Syrian Alternative Media: In Search of an Audience

Translated by: Yaaser Azzayyaat

الإعلام السوري البديل: بحثاً عن الجمهور في هوامش الإحصاءات

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Outside the Parallel Universe

We started to roll up the windows with haste. We glanced around the car to ensure that everything is tightly sealed, at which point the driver slightly turned the radio tuner. Now the sound is clearer, and there is no ambiguity in what we are hearing. The chants which reached us via FM radio made the blood rush to our heads, as it was the first time we hear our voices through media in the middle of the capital Damascus.

What is meant here by “our voices” is those that had been suppressed for 40 years under two Assads, only to finally burst out with slogans conjuring the “spirit” of freedom and justice in “Assad’s Syria.” The variations in accents and vocal layers were a sign of national diversity suited to the revolutionary orchestra, as there can be little division between those dragged through asphalt all the same. We were in disbelief to the fact that these voices chanting for dignity, albeit in trepidation, are certainly our own; finally disseminating in Syrian public space. We were very cautious as to being the only ones listening to Asima FM that day of 2012, when we enthusiastically celebrated our first representation in the media.

Asima (Capital) Radio constituted a transgression on the media blackout policy imposed by the regime. With its intermittent broadcasting, the station dispelled the darkness engulfing the voices of Syrians, while the regime’s official and semi-official media continued to speak for the dumb part of Syria. Regime media outlets have always constituted a parallel universe for Syrians, where “Syria’s fine” and “The crisis is over.” According to their news, the crisis never even began, and the country is ruled by a single beloved and hereditarily elected chief. It has always been ironic how this media is capable of freezing time. In 2011, a Syrian woman prayed “live” for Hafez al-Assad’s victory, only for the reporter to promptly correct her and to pray that God have mercy upon Hafez’s soul!

From the Arctic to Nothingness

Attempts to establish a media outlet that covers Syria’s major news (the revolution) have receded, and Syrians have resorted to pan-Arab TV channels, such as Qatari-owned Al-Jazeera and Saudi-owned al-Arabiya. In the meanwhile, Syrian state media was occupied with monitoring the daily wildlife of mammals in the North Pole!

The story does not end here, however. This was happening in the regime-controlled areas, but some host countries of Syrian refugees, such as Turkey, have witnessed the spawning of hundreds of Syrian media outlets – independent, neutral or implicitly sympathetic to the revolution. Among them were also outlets branded as “revolutionary media,” which were openly aligned with the rebels. These nascent outlets, established outside the regime’s mandate, are often referred to as “alternative” Syrian media. According to “Holding on to Seafoam: Insights on the Reality of Radio and Web Publishing in Syria,” a study by WEEDOO Institute published last November, the total number of alternative media outlets has reached 600, with 200 of them having ceased and 400 persisting.

Most of these media outlets have targeted the general Syrian public, the youth in particular. However, it seems that I, and a broader public around me, opponents and supporters of the regime alike, have not been the target of media effort by these outlets since their inception. As for me, I only heard of these outlets in September of 2015, after I arrived at Istanbul. This is unless the word “Syrians” used by these outlets imply the exclusion of certain categories, emulating similar rhetoric on the regime’s side!

Regime Discourse Cloaked as Alternative Media

“Syrian Audience Research 2016,” a study conducted by eight European institutions under the sponsorship of the EU and published by Free Press Unlimited, has demonstrated that the pro-regime Sham FM is the most widely listened-to radio station among Syrians. I was more surprised by the sample of people whose views on alternative media were surveyed. I realized that many opponents of the regime, among whom are those who were once in the vanguard of the peaceful protesters, do follow Sham FM, as well as some pro-regime pages across Facebook (such as Diary of a Mortar Shell), while no other alternative media outlets are in their subscription lists.

One common denominator among these people, who are opposed to the regime but are nonetheless followers of its media outlets, is that they sense in alternative media a clear disregard for areas under regime control. Pages such as Diary of a Mortar Shell have become a news source of developments in Damascus. They stressed that they ignore the political alignment of the news story and make do with the information itself .

The sample by and large confirmed primary reliance on Facebook in following Syria-related news, especially the pages of activists in rebel-held areas. Such activists include Hadi al-Abdullah, and are considered news sources. They maintain the same reservations against both pro-opposition and pro-regime Syrian media: politicization, misinformation and unprofessionalism.

