Friday,23 February, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1203, (26 June - 2 July 2014)
Friday,23 February, 2018
Issue 1203, (26 June - 2 July 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Zealous but untrained

Dozens of opposition publications have appeared since the beginning of the Syrian revolution, with somewhat mixed results, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus

Al-Ahram Weekly

The Syrian conflict has opened the door for numerous intellectuals and writers, both young and old, to express themselves more freely than ever before. The uprising that has thrust the country into fully-fledged revolt has also untapped the resources of citizen journalism, placing the country’s alternative media firmly in the limelight and treating the nation to the kind of open reporting not seen during the 40-year rule of presidents Hafez and Bashar Al-Assad.

This growth in the new media has been greeted with enthusiasm by a nation thirsty for alternative views. However, the lack of training among the new generation of reporters, coupled with the ideological content of their coverage, has often coloured reports with the wishful thinking of the writers or the political desires of their financial backers.

The result has been that the zeal and creativity of citizen journalism and fledgling venues of expression in audio, video, online and print journalism in Syria have been dampened by one-sided reporting and an uncritical handling of reports.

Despite its achievements in bringing a long-running war that has claimed the lives of tens of thousands of people and forced millions more out of their homes to domestic and world attention, the Syrian oppositional media has failed on more than one front. It has not given any genuinely critical assessment to the revolutionary groups in the country, has done little to guide revolutionary politicians or sift facts from myths, and has not given a genuinely in-depth analysis of the ongoing trauma in the country.

However, the emergence of the revolutionary media has been a welcome change. It has broken the tyranny of misinformation exercised by the Syrian regime for decades and has offered the Syrian people something other than the praise of the regime and its allegedly infallible leaders.

Over the past 40 years, the state-controlled media in Syria has offered nothing but sycophancy to the country’s leaders. The new media, in recruiting a young and enthusiastic new breed of fearless reporters, has swiftly gained the appreciation of the public. It has also attracted a wide variety of participants, from young citizen journalists armed with mobile phones to dissident writers with many years of experience behind them.

THE RISE OF THE NEW MEDIA: Though the country has been in turmoil, the Syrian regime has tried to stop all television reporting on the ongoing bloodshed.

While this would probably have worked even a decade or so ago in preventing news leaking out to the wider public, today the surge in new forms of communication has meant that a smart phone can upload events as they unfold to viewers on YouTube, Facebook and other similar online outlets and social-networking sites.

The power of the regime has been contested in the media just as it has in the streets as a result, and for once its narrative has not gone unchallenged even by weaker opponents. Thanks to a flood of amateur reporting and citizen journalism, images of the Syrian conflict have been flashed onto screens around the world, refuting the regime’s version of events.

Almost overnight, dozens of young protesters have turned into amateur reporters and photojournalists. Mobile phones have become an additional weapon of the revolution, with the result that the regime, noticing the difference that the new media has been making, has instructed the security forces to shoot at people holding phones and arresting youngsters filming the protests.

Thousands of young men are said to have been thrown into prison, their only crime holding up a camera to record events as they have unfolded. The Syrian authorities have been trying to stop the flow of evidence showing how the regime has brutalised peaceful demonstrators, flinging the country into one of the bloodiest conflicts in its modern history, though without any evident success.

The new journalism has not flinched in the face of such repression. Citizen journalists armed with nothing but their phones and personal courage have braved the bullets and the threats of arrest to keep the world informed. Websites have been organised to document images and disseminate reports. With the financial help of businessmen, NGOs, and friendly governments, the revolutionary media has established itself as a significant challenge to the Al-Assad regime.

Over the past three years of the conflict in Syria, more than 60 newspapers and magazines, daily and otherwise, have appeared. Most started out as simple blogs on social media sites before venturing into more mature forms online and in print.

Some publications have also received substantial funding, enabling them to be printed inside and outside Syria.

Opposition television stations have also surfaced, though these have been mostly based abroad. Among the more noteworthy publications are Enab Baladi (Grapes of my Country), a weekly print magazine published by a group of young journalists from Daria near Damascus, of which 115 issues have appeared so far.

Oxygen, another publication produced in Al-Zaydani west of Damascus, has published 109 issues.

Other publications include Suriyetna (Our Syria), which has produced 138 issues, Talaana Aal Hurriyya (Climb to Freedom), published by the local coordination committees, which has released 41 issues, Rigal Al-Assema (Men of the Capital), which has produced 52 issues, Zeitun (Olives), which has released 61 issues, Surya Al-Yawm (Syria Today), which has published 396 issues, Hurriyya (Freedom), which has published 86 issues, and Shararet Azaar (Spark of March), which has released 117 issues.

Some dozen new television channels have appeared on satellite. Orient continues to be one of the most successful television stations broadcasting from outside Syria. Barada, based in London, is also popular. Other channels worthy of note include Surya Al-Shaab (The People’s Syria), Surya 18 Azaar (Syria 18 March), Surya Al-Jadida (The New Syria), Shaza Al-Hurriyya (The Scent of Freedom), Wesal (In Touch) and Surya Al-Ghad (Tomorrow’s Syria).

Radio stations broadcasting on air and online include Radio Al-Koll (All People’s Radio), Orient, Rozana, Bedaya Jadida, Wahed + Wahed (One+One), Al-Koll (All) and Watan FM (Homeland FM).

One cannot help but be impressed by the growth in the new media. But the circumstances of this media’s birth, the conditions of its funding and the inexperience of most of those working in it have meant that it has generally failed to commit to the usual edicts of journalism concerning impartiality and depth of reporting.

