Senior international correspondent at CNN Nic Robertson discusses his recent experience reporting from Syria and the attack which killed French cameraman Gilles Jacquier
Nic Robertson reporting from Syria, where he said the press ‘were closely monitored’
Q. How would you describe the situation in Damascus? When you were there did you see signs of military intervention in the capital?
A. On the surface Damascus seems untouched by the chaos in much of the rest of the country, but this is an illusion. The streets may be full of cars and the stores may look busy but prices for basic goods are rocketing. Many people, day labourers such as mechanics, are running out of work. Behind the scenes Damascus is filling with fear and anger. Military bases and government buildings have more security; uniformed armed soldiers patrol outside where there used to be none, and around sensitive buildings roads are often closed and concrete blast walls have been erected. There are occasional checkpoints, but these are used it seems for specific issues.
Q. How did you work? Were agents of the Ministry of Information always around you?
A. Working is not too hard, but we were closely monitored. A government minder was assigned to us, but he rarely came with us. Most people are afraid of leaving Damascus and that includes drivers, fixers and government minders alike. They fear random attacks and for this reason we would often follow the Arab League monitors, without anyone watching what we were doing. Because we were with the monitors we were allowed through army and police check points. If we had been alone, I am sure we would have not been able to get to many of the places we did, like Zabadani and Hama.
Q. How did you find people to interview? Were they proposed to you by the agents?
A. Mostly we found people to interview by ourselves. Even on the government trip to Homs (the only one we took with the government), we were free to talk to whoever we wanted to at the locations they took us to. Most of the time we were with the Arab League monitors or by ourselves, so we were free to pick and choose ourselves. Sometimes our local fixer recommended someone - if we asked, and each time we did that we made sure we understood who this person was and what their views were. The biggest problem for interviews in government controlled areas was that many people were too afraid of the regime’s retribution to speak their minds openly. On the opposition side, people talked very freely.The biggest problem for interviews in government controlled areas was that many people were too afraid of the regime’s retribution to speak their minds openlyNic Robertson
Q. Could you move freely in Damascus?
A. We could move freely, however, we had to have a written permit to film and sometimes people on the street would come and check that with us. Despite being free to move, we were aware that secret police were in our hotel lobby and we suspected that our phone lines were being monitored, and quite possibly we were followed. It’s impossible for us to confirm this, however it did mean that meeting Damascus’ underground opposition in the open would have been dangerous for them - and possibly us too.
Q. Were you able to meet members of the Arab League observer mission?
Yes, we did meet them and they were helpful, allowing us to follow them and record their work. They wanted us to see what they were doing. They were not allowed to talk on the record, but they were helpful where they could be.
Q. Did people in the street try to speak to you?
A. Yes they did and the people are becoming more polarised and angry. People were not shy about coming up to us to tell us what they thought - if they felt safe. Pro-government people in their areas, opposition in their areas. However, there are many people caught in the middle who want change, want Assad gone, but are afraid of the instability that might bring. There are many, many people like that, but they were afraid to talk to us on camera, and even off camera, inside Syria.
Q. Did you have official contact with some opposition members/members of the Free Syrian Army?
A. We did meet with and talk to the opposition on several occasions, but we were unable to meet people from the free Syrian army. If we had had more time in the country that might have been possible.
Q. How did the agents explain the uprising to you? Conspiracy?
The government blames western media and governments for distorting the uprising and giving the opposition credibility. They also blame the west, often naming America for arming the uprising. They call the opposition terrorists, al Qaeda type Salafists who only want chaos and will run roughshod over the Allawite and Christian minorities, destroying the country’s sectarian balance. The government plays on the fears they have created.
Q. Did you have a chance to investigate the killing of the French cameraman Gilles Jacquier? What did the agents tell you about the circumstances and how did they try to protect you?
A. We were not able to investigate Gilles’ death, however, we were at the exact same location only moments before the attack. We were in Homs the same day and we had been filming in the road where the attack took place a little earlier. Government officials invited us to the same pro-government rally Gilles was attending. We turned down the offer to cover the rally and as we were driving away saw some of the journalists in Gilles’ group following a small group of pro-government supporters towards the rally.We were not able to investigate Gilles’ death, however, we were at the exact same location only moments before the attackNic Robertson
Within 10 minutes we were getting calls about the mortar attack on the reporters. The government said this was an opposition attack on the rally because they knew international journalists would be there. Western experts in Damascus say the opposition has never used mortars in Homs before, and the opposition also denied they were responsible.
What I noticed was this: the rally was very small, and from what we had been told it was organised at the last minute because we were there. It seemed to me only a few people would have known about it in advance and they would have been on the government side. The other thing about the attack that stood out to me was that it was carried out in a military style. Three or four rounds were fired allowing the mortar man using a forward observer to calibrate his fire accurately in on a target.