Against the odds: Syria’s flourishing mediascape

While everybody talks about ISIS or the Syrian regime there is indeed an effort being made by civil society and media activists to build an infrastructure for media pluralism: against all odds. My latest article for Al Jazeera English, authored with Enrico de Angelis and Yazan Badran, takes a look at Syria’s emerging mediascape.

 

Wael Adel, 30, the manager of Nsaeem Syria radio station, records material in the studio in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo [AFP]
These days the attention of the international public seems to have been captured by the Islamic State’s online propaganda war and its skills in mastering social media campaigns. However, there is another, less trumpeted, media revolution happening  in the Arab region.

Since the Syrian uprising started in March 2011, grassroots media outlets have been flourishing within the country and among the diaspora. In a recent study commissioned by Danish NGO International Media Support, we have counted more than 93 online and broadcast radio stations, printed magazines and online publications, and web-based news agencies. And more are being launched, day by day, inside Syria, and at the initiative of Syrians living in Turkey, Lebanon, France, Germany, Jordan, Egypt, and the Netherlands.

When the uprising broke out  in March 2011, Syria was an information desert.  At the time, Syrian government-owned press and broadcast media held a tight monopoly on the production of information, with only a handful of private actors operating in the media business.

All of these – satellite channel Addounia TV, the al-Watan print newspaper, radio stations such as Madina FM or publishing group Cham Press – were in the hands of entrepreneurs acting as regime proxies, and closely associated to al-Asad’s family by business or kinship.

Names such as Mohammed Hamsho, Rami Makhlouf, Mayzar Nizam Eddine have all been targeted by the uprising as symbols of crony capitalism and corrupted business powers that had left no margins for grassroots media to flourish. Their monopoly has now been broken.

‘Social programming’

Today all sorts of Syrian media outlets target the country offering news, talk shows, music, and a totally new genre which they like to call “social programming”. Mostly popular with radio stations, it deals with everything concerning civil society and daily life in war circumstances or under military rule, whether in regime or opposition-held areas.

Listening Post – The fog of Syria’s media war

The audience calls in and debates issues such as healthcare, children education, and discusses possible solutions to daily life crises, such as power outages, the lack of water and gas, and how to cook food in dire circumstances.

Another type of content focuses on reporting about activists’ daily efforts inside the country to provide humanitarian aid and assistance, rebuild schools, find alternative ways to provide education to the youth. “Balad” (country) and “muwatin” (citizen) are recurrent words within this genre of media content.

Sometimes forums are provided to discuss politics in “street language”, debating concepts such as democracy and the rule of law in Syrian dialect, so as to make it closer to the population. Radio stations seem to be the best tools to convey this content: Interactive and open to the community, alternative FM services are mushrooming inside Syria. Their FM signals cover almost the entire country, including pro-regime strongholds such as Latakia.

In opposition-held areas experiencing a dramatic shortage of electricity, radio services are much more popular than the internet as a way to stay informed. Moreover, their “conversational” nature makes radios the ideal place to try out new formats and involve the audience in the content creation process. Many new outlets, in fact, are currently experimenting with languages and formats that heavily rely on the interaction with the audience.

Also print and online publications are flourishing, both in areas that are under regime control as well as in those managed by all sorts of armed groups. Many of them make use of different languages spoken inside Syria, such as Kurdish, alongside with modern standard Arabic. Several target niche groups such as women, children, religious minorities, the youth. Others focus on providing analyses that rely on the contributions of professional journalists and Syrian intellectuals in order to debate issues such as transitional justice or human rights-related issues.

A wide variety of political views  are represented in these publications, from the staunch anti-Assad’s positions to those who prefer to seek a dialogue with the pro-regimes and focus on building a shared ground for the country’s future.

Challenges ahead    

The dynamic growth of media has its downside. Fragmentation of media outlets, lack of professionalism, unskilled labour, poor transparency over funding and partisanship are the most recurrent problems of Syrian grassroots media.

Some  outlets are loosely associated with opposition political groups, military or religious factions. Many of them, in order to survive, have to rely on funding that comes mostly from abroad, namely the US, France or Germany – countries that have set programmes of non-lethal assistance to the Syrian uprising.

Al Jazeera World – Syria: Wounds of War

Often times this media aid translates into technical assistance and training, delivery of equipment such as FM transmitters for radio stations or printing facilities for news publications. More rarely, the financial support goes into funding specific content or training.

