Introduction to the series[i]
“The situation of media and freedom of speech is better in Rojava than in any other Syrian region”. This has been a common refrain in our discussions with local journalists and politicians on the media situation in Syrian Kurdistan, or Rojava.
Being better than any other region in Syria, one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists, does not say much in itself about the state of journalism and freedom of expression. Moreover, this sentence is interpreted in different ways by different people to the point where it becomes almost meaningless.
Some local journalists use this sentence to say that, in the current context, they themselves should not complain. Indeed, the margins of freedom in Rojava are larger than any other region of Syria, or even neighbouring countries. Some forms of criticism are tolerated. Civil society activities, albeit controlled, are still well alive. Political parties opposed to the ruling Kurdish-led administration, even if always under pressure, can still operate.
For other journalists, however, that sentence today sounds more like an apologia. The comparison with the rest of Syria is used by the secular Kurdish-led authorities to enforce more control, pushing local voices to content themselves with the limited freedom of speech they currently have.
In this four-part series we will explore the media environment in northeastern Syria. The first three articles will analyse the media context of Rojava, and the last one of al-Raqqa and its surroundings.
Discussing the media context in this part of Syria is no easy task. The political experience in Rojava, and the presence of the Syrian Democratic Forces in al-Raqqa, constitute a controversial issue, especially among Syrians but also abroad. As a result, there is a strong tendency to exaggerate positive or negative dynamics. Our discussions with local journalists and politicians as well as experts, reveal a much more nuanced picture of the media landscape.
The media experience in Rojava is strongly related to the exceptional political conditions that the region witnessed in the last few years. As such, we cannot interpret the relationship between media and politics, as well as the identity of the media involved, with the same parameters that we use for other regions. Standardized measurements such as indices on media independence and freedom of speech, while useful in aggregate and in relatively stable contexts, tend to reduce the complexity of fluid contexts. Indeed, we are confronted with different tones of grey, rather than a black/white situation.
We will try to describe the context from different perspectives: the regulatory system of the journalistic field, the media map, the media diversity and cultural identities in relation to the different ethnic and religious groups living in the region and their history within Syria. We will also focus on a new generation of “independent” media outlets that flourished after 2011, as they did in the rest of Syria. With “independent” here we indicate media that do not belong to local political parties, and are mainly funded by European and American NGOs.
With this series of articles we hope to shed some light on a fragile reality before, if the retirement of the US troops is indeed confirmed, it changes drastically in the near future.
The context of Rojava
The Syrian conflict enabled the rise of a de-facto political and military entity in northern Syria, which is currently known as the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria (also known as Rojava-Western Kurdistan)[ii].
Initially at the margins of the Syrian war, this region benefited from an informal pact of non-belligerency between the Assad government and the Democratic Union Party (PYD, the Syrian offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers Party, PKK[iii]) that has allowed the latter to rule an increasingly autonomous region while being spared from air shelling. Damascus became in fact gradually aware of how it could play the PYD against the Arab-majority opposition, to the extent of collaborating with Kurdish militias in more than one occasion against the insurgents. Only with the rise of the self-declared Islamic State (IS) in 2014, has Rojava become extensively involved in a large-scale armed conflict. However, even then the Kurdish forces, with the support of the Americans, managed to keep the area safe in comparison to other Syrian regions.
In this context, an unprecedented number of Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) and media outlets were allowed to thrive since 2011 in a relatively favourable environment, having been spared from mass destruction (with the exception of Afrin, which is currently under Turkish control). These media platforms include both outlets affiliated more-or-less directly with political parties, and media organizations which were established independently, at least officially. They include televisions, FM and online radios, online and printed newspapers, online and printed magazines, news agencies, and news websites.
The efforts of the autonomous administration to regulate the chaotic media system in the region started in July 2012, when the Union of Free Media(Ittihad al-I‘lam al-Horr, UFM) was established. The body is officially an “independent civil society organisation”, according to the definition of its co-president Shehnaz Othman[iv]. Initially, this union had the mandate to grant licenses to the media outlets. Much later, in December 2015, a new Information Law was approved by the autonomous administration. This legislation currently regulates the journalistic field in Rojava.
The law protects freedom of expression and journalistic independence as essential values. At the same time, it identifies a code of conduct journalists should abide by; avoiding racist contents and incitement to violence, respecting the citizens’ privacy, safeguarding the secrecy of official documents (especially of court proceedings), and publishing rectifications when needed. Moreover, the law established the Higher Council for Media (al-Majlis al-A‘laa lil-I‘lam, HCM) as the authority that grants licenses to media outlets, correspondents and freelancers in order to operate in Rojava, which encompasses al-Hasakah governorate, northern parts of al-Raqqa governorate and northwestern parts of Deir ez-Zor governorate.
Othman argues that UFM’s activities are more “holistic” than those of a traditional union, insofar as they include media campaigns such as the “Night of Silence” (Laylat al-Samt) organised in 2016 in Qamishli in solidarity with the residents of Nusaybin (the Turkish “half” of Qamishli that was targeted by the Turkish Army in its anti-PKK offensive). Nonetheless, these kinds of political activities are partially indicative of the organic relationship between the UFM and the PKK-PYD. Indeed, some of the interviewed journalists state that the union responds not only to the authorities, but also to their security forces (Asayish).
