GENEVA — As Syria’s bitter divide plays out between regime and opposition negotiators in Geneva, journalists from both camps are also locking horns on the sidelines of UN-brokered peace talks.
Whether in the tree-lined gardens of the UN’s European headquarters or its corridors and packed press conference rooms, Syrian reporters face each other down with scowls and even hurl abuse.
The rivals spend their time battling their opponents’ spin and trying to show that only they are the true voice of Syria.
As well as being rebuked Wednesday by UN chief Ban Ki-moon’s press team for their mass yelling of questions, the Syrian press corps has also sparked tongue-in-cheek comments, with mediator Lahkdar Brahimi asking Friday: “Is everyone in this room Syrian or what?”
The proximity between Syrian official and opposition reporters is unprecedented, echoing the fact that representatives of President Bashar Assad and his adversaries are finally sitting down in the same room, almost three years after the conflict erupted.
“The novelty in Geneva is that the Syrian state is represented for the first time on the political level and the media level at a conference on Syria,” state television news director Habib Salman told AFP in Geneva.
The most recent international conferences of the so-called Friends of Syria countries only involved the opposition.
At the latest UN meeting, neither side’s journalists have pulled their punches in questions to rival delegations, swinging from ironic to outright aggressive.
In the Swiss city of Montreux – venue of Wednesday’s international conference on Syria before the talks shifted to Geneva on Friday – anti-government reporters pursued Information Minister Omran al-Zohbi.
They hounded him repeatedly, asking: “When will Assad quit?”
In Geneva, prominent opposition official Burhan Ghalioun found himself in a corridor with pro-regime journalists.
They called him out over the brutality of hard-line Islamist fighters: “The rebels have shown videos of severed heads. What have you got to say on that?”
The Syrian war broke out after the Assad regime cracked down on Arab Spring-inspired protests in March 2011, but the government labels the rebels “terrorists” funded by foreigners, notably Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
There is undisguised loathing among official Syrian reporters for Qatari station Al-Jazeera and Saudi counterpart Al-Arabiya.
“Al-Arabiya is known for its lies,” called out one Syrian reporter during a press conference by Brahimi.
On Sunday, an Al-Jazeera journalist asked Zohbi to explain why he refused the station’s interview requests.
Stepping in, a reporter from pro-regime radio station Sham FM said: “Because you’re agents!”
“At least we’re not criminals,” the Al-Jazeera reporter hit back.
Journalists have also stepped up to defend their side’s cause.
In Montreux, pro-regime reporters applauded loudly in the press centre as journalists from around the world watched a live feed of a speech by Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem.
When opposition leader Ahmad Jarba’s turn came, they placed Syrian flags on their desks in protest.
Tensions mounted Saturday during a press conference by opposition spokesman Louay Safi, who called for a humanitarian corridor for starving and besieged residents in rebel-held areas of the city of Homs.
“Don’t think that you can dictate to me what I should say here, you representative of the propaganda media,” Safi snapped as a reporter from Syrian news agency SANA demanded repeatedly why the opposition wanted to spirit its “terrorists” out of Homs.
With journalists flinging highly offensive slurs back and forth, some have come close to blows and forced UN security guards to step in.
On the UN grass where rival stations have pitched their broadcast tents, one anti-regime journalist yelled at a pro-Assad rival: “Go on, hit us with a barrel!” in reference to the regime’s alleged use of “barrel bombs”.
For some Syrian journalists, covering the talks has an unusual personal edge.
Ahmad Fakhouri was a presenter on Syrian state television until he defected in 2012.
“I’ve seen former colleagues here and I want to greet them. Some are embarrassed and some look away,” Fakhouri, who now works for a station funded by the United Arab Emirates, told AFP.
“I’m in the opposition, but as a journalist I can criticize the opposition and the rebels just as much as the security services and Assad. That’s real journalism.”