Revamping Syria’s creative resistance

These days, we don’t hear that much concerning Syrian civil society and its resilience. Yet, this is something we should care about and we should try to listen to Syrian voices from civil society that have been silenced by the polarization Syrian regime vs ISIS (Da’ash).
I’m proud to be part of a team of committed scholars, journalists and activists who are doing their best to deliver those silenced voices to the general public. Our common project, the web portal on Syrian civil society and emerging creativity  SyriaUntold,  has just been revamped. It has a new look, and contains new features and also a new section which highlights our recent partnership with Open Democracy  “Looking inside the uprising” .
This new section features articles on “collective memory”, “creative resistance”, “emerging media”, and “sectarianism”, a topic highly debated these days in the context of the Syrian uprising
The last article penned by our Mohamed Dibo , “Assad’s secular sectarianism”,  has been widely discussed, bringing a new perspective to a debate which is too often framed by Western media in a very polarized way, i.e. “Assad’s secularism” vs “sunni jihadism”.
We hope that, even such a small contribution as SyriaUntold is, can at least help shed light on issues and perspectives quite often forgotten in the international debate, or lost in the “black and white” frame applied to Syria these days.
We do our best to highlight the efforts and the incredible resilience of Syrian civil society, featuring its defiance and creative resistance.
Please visit the new website , follow SyriaUntold on Twitter and Facebook 
and subscribe to the weekly newsletter. 
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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

Syria: elections in defiance

Tomorrow is Syria`s election day.

Bashar al-Asad has launched his “Sawa” (together) campaign with a strong online presence both on Facebook and on Twitter ,

 

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(Pics from Sawa Facebook page)

and also on YouTube, where many famous Syrian actors such as Bab al hara`s hero “Mootaz” aka Wael al-Sharq and Syrian movie and musalsalat star Dureid Laham have encouraged people to go vote

-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.

From SyriaUntold:

Syrian elections and parallel realities

Syrian dark humor and the elections

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Intakhab (Vote) artwork by Wissam al Jazairy remixed by SyriaUntold

From Wissam al Jazairy`s Facebook page:

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Elections, by Wissam al Jazairy

Lots of creative works and parodies on elections can be found on Dawlaty:

 

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Picture from Dawlaty Facebook page

 

Other popular anti-elections anti-Asad Facebook pages are Blood Elections (Intikhabat al-damm), Sawa Crimes, and For Humanity Only.

Hilarious video parodies of the Syrian actors encouraging people to vote can be found here and here and here.

 

 

 

 

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The Palestinian Museum: Images, in spite of all

A project worth attention:

“The Palestinian Museum”

 

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“In order to know, we must imagine for ourselves…let us not invoke the unimaginable.”

 

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“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” .

 

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“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”.

(Georges Didi-Huberman, Images in spite of all,  English edition 2008)

Syria Speaks in tour

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.

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