After the onset of the Syrian uprising (March 2011) demonstrators found themselves facing the accusations of the regime’s propaganda machine of being Salafis, Jihadis, armed and receiving funding from abroad. That called for an active media strategy to debunk such accusations. Activists and opposition figures relied on disseminating information through Facebook pages and the practice of relying on “eyewitnesses” took prominence in pan-Arab satellite news channels. This only added further doubt and confusion since eyewitnesses remained anonymous for security reasons. The regime capitalized on these doubts, at least towards its supporters. That pushed activists again to find alternative tools to communicate information advance their cause. Several Newspapers, radios and news websites dedicated to events in Syria were founded. Some worked independently and others were affiliated with local institutions or councils. This formed what is known today as the Alternative Syrian Media. Today, this sphere boasts a diverse array of media outlets.
Most of the Alternative Syrian Media emerged from within the Syrian uprising. This meant that the majority of those media were formed with a revolutionary agenda. Defining their aims in shedding light on regime crimes and tyranny, and advocating for a civil, and democratic state. The increasing complexity of the conflict and emergence of international Jihadist networks in Syria (ISIS, Nusra Front), in addition to the increased violations committed by other military fractions; all of that has left these emerging media facing a difficult choice between their activist roots and their journalistic duty. The transition from one to the other has succeeded at times and failed at many others.
In an attempt to explore the realities of Syrian media today, whether it has achieved any of its goals, and if it really has formed its own actuality or still maneuvering through its foundation, SyriaUntold met several experts on the new Syrian media sphere, as well as journalists and media professionals from within it.
State of the field
The Beirut-based Samir Kassir Foundation (SKEyes) has been involved with the emerging media sphere in Syria since its early days. Ayman Mhanna, executive director of SKEyes, believes that “there is media in Syria, undoubtedly. Regardless of how we may assess these attempts, we must admit that the large number of websites, publications and channels that have appeared has opened up a platform for new voices and writers to emerge. Some will continue working in Media and journalism in the coming years, regardless of how the political and security situation in Syria develops.” However, Mhanna points out that the word “alternative” is up for interpretation: “Is it an alternative to regime media? Yes, absolutely. Is it an alternative to the conventional way of looking at journalism? I still doubt it, except in a few rare cases.”
Researcher and author Abdallah al-Hallak, whose most recent book attempts to document the history of Syrian journalism, agrees on that: “Of course there are alternative media outlets; radios, satellite channels, newspapers, magazines… created by Syrians due to the large maneuvering space the revolution has made possible. How to tell dollar from dime amongst those is another matter. Certainly when facing this large quantity of alternative media outlets and publications there are differences in agendas and in professionalisation. However, there had been a hole in the wall after the revolution and this precedent indicates the emergence of media outlets capable of proving themselves in the future.”
Iyad Kallas is a journalist and one of the founders of Radio SouriaLi. He also believes that “comparing with the situation before March 2011, positive approaches towards a proper alternative media seem to be on the rise compared to the shortcomings”. What has distinguished these media from regime media, according to Kallas, is that it distinguishes itself “from mainstream media, such as that of the dominant political power or capitalist interests, by focusing on marginalized issues, and supporting civil society endeavors”. However he confirms that it lacks at the same time “total independence, a full comprehension of the standards of journalistic independence and ethics, a wider array of the views expressed, and a distance from political alliances”. While Hallak believes that we have in Syria two types of alternative medias: “some present themselves as opposition-revolutionary media, others as independent media. I personally doubt the presence of fully independent media, especially under the very complex and bloody conditions that prevail in Syria. In my opinion that is understandable of course, even though it does not justify some catastrophic errors committed in some of those media.”
This puts the professionalism of this media on the line. More so since we know one of the reasons behind its establishment was the pursuit of journalistic professionalism away from regime propaganda.
On the professionalism of the new Syrian media, Mhanna says that “most outlets openly embraced the revolution and opposed the regime. While having a political stance is legitimate in journalism, it must not hinder accurate information and professional coverage. Here is where the true weakness of the new Syrian media lies. The pressures of the political and security situation, the necessity of working from abroad, present very huge obstacles to accurate and objective reporting. In addition, these media are still, in their majority, traditional in form, even if it relies on modern communication tools and the internet, due to its heavy dependence on opinion pieces and the lack of investigative reporting and interactive journalism. The reason for that being security conditions on the one hand, and on the other the lack of expertise among Syrian media professionals.”
