Syrian New Media: Limited Success and Failure, Dismissal and Harassment

By: Ghias Aljundi

After about 5 decades of absence of any kind of independent or semi-independent media in Syria, because of the monopolization of media means by the repressive totalitarian regime and the systematic repression of any journalism that is different from the regime’s one, the 2011 revolution came to open the door wide for the emergence of independent media in the areas uncontrolled by the regime or in the neighbouring countries and Europe.

Naturally, the emergent media faced so many difficulties because they lacked experience in running and producing new media means; they also lacked subsidization or access to subsidies. In later stages, subsidization arrived, and some funders and legal organizations supported the creation of local radio stations and websites. They also organized training courses with a view to building the capacities of these new media means and their managements, but the results have been less than the expectations: the difficulties, especially the managerial ones, continued, which caused some emergent projects to stop, while some others are still struggling to survive.

While some media outlets have produced considerable products, despite their limited resources, others could not, or have not tried to, contribute to the development of the media scene, or to the building of a good ground for the emergence of independent pluralistic media. It is also worth noticing that some outlets started some acute, non-objective competition with each other under the pretext of “distinction” or “chased” the funders instead of making joint programs and collective activities.

It is noticeable that most of those outlets could not develop, both in terms of their internal performance and their ability to introduce obvious change on the ground in spite of the generous resources they had received. The overwhelming majority of Syrian media institutions failed to make clear advances towards financial and administrative transparency; they also have not made internal elections to appoint effective and powerful councils of trustees that can take the necessary decisions to manage the organisations. To the contrary, they retreated to the level of linking themselves to certain names, which gave the impression that a certain person was the owner of an organisation and not its manager, for example. Many media institutions have reflected the life and activity experienced under the existing regime inside Syria.

The experiences of Enab Baladi, Freedom Raise and others, for example, are encouraging experiences in the media field, despite the pressures and siege inflicted on the emergent organizations. In the countries of exile, media outlets appeared, most of which were Internet or FM radio stations oriented to the Syrians inside Syria, especially in the areas controlled by the armed opposition, which shared the regime the same attitude of the media, an attitude deeming it a major enemy. Thus, they banned the distribution of newspapers or suspended the broadcasting of radio stations operating from those areas. In Gaziantep, for example, a considerable number of those stations was concentrated, and they received generous subsidies from European and American funders, but most of them have not made any progress due to reasons such as the lack of transparency, absence of democratic practices and objective distribution of roles in order for every person to play his/her suitable role.

Those media organizations suffer from the same illnesses we suffered from under the repressive regime in Syria. Many of those who are in charge of radio stations are not journalists or do not have the basics of management. In so many cases, those media outlets are controlled by family or kinship relations, this has been the case of the Hara FM, which has been closed by the Turkish authorities, with complete absence of media planning or a media strategy that aims to develop a state of independent media. Similarly, some emergent media outlets have become a personal platform or a gathering of friends, where examples of people working for them, without any media or journalistic experience, do exist.

Donors’ Negative role

We can’t ignore the negative role of the international donors, who supported the aforementioned media outlets, either through the way in which they managed the granting of donations or through the creation of organizations from the beginning. There are many international organizations that have not made any research or consultations about the granting of donations, or about supporting the establishment of media outlets. Moreover, some international organizations have disregarded the research and advices and proceeded in their plans, which dramatically failed.

For example, I have been one of two persons who proposed the idea of creating a radio station aiming to introduce a new kind of independent media on a basis of transparency in work, employment and management. After many sessions with the donor, in which a considerable number of Syrian journalists participated, most of those who participated in the foundation discussions were dispensed with, and later on, a radio station was launched in Paris, under the name of Rozana. The donor has not comprehended the Syrian situation and has not made any effort to; persons with no experience in the management of a radio station or any civil society organization have been employed. The donor has not, for example, trained the CEO (a woman by the way) on the matters of management and communication with the staff; no council of trustees was elected, instead (it seems) a council was selected based on the management’s friendships. Moreover, some CoT members worked as paid trainers, which completely contradicted the CoT role.

