villages under the slogan of fighting terrorism conforms to the claims of the regime’s media and supports its hypothesis.
The Russian affairs researcher and expert, Yahya Naasan, confirmed Moassas’s statements, pointing out that “the Russian media has a well-studied propaganda about Syria in the coverage of the Syrian events. This propaganda is based on several axes, most notably the matter of terrorism in which Russia is investing, like other countries, and Russia’s depiction of itself as the guarantor and the protector of Syria.”
This policy has been repeatedly used by Russia, and has been recently stressed by Russian President Vladimir Putin during his meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron, on August 19, 2019, when he said that “Russia supports the efforts of the Syrian army to fight terrorists in Idlib Governorate.”
Moassas considered that “this talk does not convince anyone, and has no impact on political and military events, as it is based on essentially incorrect information,” adding: “However, based on the principle of Joseph Goebbels (Minister of Propaganda in Nazi Germany), repeated and persistent lying turns into a truthful saying.”
Fabrication and accusing others of lying
In exchange for defending the legitimacy of its intervention, Russia resorted to the fabrication of repeated accusations against the other party, namely the opposition factions and civil and relief institutions operating in areas under its control.
The White Helmets (Syrian Civil Defense) organization has been one of the institutions targeted by a Russian media war, which attempted to depict the organization’s volunteers as people who are performing “externally-paid plays,” particularly with regard to chemical attacks by the Syrian regime. The Russian media war also claimed that the organization’s members are associated with ISIS and Al-Nusra Front,” as the Director of Syrian Civil Defense (SCD), Raed al-Saleh, previously confirmed to Enab Baladi.
Russia also accused the SCD of “receiving funds from abroad to carry out provocative acts” and called on the international community to expel the organization’s volunteers from Idlib and all Syrian area, claiming that they are “a threat.” This came during a closed meeting of the Security Council, on October 11, 2018, in the presence of a number of Western countries, including the United States, UK and France.
In addition, the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) issued a report on 29 June, in which it talked about being attacked by the Russian Foreign Ministry and pro-Russian media and journalists.
The SNHR, which deals with documenting violations against civilians in Syria, stressed that “Russia is pursuing a tactic of publishing reports containing a ridiculous amount of inaccuracies and deceit in yellow journalism websites unknown to anyone. More widely spread Russian websites (such as Russia Today and Sputnik) then quote from these unknown websites, with the aim of generalizing and spreading these lies at a greater scale, and concealing the war crimes committed by Russia against the Syrian people.
According to researcher Naasan, this strategy would not have succeeded if faced with a solid and coherent media situation, stressing that the “Russian propaganda has failed, but its success can be measured compared to the opposition factions. Each faction has a media office, and the opposition media is in a difficult situation; nevertheless, it has achieved individual successes.”
Investment in the opponents’ gaps
Russia has stepped up its media action with a policy of reproducing the other parties’ versions of telling events and employing them to serve its interests by taking advantage of the “opponents’ gaps.”
The use of this strategy has been confirmed by the head of the Russian General Staff, Valery Gerasimov, in an article he published on February 26, 2013 in the Russian newspaper vpk, in which he pointed out that the Russian media is based on “utilizing the media or cyber space to manage the war and target the opponent’s points.”
According to Mohanad Hage Ali, director of communications and a researcher at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, “Russian media has succeeded in moving the media strategy as a whole, from the promotion of the regime and its achievements and alleged victories to the focus on the opponents’ gaps, and this strategy has been very successful.”
Over the past years, Russian media has focused on highlighting the weaknesses of the Syrian political opposition, claiming it is unable to stay unified and dependent on other countries. It has also accused the opposition of obstructing the political process and focused on highlighting the violations the opposition factions and jihadist organizations have committed in Syria.
On August 26, the Russian news agency ANNA published a video taken from inside the city of Khan Shaykhun in the southern countryside of Idlib depicting the regime forces entering the city, and focusing more on the presence of jihadist slogans and phrases along with the slogan of ISIS in the city.
The video also stressed the idea of the presence of foreign militants and jihadists affiliated with al-Nusra Front, in supposedly “moderate factions” held areas.
Demonstrating Russian power
Russian media have promoted for the military power and sophisticated weapons Russia owns and uses in the Syrian war fields, turning the country into a testing ground for new Russian weapons to commercialize it worldwide.
Vladimir Shamanov, chairman of the Duma Defense Committee, said on February 22, 2018, that “Russia has demonstrated the capabilities of the military-industrial complex to the whole word by testing more than 200 new weapons in Syria and increased the country’s arms sales, even to non-allies countries.”
On August 1, the Russian Ministry of Defense created a special section on its official website dedicated for the activities of the Russian forces in Syria, and declared in a statement that “the ministry launched a special interactive section under the designation of the operation in Syria, to cover the activities of the armed forces of the Russian Federation fighting international terrorism and efforts to restore peace in Syria.”
The section consists of several chapters and talks about the hostilities of the Russian forces backed up by videos depicting Russian planes bombing the so-called “terrorist locations,” and is accompanied by a near-daily conference, during which the spokesperson of the Ministry of Defense is talking about Russian military achievements in a military hall surrounded by military maps and giant screens.