Qusay Amama, a former journalist at Sham FM who currently works for an alternative media outlet, commented on the deteriorating relationship between Syrian alternative media and its supposed audience:

“Fundamentally, there exists an unstable relationship between the Syrian public and the media. For years, Syrian citizens did not have real media, which distorted in the public eye the function and mission of the press. Before the revolution, we faced an audience which viewed newspapers and radio stations as little more than a complaint box aimed at tackling issues of water, sanitation and electricity, and little else. Of course, this is what was originally intended for all forms of media in the country, as they were denied by the de facto authorities any real role.”

Amama continues, explaining the state of affairs after the revolution:

“The relationship between the Syrian public and its media remained as such until 2011, when international media began covering the developments in Syria. Then emerged an even wider schism. The people, i.e. the audience, thought that the broadening of news coverage will inevitably lead to a political transition, either peaceful or military. Disappointed, they were left with the impression that the media is unable to bring about any actual change. The simple question resurfaces: ‘What’s the point?’”

Amama elaborates on his views regarding Syrian alternative media:

“Alternative media, in turn, played a more miniscule role than was its responsibility. As evident by its performance, it did not understand until today what its message or mission are. It did not even specify its audience. Despite the dozens, even hundreds, of Syrian media platforms, their main attribute is similarity to the point of duplication. Meanwhile, one cannot but note the great influence by major Arab media outlets, with the complete absence of deeply analytical media content, in favor of instant breaking of news. Although the journalists are Syrians who have lived through some of what the country has endured, they repeatedly find themselves unable to cover the event from the proper angle.”

Groupthink and Dismissal of Institutionalization

It is worth noting that the first seed from which Syrian alternative media has grown is the citizen-journalist. As the regime prevented any media outlet from reporting, citizens found themselves face-to-face with the event with only mobile cameras.

Therefore, it is this “alternative” journalist who became a means of exporting the image to the outside world – and to oblivious Syrians as well. The consumers and the recipients of information or news have thus become both the producer and consumer of content at once. This is the new hierarchy that any informative article has to go through in order to earn the public’s trust.

Over time, and with the accumulation of experience, citizen-journalists have evolved and begun establishing, along with others, their own media organizations, which soon lost their credibility to the public as demonstrated above. The public once again sought alternatives among individual activists and independent journalists, as if rejection of institutions has become part of the collective unconsciousness of Syrians – who have originally rebelled against the state institutions.

Khaldoun Nabwani, a researcher and philosophy writer, commented on this proposition:

“This could be justified in the initial state of spontaneous revolution, rejoicing at the tearing down of institutions. But it is problematic, even chaotic, if it persisted in its rejection of all that is institutional; all that organizes relations between human beings and regulates the lives of states and societies. We must therefore be cautious as not to conflate the repressive security institutions, such as the Assadist state institutions for example, with institutions in and of themselves as a necessity, or a necessary evil, for the stability of societies and states.”

Nabwani further explains that any revolution attempting to dismantle the institutions of a certain regime must be cautious as not to “rebuild the same institutions which suppressed it, as is the case with the Egyptian revolution today. As such, revolutions only clone the preceding repressive military regimes.”

Nabwani concludes, tackling the core question:

“I refer to the regime’s media institutions as the center’s institutions, and to alternative media institutions as the periphery’s ones. The periphery may become centralized and thus lose its credibility, and perhaps this explains (if your research findings are correct) the reason for people’s aversion to alternative media regarding Syria, on the basis of them being institutions. In order to be institutions, alternative media outlets require funding and material and political support, and herein lies the influence of the institutions of other regimes that are opposed to the Assad regime’s media machine. In this case, one is legitimately skeptical of institutions funded by foreign governments and following their own agendas. These confront our regime’s lies with falsehoods of another caliber, and indeed have no credibility. Alternative media is no longer a substitute for the lying media, because they manufacture the realities propagated by their sponsors, and thus the periphery becomes centralized, and the two contradictions coincide. Then remain only a few individual free voices that could offer their views, which are closer to objectivity than the institutions that follow this political agenda or that. What remains to be said is that individual media initiatives will remain missed opportunities unless they are transformed into free and independent outlets that are as objective as possible – free from political agendas, propaganda, political projects or financial interests.”

Broadcast in Four Languages!

During the preparation of this investigation, it became evident that local and territorial media, which targets one category and excludes others, are the most influential among Syrians. I remember a perfect example of this, which is Radio Arta FM, which is broadcast in four languages from its headquarters in Amouda: Arabic, Kurdish, Syriac, Armenian. which are the languages spoken by locals in the Jazira region (aka upper mesopotamia).

Radio Arta was founded in 2013. In 2015, the American Navanti Group conducted a survey of radio listeners in Aleppo, Idlib and Hasaka, upon which it concluded that 69.4% of radio listeners in Jazira are Arta audience. Arta returned made headlines again when the “Holding On To Seafoam” study findings showed that it is the Syrian opposition radio with the most substantial audience.

