Buried in the back pages-- Russian media on the Middle East

From Yemen to Morocco, Egypt to Gaza, the MENA region is either absent from Russian news, only covered regularly on opposition websites, or is making headline news when it comes to death tolls and violence.
Russia arab media coverage

BEIRUT, August 27, 2009 (MENASSAT) — To understand how Russian news agencies and newspapers cover the MENA region, it is necessary to look at what currently  concerns Russia most. In regards to international relations, Russia’s main concern remains the United States.  But when it comes to the MENA region, it is fair to say that it ranks third in importance for the world’s biggest country, which s still recovering from its communist past, especially when it comes to internal issues.

Suicide bombings, mass killings, and endless sectarian disputes, are usually reported in covering Iraq, for example, while journalists demonstrating for freedom of expression is an event not considered newsworthy, therefore providing native Russian speakers with only the bloody picture of Iraq.  Hence, the MENA region is presented as a region of terror in Iraq and Gaza, for example, and of oppression, in Iran, for instance.

On the other hand, Arab countries are simply not covered extensively, as they are not Russia’s prime concern, only given attention when other countries’ foreign policies are related, such as the United States’ relationship with Iran. Not surprisingly, the United States is given a great deal of media attention in Russian news. For example, an article in RIA Novosti, a news agency translated into ten languages, does not fail to mention, when covering the Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki’s visit to Syria, that Syria has been accused by the United States of having allowed terrorists to pass through the country to carry out attacks in Iraq. Similarly, articles about the peace process in the Middle East often highlight American viewpoints, especially those of the president.

As of late, similar to the rest of the world, it has been Iran that has been making news in Russia, as the media reported on Iran’s internal political affairs after the presidential elections in June, including the reelection of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the repression of the opposition demonstrations that followed. Novaya Gazeta, a daily independent newspaper that often focuses on social issues in Russia, ran more than one front-page article related to the elections in Iran, while Rossiyskaya Gazeta, a pro-government daily newspaper, recently dedicated an entire page to the nomination of three women in the Majlis.

Israel and Iran in the spotlight

But even during times of stability, being an important trade and economic partner with Russia, Iran is never left behind in the news. And of course, neither is Israel, which often occupies the spotlight in Russian media, especially when it comes to the negotiations in the Middle East and Russia’s role.  On the occasion of Shimon Peres’s latest visit to Russia, Kommersant, a well-known independent newspaper with a focus on financial and business issues, dedicates a great deal of coverage to the topic, including an Interfax and Kommersant exclusive interview with the Israeli President. As Peres pointed it out, the one million Israeli Russian speakers may be seen as a major connector between Israel and Russia.

In addition, Russian news agencies and newspapers vary when it comes to terminology regarding the MENA region. For instance, while RIA Novosti refers to Hezbollah as the “Lebanese resistance,” the agency Interfax, as well as several newspapers including Rossiiskaya Gazeta, refer to it as the “(Lebanese) Shiite movement” or the “Lebanese Shiite organization.” Hezbollah is also sometimes labeled  the “radical Shiite group,” or the “radical Islamist Shiite movement in Lebanon.” Obshaya Gazeta newspaper recently published an article on Hezbollah, defining the movement as a “Lebanese armed group,”  “Islamists” and “terrorists."  A picture is tagged along with the article, displaying a row of mobilized men with Hezbollah flags in the background. The photograph is taken from sionnet.com and the information is sourced from The Times and Newsru Israel. It is therefore not difficult to see why today, many Russians refer to Hezbollah as “terrorists.”

Perhaps naturally but unfortunately, the Russian media often turn to news wires and major media outlets for their information, such as The Times, Reuters, Associated Press, Agence France Presse and the BBC. For example all of the news published by RIA Novosti about Iraq is either collected from AFP, BBC, Associated Press or others. Similarly, news about Iran can be sourced from Reuters, and information about Tunisia quoted from the Associated Press. This happens despite RIA Novosti’s efforts to increase its presence all over the world, with 40 or so news bureaus abroad. Meanwhile, Interfax has a greater tendency to quote foreign media, especially the Associated Press, Reuters and the BBC. As for the Russian newspapers, they obtain  their information from Russian or foreign news agencies, newspapers and other media alike.

ITAR-TASS collects its information on the MENA region from foreign sources such as Al-Jazeera, CNN's local branches or local national agencies, though its correspondents can for example report about Yemen and Baghdad from ITAR-TASS’s office in Cairo, about Syria from Beirut and Saudi Arabia from Kuwait. RIA Novosti also fails to have correspondents in every country, gathering its news from foreign media.

In general, most Russian news agencies and newspapers don’t have unique news coverage of the MENA region. While agencies like AFP and Reuters may be leading in terms of the numbers of local offices, and its up to the minute news, the reliability of their information must be questioned in regards to the MENA region, similar to all media outlets around the world alike.

It must be noted, that non-Russian Western media acts as a bridge between the MENA region and Russia. So the question remains, is it by lack of means or by lack of interest that Russian news agencies often rely on other news sources and wires? Or is it their attempt to wash their hands of the responsibility for being the direct source? In any event, if information is a business, then aren't correspondents an investment that would be profitable for media outlets?

And yet, “this is all we had the time to tell you,”  some Russian newscasters say at the end of TV news programs. And regardless of the reasons, one fact is sure: the news can’t cover it all.