Support from Danish peers to Syrian newspapers made a difference

A 2014 collaboration between danish newspaper Politiken, IMS and five independent Syrian newspapers not only secured continued content distribution to Syrian civilians but also highlighted deeper principles of peer obligations. Today, one of those newspapers, Enab Baladi, has become a leading media outlet in Syria and the editor in chief calls the collaboration the paper’s “most important experience”.

Over three autumn weeks in 2014, the Danish newspaper Politiken, along with IMS, led a public fundraising campaign in support of independent Syrian media struggling to continue to provide their readers with trustworthy information amidst the war tearing their country apart. The campaign was called “Help Syria escape its media void”.

At the end of three weeks, 649,231 Danish kroner, or almost $103,000, had been collected.

Production and distribution

The money went exclusively to five newspapers, one of them was Enab Baladi, which means “The grapes of my country”. It was started in November 2011 as a direct outcome of the uprisings that had begun seven months earlier.

“Before there was absolutely no media freedom or independent journalism in Syria, so one of the first priorities after the uprisings was to have media outlets that were free and independent,“ says Jawad Shorbaji, editor in chief at Enab Baladi.

At the time of the campaign, Enab Baladi and the four other targeted newspapers had been forced to move out of Syria. They were based and produced in Turkey and distributed back across the border in Syria as well as among Syrian refugees in neighbouring countries. The entire operation faced huge challenges, but the money collected went a long way in terms of securing production and distribution and facilitated a collaboration between the outlets, lowering the costs on logistics and coordination.

But of more importance to the five newspapers and their staffs were the support from and the collaboration with their Danish peers.

Classic IMS

During the campaign, Politiken, one of Denmark’s largest daily newspapers and media houses, carried daily columns, articles and photos produced by the Syrian newspapers and published interviews with the editors-in-chief.

Politiken got access to unique stories from a difficult region and built a network it has used on and off over the years as the situation in Syria and its neighbouring countries has changed. For the Syrian journalists, some non-professionals, seeing their work published in an international media outlet and engaging in a professional dialogue and discussing and exchanging with Danish peers – who  also visited the newspapers’ headquarters in Turkey – was extremely valuable. Jawad Shorbaji recalls:

“The trainings helped raise the quality, and the opportunity to share news on Syria with a foreign audience equally became an occasion for us to raise our standards and to develop our content.”

In that way, the campaign was classic IMS: An acknowledgement of the vital importance of access to trustworthy information in countries of conflict, the value of free media coupled with a keen focus on the importance of partnership.

An obligation

The first employee from Politiken to visit the newspapers was the then-editor of the foreign news desk, Michael Jarlner, who was also lead on the project.

“It is situations like this that remind me of why I entered journalism in the first place. In the daily work, one tends to take press freedom for granted, but sometimes press freedom can exist only when people are willing to risk their lives. I have an immense respect for these people,” he says.

For the Danish media outlet, the decision to enter into a partnership and set up the campaign with IMS and the five Syrian newspapers was made from a wish to raise awareness and to support their peers and the development of independent media.

“At Politiken, we believe in the importance of free media. If we in any way can support that and take the role of the press seriously, we will. We have an obligation within the world of media to help each other and fight for the cause, which is far greater than anything,” says Michael Jarlner, who is still with Politiken today.

Securing editorial independence

Most of the hundreds of media outlets that were founded in the wake of the Syrian uprisings did not make it. Out of the five newspapers from the campaign, Enab Baladi is the only one left.

In the 10 years it has existed, it has grown to be one of the most prominent independent Syrian multimedia platforms. Still based in Turkey, it now has a staff of 70 employees with journalists based across Syria and freelancers all around the world.

Understanding the link between financial independence and editorial independence, Jawad Shorbaji, who is himself an accountant, has set up financial strategies that gives the outlet space to maneuver. This includes doing early risk assessments and having six or seven different donors, which secures freedom and autonomy.

“The financial security is what enabled us to focus on quality. Today, Enab Baladi is not only one of the best journalistic content producers in Syria but is also something of a school for aspiring journalists,” explains Shorbaji, visibly proud of the newspaper he has help to build.

Asked about what the 2014 collaboration has meant for Enab Baladi, Jawad Shorbaji calls it the media outlet’s “most important experience during all these years.” As independent media outlets continue to play an important role in building bridges between Syrians living in Syria and the enormous diaspora, so will IMS continue to support Syrian exile media.