The Executive Director of Arta, Muhammad Ramadan, explained the nature of Arta listeners in Jazira, saying:

“The number of radio listeners among women in Jazira, and generally in Syria, is significantly higher than that of men. This can be attributed to multiple political and social reasons, the most important of which is that many young and middle-aged men have been killed or imprisoned, while others joined armed factions or migrated outside the country. This reality has especially impacted women. The lack of education and employment opportunities has forced many of them to stay at home or return to primitive ways of livelihood. Radio has thus far become their only source for news, information and entertainment.”

As for the remaining 36% who do not follow Arta in the Jazira region, Ramadan says:

“The rest are mostly listeners of other, smaller and less popular stations broadcasting in the region, such as Hevi FM and Welat FM, in addition to those following the media of political parties and forces in the region, such as Rudaw and others.”

As for what Arta believes it is offering as alternative media that is distinct from regime media, it is, according to Ramadan, pluralism and autonomy:

“Of course, our radio station owes its existence to the revolution and the political and social contexts which have allowed the emergence of radio stations and other independent media projects, but it is not a ‘revolutionary’ radio station in the narrow sense of the word.”

Through my correspondence with the radio organization, it turns out that its producers realize the importance of their presence among the audience. The peak in its broadcast listenership was for women and children. Additionally, Arta’s produced content is compatible with its mission of promoting civil peace. For example, it is now working, in partnership with Enab Baladi newspaper, on a profile of Arab and Kurdish music in Jazira.

Fresh FM and Revolutionary Media

In the Syrian north, there was another local experience. Broadcasting from Kafranbel, Radio Fresh reaches the southern countryside of Idlib and northern Hama. The aforementioned EU-sponsored study assigned its rate of listenership at 7%, and according to those I have contacted, the radio does not constitute a primary source of news in Idlib province – people there often resort to the social media feeds of local activists.

Personally, I believed the label “revolutionary” with which Fresh endows itself, and which constitute a clear distinction between Fresh and Arta, had cost it part of its connection with the public. I posed this question to the writer and journalist Ali Safar, who had a different opinion in this regard, as he said:

“I don’t know how you measure the success of this radio station or that. Attracting an audience is a relative matter. Radio Arta addresses its Kurdish and Arab audience through localization; it’s a territorial radio, despite its adherence to the national trend which governs its rhetoric in general. The figures revealed by several surveys show that Radio Fresh is one of the most successful media organizations inside Syria, especially in regards to the number of its listeners, and therefore your hypothesis seems inaccurate.”

Safar continues in detail regarding the question of revolutionary rhetoric:

“There have been many self-proclaimed alternative radio stations with a revolutionary inclination – in the sense that they support the Syrian Revolution. However, does professionalism allow these broadcasters to only be just a bunch of revolutionaries’?! Or they have to promote themselves through professionalism? I believe that the the gateway to success is professional conduct, without which no media organization can justify its presence.”

Based on this feedback, I broadened the scope of my research within Idlib, only to find out that Fresh is similar to other Syrian alternative media outlets in their relationship with the public: it is not cited as a news source or influential media platform in the same way Syrians cite pan-Arab and Western media outlets that are involved in covering their areas.

A journalist from Kafranbel stated that the radio enjoyed a large audience in the beginning, since the launch of a radio station in a village constituted a momentous event. The voices people heard on the radio were so familiar. As per the journalist’s confirmation, Fresh radio station soon began losing its audience due to public fatigue, and duplication of content.

Later, according to experts, it became clear that the field which allowed Fresh to brilliantly succeed, and which it to establish its own listenership, was unparalleled by any other alternative media.

Classical Typical Content

My survey showed a repelling character of alternative media that renders an avid following of its content unviable. Several employees within the sector clearly voiced their complaints about maintaining the regime’s administrative mentality, which led to the reproduction of regime rhetoric, except under different names. This alludes to the predominance of typical and monotonous content in alternative Syrian media.

In the absence of genuine media experiences that strives to develop the public’s “palate” for content, it remains surprising the extent to which the audience has developed, while alternative media, which is tasked with developing society and developing public opinion, has remained static.

