Geneva, Switzerland – Among dozens of Syrian and foreign journalists covering the Syria peace talks in Geneva, Elissar Moualla stands out.
The popular Syrian news anchor, working for the state-sponsored Syrian TV, never misses an opportunity to confront the opposition delegation.
With a loud and agitated voice, she asks tough questions in press conferences and she challenges statements the opposition representatives make in the more informal media hub, the garden of the UN headquarters.
“Can you tell me why the armed groups [you support] are holding women and children hostage in Homs?” she yells to an opposition spokesman, referring to the city where rebel-held areas have been besieged by government troops for 18 months.
“You claim you want to stop the fighting, but do you have control over the armed groups?” she asks another.
The conference in Switzerland is the first time the Damascus-based anchor has interacted with the Western-backed political opposition trying to overthrow the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. Her channel does not host members of the exiled opposition, whom the government dubs “tools of the West” and supporters of “terrorists”.
She says the opposition representatives were “shocked” when they faced reporters from Syrian state media. “Even though they are trained to answer journalists’ questions, this is the first time they’ve been grilled by journalists coming from inside Syria. This is why they couldn’t deliver their messages as effectively as they wanted,” the 37-year-old tells Al Jazeera.
Rebels are ‘manipulated’
For Moualla, the peace conference is a media parade – but also a battlefield of countries she believes are trying to meddle in the affairs of her country.
“This is the first time I see how big is this game of nations and how the fighters in Syria are manipulated,” she says as she sips her coffee in the press bar at the UN building, where the US- and Russian-backed talks are taking place.
“For the first time I pity the [opposition] fighters because I realise just how misled they are. They think they are fighting for the cause of freedom or a religious cause or whatever cause it is. But in reality, they are fighting the battles of other countries,” Moualla says.
Syrian TV regularly airs footage of fighters killed by Syrian army soldiers in different parts of the country. “Despite all the suffering they have caused, I still cringe every time I watch them dead on TV. I don’t like them and I hate extremism, but I am human,” Moualla says.
“I always tell my colleagues: ‘When you film them, do not take these harsh images; they are humans. Cover them when you film them.'” She then quickly adds: “Those same people would kill me if they saw me.”
Many rebel groups consider state media employees legitimate targets because they defend the Syrian government. Presenting the views of her channel has come at a great cost for Moualla, who says she has received a barrage of death threats and vicious bashing. “I receive countless phone calls and messages. They once threatened to kill my father. And the swearing is as ugly as it can get”.
Going from her home in a flashpoint area on the outskirts of Damascus to her workplace in the centre of the capital is also a daily challenge. She recounts the day she thought her life was nearing its end: “One time, three armed men wearing black bands around their heads tried to attack me in my car after they recognised me. They ran away after the police arrived. I will never forget that day.”
Her parents, who lived in the coastal province of Latakia, have left their hometown and moved to Damascus because they are worried about her safety. But the threats have not deterred her from carrying on with her job. She remembers her colleagues who lost their lives and says some other pro-government journalists suffer even more than she does.
At least five employees of Syrian TV have been killed in the conflict, and the fate of one of Moualla’s friends in the channel, Mohammad Saeed, remains unknown after he was kidnapped.
Journalists in danger
Over the past three years, scores of journalists reporting on the Syrian conflict have been killed, arbitrarily arrested, subjected to enforced disappearances or tortured. Both Syrian authorities and armed opposition groups have carried out these abuses, turning Syria into one of the world’s most dangerous countries for journalists to work in.
Independent journalists have also found it difficult to report from Syria due to restrictions imposed by the government. Numerous media workers have been barred from the country.
Lately, however, the Assad regime has become more willing to allow journalists into the country. The information minister, who is part of the Syrian government delegation in Geneva, has on several occasions in the past few days, invited the reporters gathered around him to come to Syria “to see the truth”.
Moualla believes that the government’s narrative of events in Syria has now become an undeniable truth. “Nobody can deny it,” she says. “The government is defending its territory from terrorists.”
The Assad regime labels all armed opposition as “terrorists”, while the fighters say they took up arms to “defend themselves” following a brutal crackdown on mass anti-government protests that erupted across the country nearly three years ago.
Moualla believes that the coverage of the Syrian conflict by most media organisations has been biased, whether intentionally or unintentionally. She says atrocities committed by opposition forces have not been covered well by foreign media and the Syrian state media.
The government has at times covered up crimes committed by armed groups in divided cities like Homs, to prevent a rift among the people, she claims. “The government demanded from reporters [of state media] that they do not film these atrocities, so that the Christian wouldn’t view the Muslim in a negative way, so that the Alawite wouldn’t view the Sunni in a negative way.”
The UN and international human rights organisations have accused both the government and the rebels of committing atrocities. However, the rights groups have held forces loyal to the Syrian regime responsible for most of the abuses and blamed the authorities for targeting civilians.
Deadlock in Geneva
“The Syrian army is killing, but it’s killing the terrorists,” Moualla insists. “There is a truth that should be acknowledged: They are monsters. They are monsters that have been released on Syrian land. Not humans. Some of them hold Syrian citizenship. But they have lost all ability to live in a normal society.”
Moualla wants those people to be brought to justice, just like the opposition wants Assad and his top generals to be tried for crimes against humanity.
Although the Geneva conference has brought supporters and opponents of Assad to the same press bar, they will leave as convinced as ever that the side they are backing is fighting for the right cause. What they share is one thought: that the negotiations they have watched unfold will not result in peace anytime soon.
Moualla will leave the peaceful city of Geneva for war-riddled Damascus, and return to the same death threats, the same sounds of shelling, and another news bulletin full of blood and death.
A previous version of this article described Elissar Moualla as an anchor for al-Ikhbariya TV. She is an anchor for Syrian TV.