Naji al-Jaraf doesn’t like the term “alternative journalism.” The 37-year-old editor of Hanta magazine – an independent Syrian media project in the vein of traditional alt-weeklies, dedicated to documenting life during the country’s conflict through a non-governmental lens – says that his work “is something new, built out of nothing and dependent on citizen journalists.”
Al-Jaraf is one of a group of young Syrian editors who have quietly been making names for themselves as, for the first time, Syria has been introduced to non-state-run publications and radio stations. Publications like Hanta, with 6,000 unique visitors to date, are trying to match state media outlets like SANA in terms of their ability to reach a wide audience – while following a different editorial line.
For the first time in decades, he and other editors say, Syrians have the option of launching and listening to media that hasn’t been subjected to government censorship. In that climate, roughly 200 startup news outlets have launched.
Mohammad al-Salloum is the editor of al-Ghirbal, an online magazine based in the northern opposition stronghold of Kafranbel. He says alternative journalism’s role in today’s Syria is to expose the difference between biased and unbiased media.
Alaeddine Daho, manager of the Ana Foundation for new media, which trains citizen journalists, says that organizations like his are on the ground “working to fill in the gap that’s become evident after we realized the effect new, alternative media has on public opinion.”
But redefining a country’s media landscape isn’t easy. Those in the field say they face limited tech capacity and manpower, and round-the-clock violence and harassment not just from the Assad regime but from extremist groups like Jabhat al-Nusra in the north and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria to the east.
Mohannad al-Mohammad, 29, is a journalist working for the online-only Shaam News Network, founded by a group of Syrian activists in the western suburbs of Hama and one of the most-read new publications, with 800,000 page views to date.
“There are many challenges,” he says, “notably the unavailability of cameras, laptops and other gear that allows us to properly cover events. We don’t have enough of a budget to cover travel expenses.”
Mohannad also says he has been “threatened several times because of the nature of my job. We work without any protection or cover. I was hit by shrapnel when covering an attack on one of the regime checkpoints in the al-Jalmeh area of Hama in April. I was also detained for several days by the [rebel group] Ahrar al-Sham, which is affiliated with the Free Syrian Army.”
“The biggest challenge most people face is the lack of specialized and experienced figures in the field,” says Bushra Joud, programs director at Gaziantep-based Hawa Smart Radio. “There are many reporters and others working in the media who left state media, but only a few have what it takes to survive the quick daily changes that need to be reflected in the news.”
Another hurdle has been the distribution of hard copies of magazines and newspapers across battle lines. Qadar Sheikh Mouss, spokesman for Shar Media, based in Kurdish-majority Qamishli in the northeast, says that getting the magazine across the border to Kurdish areas in Turkey “is very difficult because of strict media policies in districts like Diyarbakir. This comes between us and a large portion of would-be readers.”
Meanwhile, Khatib Badleh, the editor of Kish Malek, an e-magazine headquartered in the border city of Rihaniyeh, Turkey, said Syrians are taking new routes to alternative media, with a majority of readers finding his publication through Facebook and social media word-of-mouth. So far, he has logged 14,000 visitors.
That’s because Syrians, the editors say, are ready for new types of media. “They are tired of killings, sieges and the mad reality in which they live,” Joud says. “We can sense that Syrians are eager for a different kind of speech. Youth are watching. This [was] their revolution.”
Edited by Karen Leigh.