The last few years in the Syrian media landscape have constituted a strong rupture with the past. While in other Arab countries such changes happened more gradually, and well before the 2011 uprisings, in Syria the transformation has been both more sudden and rapid.
The abrupt explosion of circulating content, produced and exchanged by Syrians from 2011 onwards, is certainly one of the most remarkable phenomena of the uprising.
In fact, it is hard to deny that the opening up of public spaces to discussion as well as the sheer spread and diversified production of content has changed the life and the perceptions of a great number of Syrians both inside and outside the country.
For more than forty years before the uprising, the monopoly on information imposed by the regime was almost absolute. Compared with neighbouring countries such as Egypt, the media landscape in Syria underwent only small, cosmetic changes during the 2000s.
The emergence of some private media, made possible in 2001 by Decree 50, did not widen the margins of public debate and media freedom. Private media, owned by businessmen chained to the regime, often had fewer margins of freedom than governmental media.
Only during the Damascus Spring did some media outlets, mostly governmental, dare to challenge the regime. This experience was short lived; open criticism in journalism was quickly banned, particularly in private media. Trying to negotiate new spaces for self expression in private media meant forced closure, as was the case of Orient TV in 2010. What the government permitted to flourish, instead, was edgy criticism hosted in the television series 'musalsalaat' and satirical magazines such as al-Domari.
The introduction of the internet to Syria, which arrived late even by Arab standards, did not follow the same path as in other Arab countries. The regime persecuted net-activists with extreme violence, always preventing the formation of blogger communities. Facebook and youtube were banned after 2007, and even if Syrians were using them through proxy programs, they were never used as political tools before 2011.
In Syria, the internet sphere was dominated by news websites like SyriaNews,ChamPress, DPress, and many others. It was mainly through these platforms that Syrians had the chance to begin to experiment with the interactive nature of the web. In this period, while Egyptians were opening blogs and facebook groups, young Syrians were opening news websites trying to negotiate new spaces of communication. On the internet the margins of freedom were slightly larger than in traditional media, but nevertheless the regime could easily control local news websites by exerting some pressure on their managers and investors.
2011: the media earthquake
Everything changed in the first months of 2011. On 7 February the Syrian regime unblocked facebook and youtube. Pushed by the example of Egyptian and Tunisian activists, Syrians invaded social media in their thousands, creating secret and open groups to connect with each other and plan political initiatives.
The ban of foreign journalists by the regime and the lack of coverage of the demonstrations further increased the dependence of Syrians on new technologies.
A new generation of improvised citizen journalists emerged, covering the events on the ground through digital cameras and smartphones, and using the web as the main platform to distribute content.
However, relying on new media without proper training and without enough coordination with traditional media institutions had its defects. The content produced by citizen journalists on the ground was often accused of lack of credibility and exaggeration. Moreover, the content circulating on the web could be deployed by other media to serve their own agendas. Global media tended to focus exclusively on the violence, framing the conflict as one between the Syrian army and armed Islamist groups and overlooking all other aspects. Syrians discovered, to their cost, that the content produced by individuals through new technologies was not enough to convey their own true narratives for the world to see. The lack of contextualisation, as well as the fragmentation of Syrian activists in a myriad of groups, pages, and profiles, often made it very difficult for external observers (and sometimes even for Syrians) to make sense of what was going on.
To overcome these obstacles, Syrians gradually started to organise in a more systematic fashion. Since mid 2012, dozens of radios, newspapers, and magazines began to flourish. Syrians discovered the necessity of having organised institutions instead of networks of citizen journalists. The web with its alleged horizontalism had already shown its limitations and many felt the need to return to more traditional forms of news production. Those working for the emerging media consider themselves journalists, rather than activists. They are often critical of the activist model of content production, which is accused of lacking professionalism. After years of a war disrupting the social tissue, the new wave of Syrian journalists thought that this was the moment to focus on the future and to start rebuilding their society. Radios and newspapers tend today to produce a sort of 'social journalism' aimed at reminding Syrians of what unifies them, rather than what divides them. They broadcast music and entertainment programmes, not only news. They focus on local communities, tell stories of common people, and offer advice on how to deal with the problems caused by the war.
Never in Syrian history has the media landscape been so rich and diversified: citizen journalist networks, online and printed newspapers, news websites, magazines, facebook groups, radios, individual bloggers and net-activists, televisions, web aggregators: they all contribute to shaping an incredibly vital and pluralist space for the exchange of facts and opinions. Despite the fragility and the difficult conditions that characterise this cultural environment, it is here also that the idea of a future Syria is framed and negotiated.
What role for Syrian media in the future?
Mass media are not just tools for mobilisation, they are one of the main arenas of discussion used by Syrians to shape the narratives on what is going on and, especially, on what should become of Syria in the future.
For this reason, the initiative 'Looking inside the uprising', promoted conjointly by openDemocracy and SyriaUntold, has devoted space to analyse the Syrian media landscape in all its changing aspects since 2011.
One crucial point concerns the political economy behind the new emerging media. Today, these are mainly financed by foreign NGOs and governments, on whom they are reliant for their economic sustainability in the long term.
The role of digital activism, the impact of social web architecture, and the changing dynamics of the Syrian virtual sphere - these are topics that require in-depth investigation for a full picture.
Syrian journalism is going through massive changes in terms of work organization, professional culture, and content production. As elements of a possible future media system, these changes not only need to be studied by academics, but also debated by Syrians. In this sense, 'Looking inside the uprising' can serve as an important catalyst for future developments.
Media can be crucial tools for conflict resolution. What is more important, in a conflict that has become a global one, and where Syrians seem to have lost all say, the emerging media sphere is the only space where they can express their views and frame events from their own perspective.
1 Enrico De Angelis, “Syrian News Websites: a Negotiated Identity”, Oriente Moderno, 1, 2011.
2 Enrico De Angelis, “L’évolution du journalisme citoyen en Syrie : le cas des web-radios”, Moyen Orient, January 2014.