Kremlin-funded television station Russia Today (RT) has been getting a bad press recently. In the second half of 2012 Ofcom judged that the station, which broadcasts on Sky in the UK, breached the broadcasting code on impartiality for coverage in Egypt and then Syria.
In the UK press, RT has been described as the “Kremlin propaganda channel” by The Guardian’s former Russia correspondent Luke Harding. And in the US, Julia Ioffe, writing for the Columbia Journalism Review, claimed the station was conceived “to counter the anti-Russian bias the Kremlin saw in the Western media”.
But British Sara Firth, 27, a foreign correspondent for the station based in London, insists this perceived image is false. “Facts are my religion,” she says. “When it comes to covering a story if anyone asked me to alter or drop something I’d be out. I wouldn’t think twice about it.”
Despite Russia’s poor reputation, Firth insists she has never once been asked to compromise her work. “There are a lot of conspiracy theories concerning RT but I personally have never come into contact with it and wouldn’t tolerate it.”
Firth went to work in Moscow after doing a postgraduate investigative journalism course at City University London in 2009. Previously, she had only spent a week in Russia, having done some work experience at The Moscow Times. She admits there were some difficulties during her time in the capital – not least that she couldn’t speak a word of Russian – but insists that press freedom wasn’t one of them.
“It’s different for RT because we are an English language news channel and we broadcast internationally,” she says. “We would not get away with not covering the Moscow protests and the Pussy Riot trial. So it is different to the Russian internal media – how they operate I wouldn’t really know. I know from the Russian correspondents I come into contact with that a fair amount of self-censorship comes into it.”
After initially working on the newsdesk Firth got a “lucky break” and became a correspondent. Then, after establishing herself on home soil, she was made a foreign correspondent, travelling to areas across Europe and the Middle East.
Firth says there can be added pressures working for a Russian channel – especially in Syria, where she has been on three separate occasions.
“Obviously being a Russian channel, having the Russian affiliation, was a big issue,” she says. “You don’t want to live up to their ideas about being a Russian channel that is only covering it from the Russian side – because that is certainly not what I do. I have no sympathy for the government at all and I have said that from the beginning.”
On one occasion earlier this year, after following the UN into the Syrian town of Idlib, a “no-go” zone experiencing “civil war”, Firth became at serious risk when word got out that representatives from Russia were in her party of nine.
“I think one of the drivers let slip that there were Russian television people there. I didn’t speak Arabic but the Reuters correspondent with us did and everything got a little bit rowdy,” she says.
“One of the guys said: ‘We’re going to hang them! We’re going to hang them!’ And he was running up the street to get more people. Luckily they couldn’t work out who among us was Russian and we had to go with the UN to the next government check-point and then they drove us to a road that was a safe area where we could drive back to Damascus.”
Another of Firth’s more harrowing experiences came while reporting on this summer’s riots in Athens. A video of her inhaling tear gas and collapsing on the street in the middle of the riot went viral on the internet when it was picked up by a number of news websites, including the UK’s Metro.
“It looked way more dramatic than it was,” she says. “You always hope that your story is going to reach a much wider audience. Not quite like that, maybe, but you really want it to hit people between the eyes.
“You see the BBC and CNN correspondents and you watch what’s going out on other channels and they all had live feeds from hotel balconies. But we were really hungry to get that story so we just ploughed into the middle of it. We got too close, obviously.”
Reflecting on the experience, she says: “What I learnt from that is that I now know the hotels and the guys who put the barriers up, so it’s all become quite familiar. The only thing is I need to be bit more careful. I took a course and am more aware of that now.
“But I never lost that desire to be out on the streets with people who are there doing it. This austerity story is such a boring topic in so many ways but then it is also everything – it affects everyone – and you can’t do it if you’re on a balcony without being in their shoes, standing where they are. You can’t put that story into context legitimately and accurately unless you are there.”
Despite recently moving back to London, Firth’s heart remains in foreign reporting and she is already plotting her next job move. Now learning Arabic, she is determined to base herself in the Middle East in “two or three years”.
On her move to the RT London office, she says: “It felt like the right time. Moscow is a really amazing place for a journalist to work for a certain amount of time but it definitely got to the point where coming back to Moscow from doing foreign stories felt like going from 100 to zero. You’d be in the middle of a great story and then you’re back in Moscow. It feels very far away. I feel like I get that back in London.
“Moscow is a bit more flexible – you start a little later because it’s a 24-hour city. You go out to dinner at 3am. There are no weekends. But it was time to come back. I knew it was the right move to make for my career because I was pushing myself further.
But Firth is still determined to move on. “I fell in love with the Middle East when covering Syria and Cairo. It’s definitely where I see my future career going. It almost felt like coming home when I was reporting on stories there. I love the people, I love the culture and it really felt very natural to me.”