Kallas, one of thos media professionals, admits that the new media suffers from “professional, financial, and sociopolitical problems”. He warrants it to “problems related to the current situation where it is hard to detach one’s political stance in full neutrality. More so since the genesis of these media was in activists and journalists linked to the political and revolutionary movement.” At the same time he reaffirms that despite all obstacles, they “present a better picture, more independent and closer to objectivity and neutrality. Especially in the last year of the conflict in Syria, in spite of the increase in the number of conflicting parties.”
One way to measure the professionalism of this Syrian media and its progress might be to explore how much it is relied on as a source of information on Syria by different audiences, as well as by international media. Abdallah al-Hallak says it varies from one outlet to the other: “On a Syrian level, certainly the alternative media is not seen as a reliable source except in rare cases.” However, local media in areas like Daraya and Zabadani has become an important resource, “with content that is related to crucial daily details and a main source in discovering and understanding what is happening in those areas”. However, Kallas believes that “many media organisations rely on alternative Syrian media as an important source of information. The reason may be the difficulty of accessing information in Syria through any other means. But these alternative media are never presented as a 100% reliable source because of the difficulties in verifying the information. A problem that the alternative Syrian media suffer from due to the difficulty in verifying facts inside the country.”
Mhanna does not see it as a question of reliability only, for there are Syrian medias that “are reliable and have become a source of information”. But the problem lies in the lack of the presence of “a Syrian source allocated as the main source for international media. International institutions are still looking for additional sources to verify what is happening on the ground in Syria. The absence of these sources in one of the principle reasons for the diminishing time slots appointed to coverage of Syrian events in international media.”
Challenges and shortcomings
Problems and priorities differ from one side to the other, and vary according to different points of view. Mhanna believes that “the main problem is the media’s lack of knowledge of its audience”, for there has been “no serious research conducted yet to learn to what extent does the Syrian audience know about these medias: Who reads them? Who listens to the new radios? In which areas? What are the programs or articles that attract attention? Do Syrian refugees know about these medias? As long as we have no real answers to these questions, new media will remain in disarray.” He places the second problem in funding, because “the multiplicity of these media is a result of large and random international financing that was available at one point, then suddenly disappeared. New media did not plan for their financial sustainability to look beyond internationally financed projects subject to the decisions of world capitals we cannot influence.”
Al-Hallak distinguishes between two sets of problems facing Syrian new media: individual and structural. He views the structural issues as related to “the political and security realities in our country. We have suffered as Syrians and as Syrian journalists and authors in general from the authoritarianism of the single party since 1963. This has hollowed out intellectual and journalistic work out of its meaningful message by monopolizing media outlets. After the uprising, regime’s oppression became even more violent in nature. This is in addition to the rise of extremist groups who oppose freedoms, democracy and plurality.” On the other hand, he attributes individual problems to “an increase in number of outlets compared to the value of the content, its quality and professionalism… I note the lack of a clear identity for many media which can provide a backbone for the project and its message.”
If the emerging Syrian media has bypassed the stage of proving its presence, then the question becomes whether it has the strength to continue and improve in the future. Kallas predicts that we will witness “a development in experiences and vision, and a closer approach to audience needs; shifting more towards playing the role of a watchdog and a fourth estate.” In addition to him expecting these media to move towards “forming coalitions, clusters and better-integrated work groups to avoid repetition and benefit from collective efforts.” While Abdallah al-Hallak believes that the future of media is like the future of Syria itself, “a success of some attempts and a failure of others with the ongoing chaos. But the old Syria with its three newspapers and two television stations will never come back. This is a beginning to bet on for the future of Syrian media and Syria in general.” Mhanna believes that “the stronger will survive and the majority will disappear. The future of its influence will depend on professionalism in defining the target audience, it scope and features. As well as financial management expertise and the development of journalistic work practices to keep up with what is happening in the globally arena.”