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.
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.
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.
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.
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: @
Tomorrow is Syria`s election day.
(Pics from Sawa Facebook page)
-Intakhab, Vote, is the slogan of another (pro-Assad) campaign called Suriya Tantakhib-.
Activists have immediately reacted, using creativity and dark humor to highlight the absurdity of these elections happening while millions of civilians are displaced, bombed, and forced to starve.
Here you are some of the most interesting artwork and parodies created by Syrian artists and activists.
Intakhab (Vote) artwork by Wissam al Jazairy remixed by SyriaUntold
Elections, by Wissam al Jazairy
Lots of creative works and parodies on elections can be found on Dawlaty:
Picture from Dawlaty Facebook page
A project worth attention:
“In order to know, we must imagine for ourselves…let us not invoke the unimaginable.”
“Let us not shelter ourselves by saying that we cannot, that we could not by any means, imagine it to the very end. We are obliged to that oppressive imaginable” .
“Images in spite of all: in spite of our own inability to look at them as they deserve; in spite of our own world, full, almost choked, with immaginary commodities”.
Syria Speaks is an anthology of uprising literature, art and culture, showcasing the work of over fifty artists and writers who are challenging the culture of violence in Syria with creative resistance.
The book is edited by Malu Halasa and Zaher Omareen (with whom I co-curated two exhibitions about Syria`s creative resistance), and Syrian journalist Nawara Mahfoud, and is published by Saqi books in English and Arabic.
Dan Gorman and Yasmine Fedda at Reelfestivals have put together a great event to launch the book and showcase the incredible amount of creativity coming out from Syria since the beginning of the uprising. The Syria Speaks UK tour will feature, together with the book co-authors Malu Halasa and Zaher Omareen, writer Khaled Khalifa, videoartist Khalil Younes, writer Robin Yassin-Kassab.
Dates are published here.
Aleppo has been without water supplies for a week now, rebels and government accusing each other for being responsible….
Meanwhile, Syrian artist Wissam al Jazairly has released this on his Facebook page…
An update on what`s new on arts and culture coming out from Syria these days, despite the ongoing bloodshed and the brutal armed conflict.
Among them, filmaker and visual artist Khaled Abdulwahed, author of the amazing short movie Tuji; visual artist Dino Ahmed Ali, whom I have been knowing since my Damascus days and have recently met in Paris, where he now lives and works on very cool stuff; and visual artist Hamid Suleiman, who does amazing illustrations and visual art (we had the pleasure of hosting him in Italy for an art exhibit two years ago).
Another Syrian artist who is around these days with exhibits and talks is Tammam Azzam -whom I was happy to host last year in Milan with Festival del Cinema Africano for “Creative Syria”-. Tammam, who became internationally known for his series Syrian Museum, is now exhibiting in Dakar, Budapest, and in New York where he will be part of an event focused on Syria and Iran.
On the filmaking side, probably the biggest event is happening next week at Cannes Film Festival where acclaimed Syrian director Osama Mohammad is is premiering his new documentary, Silvered Water Syria self-portrait, entirely filmed with a mobile phone by a female filmaker based in Homs, Wiam Berdixan.
Also several Syrian TV-drama makers are filming short-movies and TV drama (musalsalat) dealing with the current situation in Syria. Abdelhakim al Qutfan, a very well known Syrian actor who also starred in “Wilada min-al-Khasira” part three (the TV series broadcast last Ramadan whose plot revolved around the Syrian uprising and how it turned into an armed conflict), is presenting today in Amman “The night of the fall”.
The short movie, directed by Nawras Abu Saleh, tries to imagine the night before the fall of Assad`s regime; a hope that several Syrians, including artists and drama makers, still cultivate, despite the dire situation in the country.
Thanks to some Twitter friends from Syria I`ve just rediscovered these beautiful chants and slogans which were repeated all across Syria expecially in the first two years after the uprising started.
This is a selection of chants and slogans:
This is from Homs, one of the most creative places in the Syrian uprising:
And this is a very interesting documentary – made by Al Jazeera in 2013- called “The melody of hope” which recaps the most “creative” moments of the Syrian uprising, starting from the first haphazard demonstration in central Damascus Hariqa neighbourhood back in February 2011 when people were chanting “The Syrian people won`t be humiliated” . It also reports about the popular response to Butheina Shaaban`s speech, few days after the protests broke out in Daraa in March 2011. At the time, when Bashar al-Asad`s media and political aide suggested that people were demonstrating for economic reasons, street demonstrations immediately reacted by chanting ” Ya Butheina ya Shaaban as-shaab as-sury mou juaan” (Oh Butheina oh Shaaban, the Syrian people are not hungry”.
The documentary features important personalities of Syria`s creative resistance such as composer and musician Samih Shqer, author of the popular anti-Bashar al-Asad song “Ya Haif”; and popular actor from “Bab al hara” series Jalal Taweel, who was arrested by the secret service while on his way to the Jordanian border, and then forced to record an interview with Syria TV. During this interview, the actor “denied allegations that he was arrested and detained by Syrian police officials, instead claiming that he was kidnapped by an armed gang and was rescued by Syrian police officials near the Jordanian border” (Taweel is now safe and sound outside the country, and very active in supporting the revolution and its original claim to freedom and dignity).