In addition, Russia made use of media to promote the results of its actions in Syria at the political level, as the Russian Ministry of Defense allocated a daily bulletin on its official website entitled “Russian Defense Ministry News Bulletin on Syria.”
The news bulletin discusses the living conditions of Syrians in reconciliation zones sponsored by Syria, the movement of refugees from neighboring countries and their numbers following the Russian plan for the repatriation of refugees, as well as humanitarian aid it is providing to the people in several regime-held areas.
Russian Media: “Formal” professionalism and “unreliable” source for the West
The uniqueness and frequency of Russian media coverage of the field realities and events taking place in Syria highlighted the need to accentuate the media professionalism, both official and private means, in terms of reporting news on Syrian soil, and whether they have indeed become a “reliable” source for news tackling Syrian affairs, over the past years.
Syrian journalist and political analyst knowledgeable about the Russian affairs, Nasr al-Youssef, believes that the Russian media cannot become a reliable source of news about Syria, especially for the West, which accuses them of being impartial.
Al-Youssef said during an interview with Enab Baladi that Russian media has long been known to the West as a “targeted” media and a spokesman for the Kremlin ruling class. He pointed out that the West has its own sources transmitting news about Syria away from the Russian media.
Al-Youssef referred to the “bad” relationship between the West and the Russian media, made evident through the recent summit of the G7 leaders held in France on August 24. France refused to give the Russian media a license to cover the summit, the outcome resolutions and meetings to which the United States, Canada, France, Britain, Germany, Italy and Japan were parties.
The European Parliament adopted a resolution against the Russian media on November 23, 2016, describing the Russian agency Sputnik and Russia Today (RT) as the “most dangerous” outlets.
The text of the resolution, entitled “Strategic EU Communication on How to Counteract Third-Party Propaganda,” said that the Russian media and its affiliate institutions represent one of the main media threats to the EU and its Eastern European partners.
As for the confidence Syrians have in the Russian media, the Syrian journalist living in Russia believes that the Syrians who keep up with Russian media and trust their news are not those actually looking for the truth, but rather the news that satisfy their political orientations and aspirations. He pointed out that anti-regime Syrians do not trust Russian media, because they are sure Russia is the one protecting, supporting and trying to rehabilitate the regime.
He added that some Russian media rely on yellow headlines to attract readers and followers, which made it one of the most followed media in Syria. However, “the large number of followers does not necessarily mean those means adopt sound professional standards, in terms of form and content.”
Nevertheless, Nasr al-Youssef believes that the Russian media, especially the official news agencies, are professional in terms of form, because they belong to an old school of journalism and adhere to international press standards, when compared to the Syrian media.
In terms of content, the Russian media is “targeted and does not enjoy impartiality, which should be the main pillar of journalistic activity,” he added, explaining that the Russian State controls media in Russia and directs it according to its own perspective, so that it can speak one language.
Opinion Poll: Syrians do not trust Russian media
A poll conducted by Enab Baladi revealed that most Syrians do not trust what the Russian media is reporting in Syria.
Enab Baladi asked followers via its Facebook page the following question: “Do you trust Russian media coverage in Syria?”
Out of 1,200 of the total number of respondents, around 88% answered “No,” while only 12% said “Yes.”
Users commenting on the poll agreed that Russian news are untrustworthy. Sarah Mustafa, wrote that she never heard such thing as credible Russian, and Taim Zubaidi considered Russians to be “masters of lies.”
Russian correspondents make it to the field before the regime
Russian media became distinguished by its field coverage of the Syrian arena, for its war correspondents are the first to enter the battlefields with the Syrian military, and report field news, which are supposed to be addressed by the official Syrian media or the regime institution.
This is what happened recently in the city of Khan Shaykhun in Idlib, with the conflicting reports about the regime’s control of the city, and the announcement of the Russian agency “ANNA” reporter of the regime’s control over the city, before the “Army General Command” of the Syrian regime could issue an official statement about it.
Syrian journalist and political analyst, Nasr al-Youssef, believes that it is perfectly normal for the Russian correspondents to cover field news before their Syrian counterparts, for Russia is in control of all the Syrian files, including the political and military ones. It is the one planning and managing all military operations on Syrian territory, and all the regime has to do is to obey.
Since World War II, Russian military policy has opted for annexing military journalists to the Russian army in the battles they wage outside the country. At least one field reporter would be accompanied by the members of the tactical team in the battlefields, in order to be able to be the first to report new developments on the ground.
“In the case of Syria, Russia sends military correspondents there, and asks the regime to offer them a group of well chosen soldiers to accompany them during their field coverage and provide them with the protection they need,” al-Youssef argued.
This principle does not apply to pro-regime correspondents, except for a number of cases, according to him, for the regime refuses to give Syrian correspondent great freedom of movement under the policy of media restriction, which has long been adopted even among loyalties.
Al-Youssef considered the regime’s act of denying Russian reporters entry into the field or imposing media censorship on them to be illogical, as they are directly sent by the Russian leadership. Besides, the regime is quite sure about the consistency of what they will report with the official Russian vision, which better serves the interest of the Syrian regime.