Journalism in Rojava (II): Independent Media Between Freedom and Control

In this four-part series Yazan Badran and Enrico De Angelis 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.

05 April 2019

The gate of Kirkuk (by Arthur Melville, 1882)
Enrico De Angelis

Independent researcher specialized on media in the Arab world. He holds a PhD from University of Salerno, Italy. He wrote several articles on media and communication in the MENA region and a monograph on media and conflict. He is one of the founders of SyriaUntold and collaborated as a consultant with different NGOs and media organizations. He currently works as a media researcher for Free Press Unlimited and lives in Berlin.

Yazan Badran

PhD fellow of the Research Council - Flanders, and a PhD researcher at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Belgium. His research is focused on exploring the nascent media spheres in the Arab World that emerged following the 2011 uprisings

 Independent Media Between Freedom and Control[1]

As we mentioned in the first article of the series, “Journalism in Rojava”, many of what we called “independent” media platforms emerged in Rojava after 2011. These media are mostly small outlets in size, except perhaps for Arta FM which grew to become an organization of considerable size and impact. They are all regularly registered with the Higher Council for Media (HCM), have their offices in the region,  and their content covers wide thematic areas, from culture to politics, with a strong emphasis on local coverage of the Rojava region.

Some of these organizations produce print magazines (e.g. Welat, Shar) while others publish exclusively online (e.g. Aso Network). But it is the radios that, in a situation characterized by the scarcity of electricity and economic resources, appear to play a particularly relevant role. Unlike other Syrian regions, installing and maintaining FM transmitters in Rojava does not pose particular problems in terms of security, with the exception of Turkish-occupied Afrin. Especially for independent media, establishing an FM station still appears as the most affordable solution for a wide reach. Internet connection in Rojava, as in other regions of northern Syria, relies mainly on internet providers from neighbouring Iraq and Turkey. The devices are smuggled and operated through private companies in Rojava. Additionally, satellite internet services, such as Tooway, are widely used.

Independent media organizations tend to present a Syrian identity rather than a pan-Kurdish one (we will explore this aspect in more depth in the third article of this series). They broadcast or write in Arabic, even more than Kurdish, and sometimes in other languages spoken in the area. Moreover, they were born in the context of the Syrian uprising of 2011, and they gave space to its voices and movements, which in Rojava were quite active in the early phases of the uprising[2].

Setting the scene

Initially, independent media in Rojava appeared capable of hosting critical voices towards the authorities and carved for themselves a role of watchdogs. Today, however, it is clear that this potential cannot be completely fulfilled, at least for the time being.

In part, the problem is strictly political. According to writer, journalist, and critic of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), Hosheng Ose, independent media enjoyed in the beginning more freedom only because the Democratic Union Party (PYD, the Syrian offshoot of the PKK) needed time to consolidate its power in the region[3]. Moreover, the Kurdish-led administration acquired much popularity and legitimacy following the battles between its armed wings[4]and IS and for sparing, albeit in a controversial way, the region from the bombings of the regime and Russia. In the end, the military victories of the People’s Protection Units YPG and Women’s Protection Units YPJ boosted the image of the administration as the sole “defender” of Western Kurdistan well beyond its traditional strongholds.[5]

Finally, the extent to which media organizations can criticize the authorities depends also on the regional political situation. After Turkey opposed the 2017 Kurdish independence referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan, media inevitably slipped more towards an anti-Turkish and pan-Kurdish discourse. The attack on Afrin in early 2018 further exacerbated this. In other words, the media field should be considered as operating in a context of war, and a “rally around the flag” frame at such times becomes predominant. Another factor is the relationship between the PYD and the Kurdish National Council (KNC), usually closer to the Syrian opposition and on good terms with Turkey and Iraq’s Kurdish Regional Government. When the competition between the two is more relaxed, media can benefit from what looks like a more democratic environment. When the tensions escalate, they deeply affect how media can operate. When members of the KNC formed the “Afrin Liberation Congress” under Turkey’s auspices, for example, other Kurdish parties saw this move as a betrayal. Today, according to many local journalists, the tensions between Kurds and other ethnic groups, and between the KNC and the PYD are poisoning the public sphere.

Independent media are deeply affected by all of these aspects as much as by the widespread feeling among the population of Rojava of being under constant threat. Gradually, they seem to have adopted an editorial line that is less critical, if not supportive, of the political system in Rojava. This support, according to some local journalists, is not due so much to direct imposition from the authorities, but rather to their own convictions and, even more important, to the feeling that doing otherwise would be very unpopular in a conflict-ridden context. An example of this attitude is how Arta FMrecently started using the term “martyrs” to define the YPG fighters fallen in the battles against IS or Turkey. As mentioned by Shiar Neyo, project manager at Arta FM, acting differently would be very unpopular and would turn the radio into an easy target[6].

