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Against the odds: Syria's flourishing mediascape

Syrian media entrepreneurs have broken the government's monopoly over information.

Last updated: 30 Aug 2014 14:12
Enrico De Angelis

Enrico De Angelis is a media researcher at CEDEJ (Egypt-Sudan). He has lived in Cairo since September 2011.
Donatella Della Ratta

Donatella Della Ratta is a PhD fellow at University of Copenhagen focusing her research on the Syrian TV industry.
More authors: Yazan Badran
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Wael Adel, 30, the manager of Nsaeem Syria radio station, records material in the studio in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo [AFP]

These days the attention of the international public seems to have been captured by the Islamic State's online propaganda war and its skills in mastering social media campaigns. However, there is another, less trumpeted, media revolution happening  in the Arab region.

Since the Syrian uprising started in March 2011, grassroots media outlets have been flourishing within the country and among the diaspora. In a recent study commissioned by Danish NGO International Media Support, we have counted more than 93 online and broadcast radio stations, printed magazines and online publications, and web-based news agencies. And more are being launched, day by day, inside Syria, and at the initiative of Syrians living in Turkey, Lebanon, France, Germany, Jordan, Egypt, and the Netherlands.

When the uprising broke out  in March 2011, Syria was an information desert.  At the time, Syrian government-owned press and broadcast media held a tight monopoly on the production of information, with only a handful of private actors operating in the media business.

All of these - satellite channel Addounia TV, the al-Watan print newspaper, radio stations such as Madina FM or publishing group Cham Press - were in the hands of entrepreneurs acting as regime proxies, and closely associated to al-Asad's family by business or kinship.

Names such as Mohammed Hamsho, Rami Makhlouf, Mayzar Nizam Eddine have all been targeted by the uprising as symbols of crony capitalism and corrupted business powers that had left no margins for grassroots media to flourish. Their monopoly has now been broken.

'Social programming'

Today all sorts of Syrian media outlets target the country offering news, talk shows, music, and a totally new genre which they like to call "social programming". Mostly popular with radio stations, it deals with everything concerning civil society and daily life in war circumstances or under military rule, whether in regime or opposition-held areas.

Listening Post - The fog of Syria's media war

The audience calls in and debates issues such as healthcare, children education, and discusses possible solutions to daily life crises, such as power outages, the lack of water and gas, and how to cook food in dire circumstances.

Another type of content focuses on reporting about activists' daily efforts inside the country to provide humanitarian aid and assistance, rebuild schools, find alternative ways to provide education to the youth. "Balad" (country) and "muwatin" (citizen) are recurrent words within this genre of media content.

Sometimes forums are provided to discuss politics in "street language", debating concepts such as democracy and the rule of law in Syrian dialect, so as to make it closer to the population. Radio stations seem to be the best tools to convey this content: Interactive and open to the community, alternative FM services are mushrooming inside Syria. Their FM signals cover almost the entire country, including pro-regime strongholds such as Latakia.

In opposition-held areas experiencing a dramatic shortage of electricity, radio services are much more popular than the internet as a way to stay informed. Moreover, their "conversational" nature makes radios the ideal place to try out new formats and involve the audience in the content creation process. Many new outlets, in fact, are currently experimenting with languages and formats that heavily rely on the interaction with the audience.

Also print and online publications are flourishing, both in areas that are under regime control as well as in those managed by all sorts of armed groups. Many of them make use of different languages spoken inside Syria, such as Kurdish, alongside with modern standard Arabic. Several target niche groups such as women, children, religious minorities, the youth. Others focus on providing analyses that rely on the contributions of professional journalists and Syrian intellectuals in order to debate issues such as transitional justice or human rights-related issues.

A wide variety of political views  are represented in these publications, from the staunch anti-Assad's positions to those who prefer to seek a dialogue with the pro-regimes and focus on building a shared ground for the country's future.

Challenges ahead    

The dynamic growth of media has its downside. Fragmentation of media outlets, lack of professionalism, unskilled labour, poor transparency over funding and partisanship are the most recurrent problems of Syrian grassroots media.

Some  outlets are loosely associated with opposition political groups, military or religious factions. Many of them, in order to survive, have to rely on funding that comes mostly from abroad, namely the US, France or Germany - countries that have set programmes of non-lethal assistance to the Syrian uprising.

Al Jazeera World - Syria: Wounds of War

Often times this media aid translates into technical assistance and training, delivery of equipment such as FM transmitters for radio stations or printing facilities for news publications. More rarely, the financial support goes into funding specific content or training. 

Despite all the challenges that they are facing, these grassroots media have gained much more experience and awareness than they could have hoped for three years ago. In 2011, every Syrian  who had a small camera, a computer and access to the internet would consider himself a "citizen journalist".

In 2014, almost every Syrian  interviewed for this research study had a critical view of what constitutes "citizen journalism". Beyond the Western cliche that has romanticised the idea of citizen journalism, Syrian activists now question both words, citizen and journalist. On the one hand, experience has taught them that it was probably too early to talk about citizens' media in a country where the idea of active citizenship had been used in official rhetoric for decades and yet was never put into practice.

On the other hand, Syrians have been forced by circumstances to learn the basics of newsmaking; yet, now they realise the difference between this "militant" reporting and professional journalism. So they are trying to move to the next step. Pursuing more balanced, less inflammatory content, and focusing on civil society-related issues are part of their attempt to rebuild the country's social fabric instead of stressing partisanship, whether political or sectarian. 

Many of these grassroots media outlets are shaping collective platforms to set common rules and ethical standards, explore alternative business models and find ways to survive financially. Initiatives are starting to emerge among Syrian media outlets to define a shared, non-partisan, non-sectarian language. Activists are asking for more training sessions and workshops to train people as administrative staff, supervisors, and media managers who will be needed to turn these loose media groups into cohesive media organisations.

With increasing awareness of the mistakes that have been made, Syrian activists, once armed with small cameras and producing "militant" content, are now trying to build a more professional environment, and create an infrastructure for independent media to operate in the future.

This process is progressing slowly but surely. It is yet another sign of the existence of a concerned civil society in Syria which is struggling to survive and to maintain a media presence, too. Meanwhile, international media attention  continues to focus on the regime in Damascus or to armed groups, forgetting about a society that is learning day-to-day practices of democracy, against all odds.

Enrico De Angelis is a media researcher at CEDEJ (Egypt-Sudan). He has lived in Cairo since September 2011.

Follow him on Twitter: @anomiamed

Donatella Della Ratta is a PhD fellow at University of Copenhagen focusing her research on the Syrian TV industry.  

Follow her on Twitter: @donatelladr

Yazan Badran is a blogger and media researcher. He is based in Brussels, Belgium.

Follow him on Twitter: @yazanbadran

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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