A very interesting part of the documentary (at around 13.30 minutes) is when it deals with the Karamah Football Club from Homs (Nadi al Karamah) and explores how the slogans and songs chanted by its supporters influenced those which resonated in the streets during the anti-regime demonstrations in 2011 and 2012.
I wish this documentary were translated into English, it could give the international public a better insight on what happened in Syria and how defiant and creative the Syrian people have been.
These days I can hardly open my Twitter timeline without finding almost 90% of the tweets dealing with Syria. Everybody has turned into an expert, whether on Syria or US` politics. Everybody seems to have an opinion whether it`s good or bad to bomb Syria, as the US has threatened to do.
I`m trying to stay silent in the middle of this “yes” or “no” crowd. I`m trying to stay away from commenting Syria these days, and this is not because I dont want to take a clear stance vis-a-vis the situation. Indeed, I took a clear stance more than two years ago: I was lucky enough to be in Syria when the uprising started, and feel blessed to have witnessed the beginning of a civil society-led movement asking for dignity and freedom in the most creative ways. I`m strongly against this regime which has, since day one, repressed into blood any request for change coming from the population. I also strongly oppose US led strike on Syria which is going to lead the situation into more chaos, death, violence, and civilian casualties, and eventually to a regional bloody conflict.
But I want to say loud that I`m outraged by this “yes” or “no” situation in which they have put us. I have to look either as a pro-regime or as a pro-imperialist. I am none of them. I`m sure many others feel like myself, being forced into the weird situation of having to state “yes” or “no” , “pro” or “against” something or someone.
There was a time when we tried so hard to show the world what the Syrian uprising was about. There was a time when we hosted conferences, events, public talks, exhibitions to show the world that Syria had a mature civil society that was resisting to violence in creative ways, but needed support. We went to meet up with journalists, human rights activists, academics, students, media experts, and politicians. Politicians and diplomats looked at us, us the “Syria experts” and listened to us, smiling. They took our advice, they discussed issues with us, they kept an open dialogue in order to get “updates” from civil society through us. They said it was important to have a “micro” approach, as they were too much stuck into the “macro” geopolitical picture -what Iran would do, how Turkey will respond, what Saudi Arabia thinks, and the like- , so they needed us to “stay in touch” with civil society, to understand what views were expressed on social networks, activists` groups etc etc.
We believed them and we kept organizing talks, and more talks, and more events. Myself, together with a group of Syrian and international curators, have worked hard to gather Syrian creativity and showcase it in Amsterdam, Copenhagen, London, Milan, Vienna, everywhere. We thought this was an important thing to do, not just for the general public to admire Syrian creativity as a work of art; but to understand that it was the result of civic awareness and a will to participate into a public debate in several creative ways.
Today, a dear friend on Twitter shared this video “Creative Syrian Revolution”. Its author, Bilal Zaiter, is making an appeal on Indiegogo to raise money to make a visual book which tracks the history of the Syrian uprising and its creativity: something in order not to forget where all it started.
Yet, this broke my heart today cause we do have forgotten where it all started. When we say yes or no to intervention, when we say I am pro Assad or pro Obama, when they force us into choosing whether being a dictator-supporter or an imperialist power-supporter, we do have forgotten where it all started. We have forgotten that the most important thing is not to save Assad`s chair in name of a supposed “secularism” which he would allegedly support; nor to back Obama`s pledge to “defend humanity” just because a red-line was crossed from the US` point of view, whereas many others red lines had been crossed by this regime since long time ago. The most important thing is indeed the Syrian people, the lives of those civilians who have bravely expressed their views, and we have forgotten about them.Today we cry out our outrage for an illegitimate war which is likely to happen: and I do it, too. But we should cry out our outrage for we have failed, we have let the Syrian people down. We have admired their works of art and resistance and civil disobedience while returning to our homes reassured, in a way, that this form of resistance would not stop. But we have done nothing to support it. We havent found any creative way to keep this creativity alive, and now this creativity has been almost killed by the “yes’ or “no” crowd.I dont want to look hopeless, although I am a bit..cause all our words and actions went in vain if they havent helped our media, politicians and public opinion to think differently about Syria. But, to those who still believe in this civil society and who are still convinced that Syria is not a “yes” or “no” situation, please do something….do something these days, urgently, to stop this war. Yes. We don`t need yet another US intervention in the region, especially if done this way. But do not only act to stop war; do act to produce a real peace which wont be the case if this regime stays and goes on with killing its own people. Mobilize your circles, make petitions to the UN, engage your politicians, do whatever you can do..but do something and remind the world that those Syrians who started the uprising as a civil society movement were imprisoned by Assad (I have many friends still held in regime`s jails..and these are not the “salafi” type, I can assure) or killed or forced into exile, and those who stayed were marginalized by the “jihadi” groups paid by foreign powers (with the US doing nothing to avoid this). Do something, whatever you can, to push our “leaders” to find a real solution for peace, because Syria concerns all of us. If Syrian civil society dies, we also die.