On Different Frequencies, Two Sides Of Syrian Media Clash

For the first time, the Syrian peace conference brought the rival sides together, while Syria's competing media delegations faced off at even closer range. Pro-government and pro-rebel journalists reported on the same events for the first time, side by side. They sparred, traded insults and even threw some punches in a media war that is as hot as the fighting on the ground.

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The meeting between Syrian government and opposition leaders also brings competing entourages to Geneva. Pro-government reporters and opposition journalists are covering the same events, often in the same room, and it's not pretty. They've sparred, traded insults and even thrown punches.

NPR's Deborah Amos reports on a media war that reflects the passions of the battlefield.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: OK, here's the scene: a hotel door in Geneva is open, the room has been turned into a radio studio for a marathon broadcast into rebel held-areas inside Syria. Journalists Rami Jarah and Adnan Hadad are reporting details of this first-ever Syrian peace negotiation.

RAMI JARAH: Giving news on what it happening.

AMOS: So that's live?

JARAH: Right, it's live now. So each hour we call in and there are people talking from inside, as well. So it becomes a sort of discussion. So this is done about six or seven times a day.

AMOS: More than 30 pro-government reporters are in Geneva, there are only six anti-government media outlets here. But there's a growing audience for these young activists-turned-journalists.

MIRAN AHMAD: My name is Miran Ahmad. I am from Suria Radio.

AHMAD ZAKARIA: Ahmad Zakaria, Radio al Kul.

AMOS: Their regular beat is on the front lines. Orderly Switzerland seemed a world away from Syria, until these opposition journalists realized that government officials had checked into the same Swiss hotel. Their first instinct was panic, say Jarah, especially for activists who had been jailed by this regime.

JARAH: It was weird at first. They are less scary than we know them to be. The Syrian regime has always depended on giving that strong presence when you don't see them a lot - and that's being smashed.

AMOS: The panic passed but real confrontations came with regime supporters and government journalists. Jarah posted this heated exchange on YouTube.

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AMOS: When he asked these pro-regime demonstrators a provocative question - about the future role of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad - Jarah got more than an answer.

JARAH: And that was the reason for them to attack us. They beat the camera man. They best me as well.

AMOS: Have you seen people from government media, where you have positive exchanges?

JARAH: I haven't had a positive exchange yet, no. The fellow there who was accusing us all of being Al Qaida and Al Qaida-driven.

AMOS: The Syrian journalist leveled the same charge at another opposition reporter. He called her a radical Islamist, says Adnan Hadad, in the media center where reporters mingle.

ADNAN HADAD: He accused her of supporting terrorism and she's wearing a short shirt.

(LAUGHTER)

HADAD: This is funny.

AMOS: The rancor is part of the fabric of these talks. A civil war after all is a family fight, so the anger is personal - a competition over who has suffered the most.

TV reporter Achmad Fakhouri says he had the biggest adjustment in Geneva. When the uprising began against the Assad regime, he was the top news anchor for Syrian State TV.

You were a big star in Syria, right?

ACHMAD FAKHOURI: Not star, but I was famous because I was reading the main news bulletin every day.

AMOS: Now, he's on the other side. He defected 18 months ago, with the help of rebels who whisked him out of the capital. He reports for a new opposition TV channel. But for him, coming to Geneva had a personal edge: He hoped to see old friend from Damascus, but they looked away or avoided him altogether.

FAKHOURI: They are afraid from accusations by the regime that you are a terrorist or something else. Or you are making a connection with the opposition. It's a big crime in the regime point of view.

AMOS: Fakhouri understands the fear - it's the reason he walked away. Still, he says, he misses Syria.

FAKHOURI: I just want to go back to my country and work for my people, not for the regime.

AMOS: Does this conference get you closer to that?

FAKHOURI: We hope and without hope we can't do anything.

AMOS: Hope has faded for any quick wins at the Geneva talks. The two sides are as far apart as the Syrian media that has come to cover this historic event.

Deborah Amos, NPR News.

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