For the 40 years under the Assad regime, Syrians had limited access to information and no freedom of expression. The initial media rush was part of a larger movement in which Syrians were able to express themselves in protests through signs, songs, art and other creative expressions. However, a few qualities set media work apart. First, it was focused on documentation and getting the news out to the world. Second, there was a financial incentive for Syrian activists to document events – international newspapers needed people inside of Syria for the latest developments and photos, and international development organizations wanted to promote independent media. For some, it gave them social recognition, although many avoided the spotlight because of the Syrian government’s crackdown on protests and any information leaving Syria.
What started as independent activists documenting protests has formed into larger groups, such as SouriaLi Radio, Enab Baladi and Ana Media. By joining together, independent activists were able to produce more sophisticated content, better reach their audiences and establish themselves as trusted outlets for news and information. Many of these media stations now have a permanent online presence, rather than only relying on social media and YouTube, and create a variety of content such as professional-quality videos, radio shows, live interviews and opinion articles. It has also allowed the media groups to specialize, with some becoming mainly online radio stations and others, such as Al-Jumhuriya, producing mainly written material, including research papers. Many radio stations have SoundCloud stations because of the low bandwidth needed for audio and ease of uploading shows. Since media groups are often local and do not have 24 hours of daily content, they will often collaborate, such as how SouriaLi can be heard in Idlib and Saraqeb via Radio Alwan’s FM station 93.3.
As media groups have become more formal institutions, they have had to develop bylaws, mission statements and visions for what they see as their goal and the intent of an independent media. Since the war has destroyed Syria’s economy, media organizations cannot rely on advertisements and local fundraising, forcing them to rely on external funding sources such as development organizations focused on developing an independent media and private funders.
This growth has given more opportunities for the public to interact with the media rather than simply consume or ignore it, as was done under the Baathist state. The public can put comments online, call into live radio stations, volunteer to create content themselves, share their voices via the web and comments sections and speak freely during interviews. The media-public interaction benefits both sides, but it also requires that both sides engage respectfully and responsibly with one another.
As the Syrian media has evolved, media organizations have developed ways of ensuring a healthy relationship with the public. As a radio and online station, SouriaLi tries to ensure two-way communication with the audience, through talk shows and call-ins, to trigger dialogue and debate. In the context of Syria’s war, almost all radio stations broadcast public service announcements and informational news, as both people in Syria and abroad are constantly concerned about what is happening.
If the people find that the media is not meeting their needs for accurate information, they might not come back again, or worse yet they might vilify the media. For example, members of local councils have often accused media groups of being biased. Such accusations may stem from a number of reasons, including the council members’ expectations of what should and should not be covered in the media and the members’ perceiving a bias in the media (which may or may not actually be there). At this critical time in Syrian media’s growth, responsibly and professionally responding to such criticism builds trust in the media. For instance, local media groups can invite a critic who says their views are underrepresented and give them a chance to express his perspective in an article.
Even in the context of the war, politics and emergencies are not everything. SouriaLi also has what might be termed entertainment material, such as Alf Tabxa wa Tabxa, a collection of cooking recipes. Shows and series like this also play an important role with the refugee and displaced populations. The death and displacement has destroyed traditional means of sharing knowledge, such as older generations sharing information with the younger ones and access to books, and the new Syrian media is trying to fill this role.
Ensuring a healthy relationship with the public is not just about producing content, but also about teaching the public how to interact responsibly with the media. Negative criticism, such as selective and partial criticism, straw-man arguments, hate speech and sometimes social rejection towards the media as an institution, ideology or individuals is not uncommon. The roots of such negative criticism are complex, and include the lack of Syrians’ experience with an independent media before the revolution, the newness of online platforms that magnify people’s voices beyond what the author may have intended and the general anger with the war in Syria. Media stations try to promote constructive criticism and open relationships with the public, such as suggesting how to correct an error, new topics and issues to be considered, concerns to be addressed and simply asking for clarification if something is unclear. At SouriaLi, we consider constructive criticism a revolutionary act, aimed at pushing limits and improving society, and thus in line with the original goals of the revolution.
How Syria’s independent media institutions are funded also puts a unique set of duties on them. Syrian media institutions largely rely on external donors, because Syria’s economy is in shambles and they cannot rely on advertisements and commercial donors. The international funding sources make it harder for the media to prove its independence and impartiality, forcing media groups to go the extra mile to earn the public’s trust. Syrians are already not inclined to trust the media, because of the long history of a biased media under the Baathist state and how the war makes accurate information hard to access. The fact that there are many partisan media institutions that operate as communication arms for political entities and armed groups, which do not try to promote an open and independent media environment, means independent media groups have to work hard to differentiate themselves from them.
As Syrians, we have for so long been captives of political agendas and our own fear. Often attacks against the media are driven by mindsets that originated from decades of Baathist oppression. An independent media is a chance for us to overcome that past. Every opinion can be shared as long as it is responsible and abides by journalistic and ethical standards. It is a constant learning process, but one that is part of our continued revolution.
This article was originally published by the Atlantic Council and is reprinted here with permission.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Syria Deeply.