Counterweight to the authorities in power?

In the current situation, the journalists we interviewed usually stress that, on the one hand, they enjoy relative freedom of expression. The PYD did not forcefully close those it considers as antagonistic media. Reporters can move freely in the region and cover a wide array of issues. Additionally, journalists from international or regional media are also generally allowed to operate freely. However, they also say that there is always a tension with the authorities in power and there are red lines that cannot be crossed.

The Kurdish-led administration exerts pressures on independent (or antagonistic party-media) in many ways. The system of licenses granted by the HCM is one. If a journalist or an outlet do not abide by the rules, they can be expelled and cannot operate in the area anymore. Journalists like Bahzad Hamo, at the time working for SMART, or Abdulmajid Adib, director of Ara News, a now-closed local news agency, say they faced many difficulties in registering at the HCM or the Union of Free Media (UFM).

Asked about the restrictions imposed on certain outlets, the HMC co-president Arşek Baravî replied that some media have been found to have connections with intelligence agencies[7]. The HMC co-president also explained that, in some cases, they received complaints from US-led coalition forces and the Russian Army, who claimed that their “personal freedom” had been reportedly violated by the journalists. In these cases, actions were taken to remedy these violations, according to Baravî. He insisted, however, that all measures were taken within the limits imposed by their respect for freedom of expression. Baravî also affirmed that the council has issued licenses to pro-government and pro-opposition media outlets in order for them to work in Rojava and, in his opinion, this was a further confirmation of the extent to which the HMC upholds freedom of expression and democracy. It is indeed a matter of fact that both pro-opposition (e.g. Orient TV, SMART News) and pro-government (SANA in Afrin during the Turkish offensive) media outlets have been allowed to operate in Rojava at certain times.

Local journalists say that it is also quite common that the authorities call the media offices directly, in order to signal that a certain issue should not be covered. In a few cases, journalists have even been arrested. This happened for example to a reporter from Zagros TV, a channel based in Iraq  and is supportive the Kurdistan Democratic Party KDP, who was arrested by the Asayish in 2017. Finally, according to some journalists, the Ciwanen Şoreşger, a youth group linked to the PKK, occasionally attacks and threatens journalists. Some unknown gunmen, for example, attacked the director of Arta FM and set fire to the radio’s offices on the 26th of April 2016. In fact, as the Syrian Journalists Association (SJA) documents, in Rojava the attacks and the violations against journalists are more frequent than one would expect.

Another problem of independent media is their lack of resources and experience vis-à-vis a well organized political and military power. As Serdar Mele Darwish, founder of Aso, a local network of local journalists, says: “In the current situation, civil society and media organizations do not perceive themselves as a viable and credible alternative to the authorities in power. Confronting them too directly is not an option. They would withdraw your license, and your journalists on the ground would be in danger. This would be detrimental to your coverage and impact”.[8]Moreover, the complexity of the political context in Rojava, ethno-nationalist polarization between Arabs and Kurds, as well as intra-Kurdish polarization between staunch PYD-supporters and others, makes critical coverage very perilous. In this context, independent media risk playing the game of one of these contenders, he concludes.

The lack of resources and the constant struggle for financial stability also restricts the coherence, breadth and depth of the coverage of alternative media. According to Bahzad Hamo, grassroots media generally content themselves with routine coverage of the events in Rojava, without engaging with more challenging and critical content.[9]The struggle for sustainability makes it difficult to establish clear editorial lines and to define a long term strategy. Thus, according to Hamo, independent media tends to cover important events such as the Turkish attack on Afrin by deferring to the Kurdish-led administration sloganeering and narratives (e.g. “resistance of Afrin”).

The lack of resources means that alternative media are often dependent on international news agencies, or on PYD-linked media, in their coverage of national and regional political events. This includes issues of significant importance to the people of Rojava, such as the relationship with the Syrian regime, the political relations among the Kurds, the arrests of political activists, the influence of the PKK and the tensions with the Arab population. All such delicate political issues, Hamo says, are covered only sporadically. “Media should prepare society for the future challenges we have to face”, he says, “but currently, they just do not do it”.

