10 years of Syrian independent media

Ten years ago, The Arab Spring spread across the Middle East and North Africa, and in countries all over the region, populations took to the street to protest against repressive regimes, corruption, low living standards and a lack of human rights.

15 March 2021 marks 10 years of the Syrian Revolution. It was ignited by the regime’s violent reaction to a group of young people’s anti-government graffiti in the city of Daraa. In the coming period, hundreds of thousands of Syrians protested the violence and repressiveness of President Bashar al-Assad, who responded with harsh clampdowns and arresting and torturing large numbers of peaceful protesters. Fueled by the intervention of multiple international and regional actors, the Syrian regime’s brutal repression escalated into a decade-long war in Syria. While the revolution has long been overshadowed in the narratives about the country by this devastating war, Syrian activism is far from dead.

From non-existent to fully fledged independent media scene

During the past ten years, Syrian civil society and independent media – whose seeds started sprouting in the revolution – bloomed into professional, well-oiled organisations that efficiently continue an inveterate fight for human rights and an open public debate between Syrians within and outside the country’s borders.

In parallel to the horrifying war, the initial media activist groups developed into professional media outlets with reporters across Syria and editorial offices in exile. Today, Syrian independent media offer reliable, critical coverage of the complexity of the country’s situation. They have created an entirely new space for public debate where everything from social taboos and Covid-19 to the future of the country and its collapsed economy is discussed by a broad range of marginalised groups, whose voices otherwise would never have been heard.

IMS has collaborated with many of these organisations from their beginnings. “It wouldn’t be exaggerating to say that IMS is one of the primary international media development organisations in Syria. We were already working in the country before the war, and for this reason, we had established a good network that made it possible for us to act quickly when the conflict broke out,” says Rune Friberg Lyme, IMS Syria Programme Manager.

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Close collaboration and support

IMS helped coordinate the international support for media development and the safety efforts for journalists and media workers in the country. Additionally, IMS has co-founded and supported media networks across the country and in the huge diaspora. Even though the process of building a new media sector has been challenged by conditions – to put it mildly – it has added a whole new aspect to public debate and information sharing in the country.

Rune Friberg Lyme explains: “What we see ten years after the revolution is a group of brilliant and courageous media outlets delivering important public service content for various Syrian audiences. Before the revolution, no such thing existed – on the contrary, media served as the regime’s extended arm and no news outlets existed for minority groups speaking languages other than Arabic.”

“In the beginning of the revolution, the Syrian regime asked all the media to start playing their propaganda (…) I refused,” Lina Chawaf, editor-in-chief of Radio Rozana remembers. Radio Rozana is a a Syrian exile radio operating from Paris and is one of the independent outlet that has focused on delivering factual news and important information to Syrians from day one.

Another of these outlets is Al-Jumhuriya, an online magazine discussing political, cultural and social questions and “aspiring fervently to a democratic and just future for Syria.” The editor-in-chief of the magazine, Yassin Swehat, agrees that the independent Syrian media has been an important and inspiring development for the country’s population:

“It’s amazing that a lot of people are doing journalism during this apocalyptic panorama that Syria is in the midst of. I don’t think there’s a lot of independence in any other aspects of public life in Syria; Political life is not independent at all, the big media outlets are not independent,” he says.

The brave efforts of the Syrian journalists and media workers have come at a high cost. Jawad Sharbaji is the editor-in-chief at Enab Baladi, an multilingual 24-hours news organisation, explains: “”Enab Baladi has lost four of its founders. The least we can do is to stay loyal to their memory, to constantly have their pictures on the front page of the newspaper.”

Important to promote inclusiveness and equality

Syrian independent media outlets have not only developed a new journalistic sector, but have also challenged the notion of what kind of information and coverage should be prioritised during a conflict, especially to ensure a variety of voices and perspectives of those who are marginalized are heard.

Women’s voices are underrepresented in media in general, but their experiences, perspectives are especially overlooked in conflict contexts – in media as well as in peace and security efforts. These are important issues not only for women, but for the whole conflict situation because research shows that the involvement of women in peace and security efforts increases the chance of long-lasting peace.

IMS’ 1325 programme in Syria (and Myanmar and Colombia) works with this exact focus – promoting the voices and important roles of women in conflicts and peace development in and through media. 

Yassin Swehat says about Al-Jumhuriya’s work to promote an inclusive and gender-sensitive platform: “[In 2012] … there were not a lot of platforms that were giving space for Syrian debate. It was mainly news, news, news. We challenged what could be perceived as the direct need of a country in war. We thought that we needed to have a place to think about progressive questions: we needed to think about gender, we needed to think about women’s rights, we needed to think about sexual diversity as well. It’s not a contradiction. It’s part of the democratic struggle, and we can’t separate it from the everyday struggle in Syria.”

Another partner working to promote women’s voices is Syrian Female Journalists Network (SFJN). Since 2012, the organisation has conducted research and provided trainings for journalists and human rights defenders as well as created coalitions to improve the inclusion of women in media. Executive Director Rula Asad explains: “Through collaborations with media, we promote the active roles women play during a crisis, encourage women’s participation in public debate, amplify women’s perspectives and expertise, put a focus on gender-specific challenges and encourage a feminist, inclusive approach. That’s important in all societies – also during conflict.”

Diverse and multi-lingual reporting save lives

Sherin Ibrahim is the Radio Manager of ARTA FM, a community radio station in Amuda, northeastern Syria. The first time Ibrahim heard one of the station’s programmes, she was astonished – it was the first time she heard Kurdish being spoken on a Syrian media platform. Not long after, she became engaged with the diverse and inclusive reporting at the radio station.

“Before there was one language in the media. The only ones who existed in the Syrian media were those who showed loyalty to the regime,” she explains. “At ARTA FM, we broadcast in four languages. I think that the passion to be multi-lingual and the strains of the different identities make people see themselves in the Syrian revolution.”

The radio station has proven essential in times of crisis – for example were they able to spread crucial information about Covid-19 to vulnerable groups while the Syrian government denied any cases of the virus.

The future in- and outside Syria’s borders

The establishment of the independent media sector throughout the past ten year as well as the strengthening of human rights organisations will continue to play an important role in the future. A good example is the work of another IMS partner, Syrian Archive. It is an organisation that collects, preserves and verifies digital records of war crimes and human-rights abuses, and it has now expanded to departments in Yemen and Sudan as well. Their archival materials recently were essential to the conviction of the first member of President al-Assad’s regime for crimes against humanity. This trial was just the first in a line of criminal cases that Syrian Archive has co-filed with other human rights defenders.

The independent media outlets that IMS collaborates with work a broad palette of formats and focus points. What is special about them is that they produce content relevant for both Syrians inside the country and those living in exile. Today, at least one fourth of the population lives outside the country’s borders.

The independent media outlets will play an increasingly important role in building bridges between Syrians living in Syria and the enormous diaspora. The Syrian exile population will be indispensable in the future rebuilding of the country where the revolution’s ideals and demands for human rights still resounds.

“Even though it isn’t possible for many editorial rooms to operate from Syria, or  it’s only possible to  work through stringers, Syria today has a media landscape that delivers factual, credible news and offers platforms for public debate between Syrian communities inside and outside the country. It is crucial for the Syrian civil society and for the future of the country,” says Rune Friberg Lyme.