Earlier this year, London-based news website Middle East Eye (MEE) published a series of investigations into the role played by “British covert propaganda” in supporting opposition-leaning citizen journalism and the media offices of some opposition armed groups in Syria.
The articles foster a much needed discussion on the protection of activists and journalists who put their lives in danger in these projects without any sort of risk assessment or insurance. The MEE investigations also bring to the fore the need for transparency in media and civil society projects that implement covert agendas on behalf of state entities—and, in general, the need for transparency on the identity of donors in media development. For example, reporting on “extremist” armed groups is sometimes explicitly listed as an aim in murky Syria-related projects that are officially crafted in support of civil society.
But the implications of the MEE leaks are also dangerously ambiguous for anyone working in the media development sector. Since the editors focused on exposing the facts with sensationalist headlines rather than thoroughly discussing the ethics of foreign funding, readers might easily draw the conclusion that all Syrian grassroots media are a sort of conflation between military intelligence and journalism. Some might even precipitately conclude that these media, because of their possible ties with Western agendas, have contributed to “prolonging the war”.
It is worth noting that, if one carefully reads all the Syrian accounts quoted in the MEE pieces, it is possible to gather a more nuanced understanding of this thorny issue—but, unfortunately, news cycles are conceived for fast consumption. Most people are likely to remember only the quick takeaway: Western governments ran propaganda programs through Syrian journalists. That is unfair, especially for many Syrian media workers who strive to maintain editorial independence in spite of the source of the funding. In fact, some pro-Assad commentators promptly capitalized on the MEE investigations, presenting them as proof that grassroots movements and media outlets are not authentic, but rather driven by foreign agendas.
"The British government covertly established a network of citizen journalists across Syria during the early years of the country’s civil war in an attempt to shape perceptions of the conflict," reads one of the MEE pieces. This wording annihilates any sense of agency of the journalists and activists on the ground, and frames them as puppets at best. It is often said that they had no idea of the sources of their salaries, but they naively thought them to be “independent”. Nevertheless, the fact that most of the outlets that emerged in the wake of the Syrian uprising were funded by Western states either directly or via media development agencies has always been an openly debated subject. The issue remains problematic of course, as the identity of donors is not systematically revealed to contributors. Moreover, in an economically devastated context, some Syrian journalists were left with few other options than working with undisclosed or ambiguous donors.
While discussing the case of Naji Jerf, the Syrian activist and journalist who was murdered by Islamic State (IS) operatives in Turkey in 2015, MEE reports that "Syrian activists were killed while working on UK propaganda operations." But Jerf died, first of all, because he lived up to his own principles, particularly his opposition to IS fanaticism, just like many unsung Syrian activists. His key role in the establishment of citizen journalist networks across Syria is recognized in the same article. If MEE is implying that Jerf was lured into championing British interests in Syria because of financial benefits, they should back this up with evidence.
We are not in the position to lecture Syrian civilians under bombs on who provides them with financial support—especially if the funding allows Syrians to work as journalists in a war-torn country.
Historically, many revolutionaries have accepted funding from sources—including foreign ones—that were not as ethical and crystalline as their ideals. The Palestinan and the Kurdish causes stand as a reminder of the inescapable need for pragmatism within any sort of liberation movement. Much could be said about foreign funding and how detrimental it has been for these causes. While Syrian media projects became, unfortunately, heavily dependent on Western donors since 2011, it would be an inaccurate blanket judgement to say that all these donors hijacked their editorial line. Based on our own experience as a grassroots media organization, financial sustainability remains more challenging than the ethics of donors.
It is paradoxical, to say the least, that this critique of Western funding for media operations is coming from an outlet, Middle East Eye, which has never been transparent about the source of its funding.
What is highly controversial in the UK government propaganda exposed by MEE is the goal of “behavioral change," which is supposed to gauge the success of these projects with a Syrian audience. “Reinforcing opposition to the Assad regime” is listed as one of the features of this behavioral change. When these goals are publicly discussed in the language of media development, opposition to Assad might be rephrased with the less charged “support for democracy”. But Jerf, just like many other Syrian journalists, was genuinely willing to expose Assad’s crimes—and the crimes of other Syrian war criminals. He and others were not brainwashed with some sort of anti-Assad British rhetoric. Let us not forget that independent, professional journalism is antithetic to dictatorships and closely linked with transparency and accountability.
Having said that, media projects should welcome criticism of all sides and remain independent from donors’ agendas they do not agree with. Syrian citizen journalism was able to achieve this on more than one occasion by writing critically not only towards the Syrian government, but also towards opposition bodies and armed groups, as well as Western policies.
At the same time, it is a matter of fact that there are not many alternatives to Western funding for Syrian citizen journalism (excluding funding from Arab Gulf authoritarian monarchies, which is arguably even more problematic). For obvious reasons, Russia and China, which are both authoritarian and allied with the Syrian government, are not likely to fund democratic journalism in the country. To recall the words of Palestinian anarchist activist Budour Hassan on Max Blumenthal’s investigation into the White Helmets, we are not in the position to lecture Syrian civilians under bombs on who provides them with financial support—especially if the funding allows Syrians to work as journalists in a war-torn country with very limited job opportunities. Without Western funding there would be no Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ), one of the main networks of investigative journalism in the region.
As SyriaUntold, a project that survives thanks to European funding (International Media Support, European Endowment for Democracy and other non-governmental organizations), we feel the need to make our voices heard on this issue and clarify that not all media development projects can be dismissed as propaganda operations. We also believe that Western funding—and funding originating from any country in the world—should never be accepted at the expense of editorial independence. When editorial independence is sacrificed, the aim to build a democratic media landscape in a post-authoritarian context— which informs the majority of these media projects—loses any significance. Any outlet whose output is dictated by foreign powers risks legitimizing the ready made charges of espionage pressed against journalists under dictatorships. When this happens, journalism relinquishes its mission to hold those in power accountable and turns into propaganda, a mere soft power tool.
Media development, with all its questionable Western-centric flaws, is aimed at professionalizing citizen journalism. If citizen journalism can be a “calamity” for the accuracy of reporting, as one of MEE’s interviewees put it, some of the media development projects have contributed to containing the risks by disseminating journalistic standards in Syria.
While we are aware of the grey areas of foreign funding, we are not willing to disavow the key role of grassroots journalism under authoritarian regimes and in times of war.