Making Sense Of Syrian Censorship

Elizabeth Palmer CBS News Corresponment head shot
This reporter's notebook was written by CBS News correspondent Elizabeth Palmer. Click here for Palmer's Syria report on the CBS Evening News and here for the full text of her interview.

The interview had not gone well.

I knew that, and so did the Syrian vice president who had just spent an hour in front of CBS News' camera.

Farouk al-Shara, former foreign minister and elder statesman of Syria's shadowy political elite, was recovering from a cold. The interview, scheduled for Wednesday, had been put off until Thursday, but the extra 24 hours had not allowed the vice president a full recovery.

I asked him about a recent secret meeting in Syria of Iraqi Ba'athists, supporters of Saddam Hussein. The question threw the vice president badly off-balance. He faltered, then stonewalled, then changed the subject.

"When were you last in Syria,? he asked abruptly. "Who did you see when you were here?"

Frankly, I couldn't remember. I, too, floundered for a minute, then tried to get the interview back on track.

"Who attended this secret meeting?" I insisted.

The vice president looked weary and disconcerted. He hesitated.

Finally he answered. "I don't know."

More than 200 Iraqi Ba'athists — former Sadaamites and current backers of the insurgency — had convened at a Syrian resort for political talks on the Iraq war. He didn't know?

Al Shara did recover his composure and answered subsequent questions eloquently on Syria's desire to help end the violence in Iraq, and to open direct talks with the United States. However, as an old pro in the not-so-gentle art of American-style TV interviews, he knew his clumsy "I don't know" would make him look ill-informed at best, and incompetent at worst.

We ended the interview soon afterward and left to send the video to New York through the only satellite facilities available to us: those of state-owned Syrian television.

With only minutes to go before we set out for the station, the phone rang.

It was our "fixer," a Syrian media relations specialist who acted as our liaison with the government.

"The vice president doesn't want you to broadcast the interview."

"Too late," snapped the producer. "He had a fair chance to answer our questions. Once it's on tape, it's ours to air."

There was a pause, then came the trump card that is the special luxury of politicians in authoritarian states.

"Syrian TV will refuse to send the pictures…and of course you might not ever get another visa to return to this country."

And that was that.

No tantrums, no indignation about censorship or abuse of the public's right to know were going to help us get the vice president's interview on the CBS Evening News that night.

But then came the sweetener.

"The vice president would like to re-do the interview…on Saturday."

At a time when Syria is anxious to open direct talks with a hostile U.S. administration on grave problems in the Middle East, Farouk al Shara was determined to look his best on American TV, fully recovered from his cold.

Too bad that, in order to get his way, he turned to the kind of heavy-handed tactics that remind America — and American reporters — exactly why it should be wary of this would-be ally.

On the other hand, his Saturday answers were nearly identical to Thursday's — but without the hesitation.

At a time when Syria is extending a diplomatic hand to the Bush administration, the vice president's insistence to communicate unequivocally can, perhaps, be understood.