I inquired again from Ali Safar regarding this issue. He has almost 20 year of experience in the state state media, before he defected in the wake of the revolution and assumed administrative, advisory and oversight tasks in various alternative media outlets. Safar said:

“I do not believe that there is a hegemony of classicalism on the overall content production. On the contrary, we often demand that the content be professional and classical, in the sense that it ought to be distinguished by its production in accordance with the highest standards of accuracy and prudence. However, the pitfall of typicality is a quandary that not only affects alternative media, but all media indeed. This is caused by the lack of enjoyment by producers and journalists in their ability to create new forms of expression. The general public would prefer to hear professional news presented in a classic manner than hear lies which adhere to the highest degree of modernity and fashion. The evidence is that the public is still following well-established news channels such as Al-Jazeera, al-Arabiya, BBC and others. I think it is too early to discuss the development of the audience, but we could instead talk about the changing behavioral patterns of media recipients, which we notice regionally, and through the disparity in lifestyles between rebel-held and regime-controlled areas, as well as life in exile. Concerning the current situation of alternative media, we ought not forget, as we evaluate its experience, that it is still doomed by extraordinary conditions. Funding is a major determinant, and these media are still suffering a bleeding loss of capacities, which has persisted over the past few years, whereby departure to far and more stable destinations of exile has became a primary concern for the majority of competent or trained personnel.”

Conversely, I asked more than a dozen young reporters working inside and outside Syria about their evaluation of alternative media content. There was consensus on the presence of innovative corners here and there, and that the general atmosphere is bright and inspires optimism. However, a keen follower of any of these outlets soon feels disappointed and apathetic to content which, according to the journalists, endlessly reproduces itself, and fails to address the issues in the depth required, not to mention the propagation of one-sided discourse – just like the regime media. This is consistent with the findings of a report conducted by the Agence France-Presse (AFP) and issued in 2015. It demonstrated that Syrian alternative media has reproduced the methods and patterns of state media – only from the opposite viewpoint.

The “Alternative” Youth

I began focusing on print media. Sada Al-Shaam newspaper, which was founded in 2013, is the one I found the most curious case. According to its website, it seeks for itself a broad audience which encompass all Syrians. But it seems to focus more on those in the opposition areas, and the target audience seems narrower still, being mainly young people between 16 to 30 years of age.

A quick glance at the op-eds section of the newspaper gives an immediate impression relating to four names dominating over the overall content. The ages of these writers range between 46 and 71, according to some googling. This prompted me to address a question at Sada Al-Shaam editor-in-chief Absi Sumaisem: What is the role of the youth in the production of this work?

Sumeisem explained that the Sada Al-Shaam team, which covers the daily updated website and print newspaper, consists of 30 employees, the average age of whom is 27 years, and that the journalists on the editorial team do not exceed the age of 29 years:

“Only our op-ed column authors are of older age, since an opinion piece requires lengthy journalistic experience. I do not believe it is necessary that a young man of only twenty years ought to write op-eds so that the newspaper can be considered to be addressed to the young. Furthermore, a writer whose audience are an average age of 16 should not necessarily be of that age himself. Journalistic work requires a plan that suites the paper’s leanings as well as the target audience.”

I spoke to Karam Mansour, a young journalist working in Damascus and its countryside for a number of alternative media outlets, and inquired about whether young Syrians are keen followers of opposition media which addresses youth audience.

Mansour answered:

“One cannot underestimate alternative media and its impact on the Arab public, as social media has been a main contributor to the winds of change of 2011. However, alternative media remained unable to gain credibility among the public. The majority of people continue to resort to well-rooted media organizations. which have a richer legacy than these new ones, in order to verify certain news. Over time, Syrian alternative media has failed to deliver the added value that is expected of it. And despite the breakthrough of alternative media experience, being pioneered by young people who in turn were the driving force behind it, this experience has nonetheless failed to develop further. Worse yet, these people were unable to continue emulating the young spirit except but through traditional programming methods. Despite the massive roles played by young people in Syria across the political and ideological spectrum, we did not hear of programs and materials designed aimed at empowering the potential of youths, encouraging young people or supporting any of their initiatives.”

As a journalist from Damascus who is in direct contact with Syrian alternative media, I believe that this media could not accurately identify its target audience categories. Instead, it mainly cloned the regime media experience, ultimately failing to provide anything original to its recipients.”

Handhelds, WhatsApp and Breaking News

According to several people who recently left Idlib (in northern Syria) and Eastern Ghouta (in the south), the bulk of people’s attention has been focused on news or events in their surroundings (such as raids or military operations). The media plays no role whatsoever in this process. In Ariha, for example, the population receives their news from the operations command of the Army of Conquest via WhatsApp; while people in Saraqeb receive theirs also via WhatsApp but from the operations command of the Saraqeb Revolutionary Front.

Additionally, people in rebel-held areas frequently uses “handhelds” or walkies, which are directly connected with observatories to chart air traffic, locations of air raids, and the development of current battles. These handheld devices are abundantly available to all at a price of $17 in most mobile phone shops.