From the UFM’s perspective, “being in harmony” with the authorities helps them voice their demands and benefit all journalists. Othman describes media freedom at the local level as “better than the neighbouring countries,” although she admits that there is still plenty of room for improvement, especially when it comes to the security forces’ treatment of journalists. She explains that some Asayish members would still arrest journalists or prevent them from filming a demonstration “due to lack of experience.”
However, some journalists disagree with her, as they do not think that the union is standing up to systematically defend them. Moreover, the Council is perceived by some journalists we interviewed as a tool of control. Through granting the licenses, the council has often been used to put pressure on media outlets or to hinder their reporting on the field. We will explore this aspect more in detail in the next article of this series.
The only association that can resemble an independent union appears to be the Union of Kurdish Syrian Journalists(YRKS in Kurdish). The YRKS is not a syndicate, but rather an organization born with the aim of improving and supporting journalism in Rojava. It was founded in March 2012 by a group of Kurdish journalists, who had graduated from the Faculty of Journalism at Damascus University. The first meetings took place in Qamishli and Damascus in 2011[v].
The Union published an Ethical Charter for Journalists in Rojava. It also provides journalists with training and support. Since 2014, they have issued a yearly report (in Arabic, Kurdish and English) about press freedom and violations in the area. Today, the union counts 70 members and they have an executive office in Qamishli composed of nine members, including a president that is elected by the other members. However, the association is not officially registered, and they lament a lack of funding. According to Kamal Oskan, the director of YRKS’s office in Turkey, they survive thus far only thanks to the subscription fees by member journalists.
Media platforms of Rojava
In the context of this regulatory system, media outlets can be roughly distinguished in two main categories: on the one hand, the media more-or-less officially affiliated to political parties and, on the other, a new generation of platforms that define themselves as independent.
Party-media tends to offer a more politicised type of discourse. Depending on the party affiliation, they show different approaches to the actors involved in the Syrian conflict. Many Kurdish journalists maintain that these media focus more on political and geopolitical, rather than social, issues. Outlets that are supportive of the PYD do cover social issues, but they do it to shed light on their achievements in the Rojava revolution, especially with regard to gender equality, ecology and horizontal political institutions. The most relevant party-media, and the most followed, according to all journalists, are those affiliated to the PYD and the authorities. In particular, Ronahi stands as one of the most relevant TV channels in the area.
The Iraqi Kurdistan-based KDP, the main political rival of the PYD, also broadcasts in Rojava through the channels Rudawand Kurdistan 24. Although these are not official party outlets, they are controlled by members of the Barzani family. Nevertheless, both channels are based in Erbil, and not in Syria. Several Syrian Kurdish parties who are members of the Kurdish National Council (KNC), the main anti-PYD Kurdish coalition, are closely linked with the Iraqi KDP. In general, all parties, no matter how small, have their media outlets such as printed magazines and newspapers, albeit with limited distribution.
The so-called independent media, on the contrary, are relatively small outlets born in the aftermath of the Syrian uprising. In this sense, their political economy has to be contextualised in the wider phenomenon of independent media on a national scale. They are mainly supported by international NGOs, and, especially in the case of radios, by Western governments. They consider themselves as politically neutral, but many of them in a first phase tended to be more critical of the PYD, mainly because of its hegemonic position. They also tend to identify themselves with a Syrian identity, rather than a Pan-Kurdish one. This is partially due to the fact that their founders mainly come from the same youth that had been the protagonist of the 2011 protests, and which was subsequently also repressed by the PYD[vi]. Their coverage is less politicised than party media, and they tend to focus more on social and cultural issues. At the same time, they generally consider themselves as a direct expression of an emerging civil society and as such as independent watchdogs of the authorities.
In the next two articles, we will explore more in-depth the nature and the identity of the independent media established in Rojava.
[i]This series is based on studies conducted by Enrico De Angelis, Andrea Glioti and Yazan Badran on the conditions of media in Rojava and al-Raqqa between 2016 and 2018.
[ii]For an overview of the recent history of Syria’s Kurds and the rise of Rojava see Sary, Ghadi (2016). Kurdish Self-governance in Syria: Survival and Ambition. Chatham House. Available here: https://syria.chathamhouse.org/assets/documents/2016-09-15-kurdish-self-governance-syria-sary.pdf
[iii]For an in-depth discussion of the organizational vs. ideological links between the PYD and the PKK see, International Crisis Group (2017). The PKK’s Fateful Choice in Northern Syria. Available here: https://www.crisisgroup.org/middle-east-north-africa/eastern-mediterranean/syria/176-pkk-s-fateful-choice-northern-syria
[iv]Shehnaz Othman, co-president of UFM, interview, 10 March 2018.
[v]Kamal Oskan, YRKS’s office in Turkey, interview, 6 March 2018.
[vi]On the PYD’s stance vis-à-vis the youth movements in Rojava during 2011, see for example Francesco Desoli, “L’avant – et l’après Kobané: défis et opportunités pour les kurdes de Syrie”, Outre-Terre, 3, 2015.