CHALLENGES REMAIN: Many of the drawbacks of the revolutionary media could have been avoided with the right amount of training, judicious recruiting and unbiased funding.

However, unfortunately in many cases the new media has been tainted by the narrow vision of its owners and operators. As a result, many of the pitfalls of the official media have found their way into the opposition media. Single-mindedness has often won out over critical thinking, and loyalty has triumphed over reason.

One of the problems has been that the new media was not formed in a systematic manner and with clear plans in mind. The normal process of recruiting the best talents, training professionals, and setting ground rules has in many cases been dispensed with.

The media itself has also caused some puzzlement among observers. For example, the main arm of the opposition, the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (NCSROF), has no official mouthpiece or even a regular bulletin. The media has not grown up where it was most needed, but instead has flourished where it found ready sponsors. This has meant that it has been coloured by the agendas of its sponsors, eclipsing the usual process of rigorous training and a firm commitment to journalistic ethics.

Too often, the reporting, instead of reflecting an outlet’s vision or integrity of purpose, has confined itself to the coverage of violent occurrences and battles. The new media has tended to focus on the armed struggle and the news of political parties and activists, with the result that non-violent issues have rarely been addressed, including the promotion of values such as freedom and democracy.

Moreover, the opposition media has in some cases failed to offer an extensive overview of the catastrophic practices of the regime and the manner in which it has engaged in repression, corruption and human rights abuses.

It has often taken its cue from the international media, even when the latter was ill-informed. As a result, bias has crept into reporting, impairing the new media’s ability to offer an impartial diagnosis of the situation. Months into the revolution in Syria, for example, some of the Arab and international media started to alter the terminology used to describe the situation. Instead of referring to “revolutionaries” they started talking about the “armed opposition,” a term that may be thought to give some kind of legitimacy to the regime’s brutality as it equates the victims with the aggressor.

The term “Syrian Revolution” has also sometimes disappeared from the international press, having been replaced by the “conflict in Syria,” another demotion in the ongoing campaign for freedom in the country. On more than one occasion, the international media, whose reportage has often been quoted extensively in the local media, has depicted the battles in Syria as a sectarian conflict – thus demeaning the original goals of the revolution.

Neutrality, as much as it is needed in all reporting, has been twisted in this way, allowing the brutality of the regime to turn into a run-of-the-mill battle against rebels intent on bringing down the system by force instead of through the peaceful means of the ballot box.

Here again the revolutionary media has failed to point out the obvious fact that the terms have been revised in order to make the concepts behind them less clear.

EXAGGERATION AND DEMAGOGUERY: To make things worse, the revolutionary media has often copied the regime’s methods of exaggeration and demagoguery. As it has sometimes reported rumours without checking and relayed exaggerations without corroboration, falling into the same traps as the sycophantic media of the regime, its credibility has suffered.

One of the reasons for this has been that many of the journalists hired by the revolutionary media were recruited on the grounds of their enthusiasm and not their professionalism and as a result of their courage rather than their critical thinking. Their absence of training and the scant attention paid in some cases to the ground rules of journalism have tainted work that has otherwise been conducted with commendable zeal, but without the restraint that should have been inculcated into trained reporters.

In the same vein, the opposition media has often failed to give the revolutionary groups one thing that they have most needed — critical reportage. Praising the opposition leaders and activists where praise was not due has proved to be a pitfall and one echoing the attitudes of the official media in its subservient rapport with the regime.

The revolutionary media has in many cases failed to offer the guidance and investigative independence that establishes journalists as the watchdogs of society. Despite the failures of the revolutionary groups, the new media has in the main failed to offer in-depth analysis into the causes of their failure or insight into the proper course they should take in mending their ways.

It has also become common for many revolutionary media outlets to depend on social media sites such as Facebook without double-checking what such sites say through the use of their own reporters or correspondents. As a result, rumours have often been packaged as truth and exaggeration accepted as the norm.

When the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood published its first print newspaper after a 33-year ban on its activities, for example, one might have expected a different approach from the group characterised by broad-mindedness, diversity and inclusiveness.

However, the opposite has been the case, since the Brotherhood newspaper, in both its online and print iterations, has made no attempt to break free from the group’s customary religious framework. Born in the midst of the most tumultuous revolution in the country’s modern history, the Brotherhood’s publication has failed to act as a free and pluralistic forum. Instead, it has been filled with partisan self-importance and Islamist dogma, and it has offered no room for liberal, secular or leftist ideas.

Profiles in the newspaper have been of Islamists, interviews have been with Islamists and special features have stayed within the boundaries of Islamist ideology. This has been in a context where some of the media associated with the revolution has managed to attract writers from across the political spectrum, leftists and liberals included, even if sometimes amateurish management has failed to give depth and direction to such publications.

All this may seem a harsh assessment of the many media outlets that have been born in Syria over the past three years. Some have offered occasional glimpses of the kind of solid reporting one would have wished for, but on the whole their integrity and depth have left much to be desired.

Syria has become the world’s most dangerous country for journalists over the past three years, deepening the crisis of the opposition media. It is obvious that checking facts can bring risks to the people involved. Nevertheless, the opportunity the revolution offered to journalism in Syria was exceptional, and the promise was too. In the final analysis, it seems to have been hard to live up to such expectations, to do the arduous work of checking facts, and to check and recheck the rumours that tend to circulate in an uncertain situation.

The revolutionary media cannot be faulted on grounds of zeal. But in terms of critical thinking the finger must be pointed at it, not as an accusation but as a gesture of encouragement and guidance.

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