Like other donors, the International Media Support (IMS) has not separated its role as a donor or funder from its role as the appointor of a CEO, set aside the latter’s lack of managerial experience. This kind of planning has led to catastrophic setbacks in the emergent media scene; journalists of Gaziantep office went on strike, protesting against the management’s maltreatment. Instead of intervening as a mediator to solve the problem, the donor sent an email to the strikers telling them to end the strike, or Gaziantep Office of Rozana Radio would be closed. Meanwhile, the Radio’s CEO dismissed those members immediately without any negotiations or discussions. Though the dismissal decision was retracted after the news thereof had reached other international organizations, and though an agreement had been reached through negotiations, the management did not respect the agreement, after which the majority of staff (11 out of 14) left the radio because of the pressures inflicted on them, and a new manager of the office was appointed though he had nothing to do with media. He also was at odd with many woman workers because of discriminatory abuses he had practiced against a woman journalist in the radio station as well as other women activists. The donor has interfered in the radio’s work, such as the appointment of the management and the like, but has not intervened in this crisis solving, taking clearly the side of the mistaken management.

There are also some disgusting stories about other radio stations and media outlets, where members of staff were fired without any reasons or compensations. There are also stories of wide-spread sexual harassment against the women journalists of some organizations. We have documented such stories reported by women journalists who have been fired because they refused the personal offers of their managers.

The sexual harassment issue has remained in the darkness; no one has raised it, especially the women (victims), for many reasons: first, women’s fears of losing their jobs; second, women feel that revealing a matter like this will be in vain, as it will cause harm to their reputation, not to say that it may develop to the level of defaming them in the media circles by the harasser himself, especially if he is well-known and occupies a higher position than the woman.

With the absence of monitoring bodies to organize these organizations’ work and hold them accountable for their deeds, the phenomenon of harassment has grown to considerable levels. A woman journalist who has worked in Gaziantep says: “being a graduate journalist, who holds a BA in media from Damascus University, has not protected me against harassments, whether verbal or physical. In most of the agencies that I applied for a job at, or actually worked for, harassments have not spared me. When I met the manager of a radio station in Gaziantep to apply for a job, announced by that station, he immediately rushed to kiss me while shaking hand with me; this is an implied sexual hint. It is not reasonable that a manager kisses a woman journalist applying for a job at his agency. Moreover, why are not male journalists treated that way if, assumingly, it is a mere salute?”

“I worked as a reporter to a well-known newspaper,” she continues. “Its office was in Istanbul and managed by a Syrian Journalist. I wrote the reports and emailed them, but after a while, he started to talk to me excessively via Messenger or Skype, under the pretext that he wanted to discuss or amend some reports, and then he asked me to turn on the webcam. I must mention here that most of his chats were at midnight, though the profession’s code of conduct says that the correspondences must be done via emails and during the working hours, neither via the webcam nor at midnight!”

All that proves that the emergent media outlets are floundering; they have failed to start a transparent and democratic building process, in which knowledgeable people of management and journalism are employed. It also shows that the donors are floundering in their support to the creation of independent civil society and media that can be the foundation of independent and pluralistic media in the new long-awaited Syria. Those experiences also prove that the important thing is not to have a big number of media organisations and outlets with little effectiveness, but to have a smaller number of organisations that work transparently, establish for a democratic bylaw, and depend on the donors in the organizational building process and not in the running of the organizations themselves.

In the Syrian case, Syrians expect an institutional way of work that differs from those of the institutions of the regime, which they have revolted against; they do not want a copy of it with some external decorations. There are, no doubt, big efforts and good intentions by a considerable number of activists and journalists, but the experience of the past six years proves that such efforts have been wasted in the nonsenses of competition, and that many donors have supported certain persons at the expense of the qualified ones.

This article is published as part of the campaign launched on World Press Freedom Day, in cooperation with the Syria Untold.
The main photo: a picture showing the distribution of some alternative media newspapers in Idlib and countryside thereof on 10/02/2014. Source: Souriatna’s facebook page. It is used according to the fair use. All rights are reserved to the holders.)