Despite all the challenges that they are facing, these grassroots media have gained much more experience and awareness than they could have hoped for three years ago. In 2011, every Syrian  who had a small camera, a computer and access to the internet would consider himself a “citizen journalist”.

In 2014, almost every Syrian  interviewed for this research study had a critical view of what constitutes “citizen journalism”. Beyond the Western cliche that has romanticised the idea of citizen journalism, Syrian activists now question both words, citizen and journalist. On the one hand, experience has taught them that it was probably too early to talk about citizens’ media in a country where the idea of active citizenship had been used in official rhetoric for decades and yet was never put into practice.

On the other hand, Syrians have been forced by circumstances to learn the basics of newsmaking; yet, now they realise the difference between this “militant” reporting and professional journalism. So they are trying to move to the next step. Pursuing more balanced, less inflammatory content, and focusing on civil society-related issues are part of their attempt to rebuild the country’s social fabric instead of stressing partisanship, whether political or sectarian.

Many of these grassroots media outlets are shaping collective platforms to set common rules and ethical standards, explore alternative business models and find ways to survive financially. Initiatives are starting to emerge among Syrian media outlets to define a shared, non-partisan, non-sectarian language. Activists are asking for more training sessions and workshops to train people as administrative staff, supervisors, and media managers who will be needed to turn these loose media groups into cohesive media organisations.

With increasing awareness of the mistakes that have been made, Syrian activists, once armed with small cameras and producing “militant” content, are now trying to build a more professional environment, and create an infrastructure for independent media to operate in the future.

This process is progressing slowly but surely. It is yet another sign of the existence of a concerned civil society in Syria which is struggling to survive and to maintain a media presence, too. Meanwhile, international media attention  continues to focus on the regime in Damascus or to armed groups, forgetting about a society that is learning day-to-day practices of democracy, against all odds.

Enrico De Angelis is a media researcher at CEDEJ (Egypt-Sudan). He has lived in Cairo since September 2011.

Follow him on Twitter: @anomiamed

Donatella Della Ratta is a PhD fellow at University of Copenhagen focusing her research on the Syrian TV industry.  

Follow her on Twitter: @donatelladr

Yazan Badran is a blogger and media researcher. He is based in Brussels, Belgium.

Follow him on Twitter: @yazanbadran

 

Originally published on Al Jazeera English, 30 August 2014

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Al Jazeera adds Egyptian & Tunisian footage to the Creative Commons repository

Al Jazeera has just started updating the Creative Commons Al Jazeera repository which the channel created in early 2009 during the Gaza crisis. The Al Jazeera New Media team is working to update the repository with daily packages of footage coming from Egypt and Tunisia uprisings.

Having chosen the most “lenient” Creative Commons license, CC BY, Al Jazeera is  allowing anybody to take, copy, share, translate, remix, and even re-broadcast the footage for free under the only condition of attributing the original source.

This is a key move towards the circulation of information particularly during crisis, like the one currently happening in Egypt. Wired has commented the move here.

Today the Egyptian Ministry of Information prevented both Al Jazeera Arabic and English from operating within the country but the live coverage of the Egypt uprising continued thanks to mobile phones live coverage.

Since the beginning of the demonstrations, Al Jazeera Arabic and English have been covering Egypt extensively both through traditional broadcast and with an impressive online coverage on all the major social networks.

Egypt`s day of anger is Al Jazeera day, too

I have been watching Egypt`s “day of anger” today on many TV channels, English and Arabic: BBC Arabic, BBC World, Al Arabiya, Al Jazeera Arabic and English, CNN. I must admit that this time Al Jazeera English did really a great job, particularly their correspondent from Cairo Ayman Mohyeldin. Al Jazeera English live feed on the Internet has been providing constant live coverage today, even during the worst moments of Friday the 28th of January, when the police was  attacking Al Jazeera`s Cairo office and trying to stop the live broadcast. Al Jazeera Arabic and English also started tonight to release some of their Egyptian footage under a Creative Commons license, something which has been very warmly welcomed by Internet users that are in constant need of footage in these crisis situations.