Negotiating a space

Neyo, from Arta FM, offers a more nuanced view. On the one hand there are some very clear red lines. The fundaments of the political system in Rojava cannot be criticized openly as a whole. However, the margins of freedom open up substantially when the criticism is directed at how the Autonomous Administration and local authorities manage daily affairs. At this level local media can play the role of watchdogs without many pressures.

In general, local journalists have quite a clear idea of what red lines are: criticism of the political system in itself is out of question. Expressing a more balanced political stance towards Turkey or other enemies is also generally considered a red line. Some security issues, or war-related topics, are always subject to scrutiny. However, other issues can be covered, even those critical of the PYD and the autonomous administration.

Mele Darwish, founder of Aso Network, explains that they prefer to focus on social issues than political ones. Some criticism of the autonomous administration is possible, when it comes to covering local issues. “Sometimes, it is even possible to try to raise the roof of what can be said. However, you have to be sure that your reports cannot be easily debunked: you have to prove to them that your sources were reliable, and that you did not have clear political biases,” he says. In other words, Mele Darwish reflects, you have to use your professional practices as a shield against the attacks of politicians[10].

Arta FM’s Neyo also stresses the importance of solid sources as protection for alternative media. According to him, they can even sporadically denounce attacks on journalists or activists and violations to the freedom of expressions. “This is particularly important for us. We are journalists. At the same time, we can cover more sensitive issues like these only if we have the soundbites and testimonies available”, he says. On this Sirwan Berko, director of Arta FM, says: “They [the PYD] do not love us. But as long as we produce an objective and transparent journalism, they do not have any other choice than to tolerate us”[11].

Yazer Othman, a journalist with Arab24, also stresses that independent media in Rojava are playing a role, albeit on a very local level. He says the audience of these media outlets is community-based. They discuss local issues of the community or town they are based in. Some, like Buyer (a newspaper and a radio), even depend on local advertisement revenue to sustain themselves. They have access to local officials of the PYD and their watchdog function is constrained to issues of local governance and day-to-day life[12]. This assessment is also shared by journalist Piroz Perik, editor-in-chief of Sharmagazine, who also sees the role of independent media as restricted to surveillance and accountability of local officials and service providers, with smaller resources or space required to cover broader political or geopolitical perspectives[13].

Bahzad Hamo, however, says that while some adversarial local coverage is produced, it lacks a political weight. Thus, when news emerged of the death of a child after falling into one of the military trenches buried by the YPG, the coverage remained on the surface and was never followed up to hold someone accountable politically for the event. According to Hamo, the pressures by local authorities alone do not explain this behaviour by independent media. He believes that there is yet more space that the independent media outlets could negotiate, without entering into a direct clash with the PYD and its affiliates.

In the current situation, independent media are struggling first of all to survive and to constantly adapt to the power balances in the region. Giving space to critical voices, even if limited to certain issues, can prepare the media field and the local civil society to future challenges, if and when conditions improve. It can also be an occasion for some outlets to reinforce their experience, credibility, and impact. At the same time, it is clear that for now the margins of expressions are quite restrained, and that the political experience of Rojava is still far from a functioning democratic polity in which media can play a proper watchdog role.

[1]This article is based on an internal report compiled by Enrico De Angelis, Andrea Glioti and Yazan Badran on the conditions of media in Rojava in 2018.

[2]See on this for example Francesco Desoli, “L’avant – et l’après Kobané: défis et opportunités pour les kurdes de Syrie”, Outre-Terre, 3, 2015.

[3]Hosheng Ose, writer and journalist, Skype interview, 10 December 2018.

[4]The People’s Protection Units, YPG, and the Women’s Protection Units, YPJ.

[5]The concept of Kurdistan or Greater Kurdistan encompasses Kurdish populated areas in Turkey (Northern Kurdistan), northern Iraq (Southern Kurdistan), northwestern Iran (Eastern Kurdistan) and northern Syria (Western Kurdistan).

[6]Shiar Neyo, project manager at Arta FM, Skype interview, 12 December 2018.

[7]Arsek Baravi, co-president of HMC, Skype interview, 12 March 2018.

[8]Serdar Mele, founder of ASO, Skype interview, 17 December 2018

[9]Bahzad Hamo, independent freelance journalist, Skype interview, 6 December 2018.

[10]  Serdar Mele Darwish, journalist founder of Aso Network, Skype interview, 17 December 2018

[11]Sirwan Berko, director ofArta FM, Skype interview, 22 November 2015.

[12]Yazer Othman, journalist with Arab24and analyst with International Crisis Group, Skype interview, 2 December 2018.

[13]Piroz Perik, editor-in-chief at Sharmagazine, Skype interview, 12 December 2018.

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