Middle East

How Russian and Chinese media justify Syrian support

As Russia and China remain steadfast in their refusal to back UN resolutions condemning President Bashar al-Assad, the BBC news website looks at media coverage of the Syria conflict in both countries and whether broadcasters tend to justify this stance.


Most Russians get their information about the wider world from three dominant TV channels - Rossiya 1, Channel One and NTV, which are controlled by the state and generally serve the interests of the Kremlin.

Image caption Russian television suggests that Syria's government is battling a violent insurgency

Between them, these channels get around 50% of the total TV audience. Their share of the TV news audience is significantly higher.

For most of the current crisis in Syria, Russian TV has suggested that President Assad is facing a violent insurgency that has allowed Islamic terrorists and various criminal elements to wreak havoc in the country.

They frequently refer to the armed opposition in very negative terms, such as "bandits", "terrorists" and "armed gangs" and they lay the blame for most of the violence at their door.

Government forces are largely exonerated, and there is little or no mention of the Shabiha militias widely blamed in the Western media for carrying out atrocities.

The reporting of the massacre in Houla on 25 May was no exception.

While early reports of the killings were headline news in most Western media, Russian TV initially tried to play them down.

Later, it suggested that the deaths had been an "act of provocation" designed to discredit the Assad regime in the eyes of the world and pave the way for Western military intervention.

A report on official channel Rossiya 1 on 28 May also questioned the West's reaction to the massacre, suggesting that both Western media and diplomats were wilfully ignoring the possibility that anti-Assad forces (including foreign mercenaries) had been behind it.

A regular feature of Russian television's coverage of the Syrian crisis has been that Western media and the pan-Arab channel Al-Jazeera have been waging an "information war" against the Assad regime.

As the death of Sunday Times correspondent Marie Colvin showed, most Western journalists reporting from Syria are exposed to considerable personal danger.

Correspondents from Russia's main TV channels, though, go into the country with the blessing of the Syrian government, and do not run the same risks.

In the days following the Houla massacre, Vadim Fefilov, a reporter from NTV - owned by gas giant Gazprom - filed a series of dispatches that purported to show how the violence is affecting ordinary Syrians.

In Damascus, he spoke to a cafe owner who complained of being "terrorised" and said the violence was hitting the economy.

He also met a Russian-speaking academic who said his daughter had been kidnapped.

Mr Fefilov also filed a story from Homs, where he filmed a boy in hospital said to have been wounded in an attack on his village by "bandits".

Mr Fefilov said the attack had claimed the lives of 12 of the boy's fellow villagers.

In all these cases, it was the armed opposition or criminal elements who were blamed for the violence. There was no mention of violence from the government side.

Radio stations and newspapers in Russia present a more balanced picture of the Syrian crisis, with some questioning both wisdom and morality of the Kremlin's backing for President Assad but these media are not nearly as influential as the main TV stations.


China, which has aligned its position on Syria to that of Russia, has been using its state-controlled media to defend its support for President Assad and to criticise Western nations for aggravating the situation and using it to further their own interests.

Image caption Some Chinese papers have suggested anti-Assad forces were behind the Houla massacre

Chinese officials and media have expressed concerns over the increasing violence and humanitarian crisis in Syria, but they stress that the international community should not assume that the Syrian government is behind the violence.

Beijing condemned the Houla massacre, but used the official media to dispute Western allegations of the involvement of pro-government forces.

The People's Daily, the Communist Party's main mouthpiece, suggested that anti-Assad forces were more likely to have committed the atrocity than the Syrian government.

An article published on 31 May in the paper's overseas edition said that the Syrian authorities were "the least" likely to be behind the killings, because it was not in their interest to provide the international community with an excuse to intervene.

"Those forces which want to destabilise Syria so that they can fish in troubled waters are more likely to have been behind such incidents," the article said.

The paper accused some Western countries of "politicising" the Houla incident and using it as an excuse to "suppress the Syrian government".

The official line dominates the heavily censored Chinese media, but many people have voiced different views on China's increasingly dynamic internet.

Some have criticised the Chinese government for siding with a dictator who massacres his own people, while others have questioned the wisdom of antagonising the international community, including much of the Arab world, over a country in which China does not have a big stake.

The Global Times, a nationalist tabloid run by the People's Daily, has defended Beijing's stance against domestic criticisms.

In an article published on 11 June, the paper said that "China cannot abandon the principle of opposing military intervention" even though Mr Assad may eventually be toppled.

"Even if Assad leaves power, China won't be embarrassed for sticking to this principle," the paper said.

Writing in the Global Times on 12 June, Shen Yi, a scholar at Fudan University, stressed that domestic public opinion should not be allowed to interfere with China's policy on Syria.

According to Shen, China should guard against such domestic interference because "foreign policy should serve the long-term national interest".