On the contrary, Al Arabyia was quite “low profile” today and they even reported the totally random news that Internet had been shut down by Syrian authorities in Syria. The news is totally false, as I have been live tweeting from Syria during all Friday, as many other Syrian tweeps. Internet was very fast today  in Syria, as far as I can tell. It has never been so fast in the country since I am here, as much as it has never been raining like tonight and Damascus has never looked so quiet and gloomy as it was tonight.

picture by Paul Keller

Another “honeymoon”..Obama and the Arabs..seems to be over

I’d like to re-publish this interesting post coming from who writes on the Shami Hamid, Deputy Director of the Brooking Center in Doha,Huffington Post commenting on why the honeymoon between Arabs and Obama ” is really over now”.

This echoes other comments which recently appeared on The Washington Post and on The Guardian saying more or less the same. And Al Jazeera English’s “LIstening Post” is covering the issue by devoting a whole series of episodes to the topic “Obama and the media”.

When we published the book “Un Hussein alla Casa Bianca” (January 2009) tackling the issue of the “Arab dream” on Obama there was a “realistic skepticism” among the majority of the people and countries we surveyed. After one year of presidency it looks like Faisal Qassem‘s argument in one of the episode of “Al Ittijah al moakis” is going to win over Arabs’ hearths and minds: the problem is not Obama himself as an individual,  the problem is the structure of politics itself. To tell this with Hamid’s words: “.. political structures matter more than individuals – and the American system seems wedded to a fundamentally misguided approach toward the Middle East”.

Obama and the Arab World: The Honeymoon Is Really Over Now

There’s no doubt that there’s been growing Arab disappointment with President Obama, but I’m beginning to sense the disappointment – both understandable and expected – turning into something altogether more worrying. Part of the problem is that many Arabs, including even some Islamists, believed in Obama almost as much as Americans did.

I had lunch the other day with three Western-educated Arab liberals, the kind of people who were optimistic, if cautiously so, not too long ago. The conversation turned to U.S. policy and I felt like I was back in the Bush era, having to muster some kind of defense for my country’s actions. Before, under Bush, I could always say: “wait, the Bush administration doesn’t represent what America and Americans stand for. Don’t worry, we’ll vote him out of office and elect a Democrat…” Now, I’m not exactly sure what, if anything, I should say. I’m not in any mood right now to put positive spin on Obama’s first 12 months or on what Democrats can offer America and the world. The gap between expectation and reality has been so great so as to almost defy characterization.

Arab critics of U.S. policy are likely to draw several conclusions from Obama’s first year in office (whether or not these perceptions are accurate is beside the point. Perceptions matter as long as people think they’re accurate):

  1. That it doesn’t quite matter who the American President is. Obama might be great. He might care about Arabs and their grievances. But political structures matter more than individuals – and the American system seems wedded to a fundamentally misguided approach toward the Middle East.
  2. The election of Obama – with his evident desire to build bridges with the Arab world, not to mention his Muslim family and middle name – was the best possible outcome that Arabs could have hoped for. But, even with the best possible outcome, U.S. policy is still pretty bad.
  3. America has a congenital problem with advancing wonderful soaring rhetoric while, at best, featuring some roundly unimaginative policymaking and, at worst, furthering policies in the Middle East that are downright destructive.
  4. America’s Middle East policy is irredeemable. It is time to stop hoping that America will change.

People hated Bush but, at least their hate seemed to imply a recognition of America’s centrality in the Middle East, and that America, due to its overwhelming influence and power, would have to change in order for the Middle East to change. The anger toward Obama is different in that it is accompanied by a sort of resignation and a coming to terms with an America that appears increasingly beside the point. The United States is in steep decline, so some are saying, and instead of hoping it will change, it might be better (and more realistic) to hope that it falls.

by Shami Hamid , Deputy Director Brookings Doha Center

Follow Shadi Hamid on Twitter: www.twitter.com/shadihamid

Al Jazeera alone doing the job

It seems that Al Jazeera is now alone reporting from Gaza. We are witnessing a massacre through its screens. Few minutes ago it was also broadcasting Gaza live on one side, and President Sarkozy on the other side, involved in many diplomatic talks to stop Israeli’s attacks. Also Al Jazeera English is doing a good job, after many months -and some years- of not so brilliant news coverage- is now like revitalised, doing a very extensive coverage with interesting political analysis and live reports. Where are Western channels??Is it Gaza not a “story”in journalistic terms?