Faced with this reality, one cannot but wonder why alternative newspapers and magazines insist on tackling this mission for an audience it places at the top of its list of priorities, while this very audience already has the most practical means?

Sumaisem suggested the following:

“Not in a single issue of Sada Al-Shaam would one find a bare news story, as all the contents of the newspaper are extensive analyses, investigations and reports. Frankly, I do not know where you come up with this information. We publish news on the website in real time, and on the newspaper social media. On the contrary, we criticize other media outlets for publishing news on the paper issues.”

It is worth mentioning that the last paper issue of Sada Al-Shaam, which is available on its website and dated July 22, 2014, holds three major titles under the newspaper: politics, news, miscellaneous. The newspaper should be credited with including in its reports statements by officials in leadership. Below is an example from Eastern Ghouta that will explain the attitudes people have towards these leaders whenever they hear them on the media.

On the other hand, Sumaisem indicated that Sada Al-Shaam aimed at involving a simpler or less educated public to its newspaper’s readership. It has provided informing content which suits them, in terms of both themes and language, and avoided complexities and incomprehensible terminologies. He explained that, three years after the launch of the newspaper, it is today the most reliable among its peers, according to a questionnaire he cited, which was conducted by a study center and surveyed the audience of publications issued by the Syrian Network for Print Media.

Military Dominion

I was informed by a journalists in the Syrian Network for Print Media, which consists of a number of local newspapers (Tamaddon, Zaytoun, Souriatna, Sadaa Al-Shaam, Enab Baladi, Ain Al-Madina, AllSyrians), that armed factions, particularly in northern Syria, are prohibiting the distribution of opposition publications in Idlib regions. Distribution is limited to Maarrat al-Nu’man and Kafranbel. Special committees established by armed factions inspect papers at the Bab al-Hawa border crossing; their task is to prevent the entry of any newspaper bearing the image of an “uncovered” woman, or containing within its pages criticism of certain factions. Even after all of these procedures, only less than a quarter of production is allowed into the Syrian north.

Picture of the burning of January 2015 issues of Souriatna, Enab Baladi, Sadaa Al-Shaam, and Tamaddon, by the opposition intelligence services Division of Information and Ahrar Al-Sham, due to their solidarity with the French newspaper [i]Charlie Hebdo[/i]

Picture of the burning of January 2015 issues of Souriatna, Enab Baladi, Sadaa Al-Shaam, and Tamaddon, by the opposition intelligence services Division of Information and Ahrar Al-Sham, due to their solidarity with the French newspaper Charlie Hebdo.

This means that the target audience of these media is unable to read the publications. If that is the case, for what reason do they continue their writing and production in the same manner?

Two sources within the Network, Absi Sumaisem and Jawad Abulmuna (who is the editor-in-chief of Souriatna), denied the validity of the information I had obtained. Sada Al-Shaam alone has more than 700 distribution points, according to Sumaisem, while Sorriyatna has 250. True, both outlets have been subjected to harassment by the armed factions which control the Bab Al-Hawa border crossing, and have been even completely banned, but this happened only for certain periods. The Network in general, and Souriatna in particular, categorically reject the military censorship imposed over media content as a condition to allow them to distribute, Abulmuna said. Distribution is currently in full swing, as confirmed by both Sumaisem and Abulmuna, with no noteworthy harassment taking place after the person responsible for the crossing has been replaced.

My question was then obstructed, but I still could not obtain a full positive or negative answer. Several sources in Idlib and Eastern Ghouta, as well as Gaziantep where most of Turkey-based Syrian activists reside, confirmed the unavailability of these publications in their areas; whenever they are available, they are not read but instead utilized in similar ways regime newspapers have been (cleaning windows whatsoever). Therefore, if the aforementioned numbers hold validity in face of this reality, then we ought to admit that technical and security difficulties, which obstruct the activity of these outlets, are outweighed by the major issue of content, which is not being read even when available.

Aside from the prohibition of several opposition newspapers in rebel-held areas, there have been several noteworthy assaults against radio stations in these areas. On January, 10th 2016, for instance, Jabhat An-Nusra (JAN) militants stormed the headquarters of Radio Fresh FM in Kafranbel and confiscated its equipment, seized its building, and detained the director of the station Raed al-Fares along with journalist Hadi al-Abdallah. This was not the first time Radio Fresh was assaulted by JAN.

radiofresh

Radio Fresh headquarter and the Kafranbel Media Office, following JAN assault in January 2016.

A day later, masked men stormed the office of Radio Alwan FM in Aleppo, physically assaulted its staff and damaged its equipment, which led to the cessation of its broadcast in Aleppo, according to a statement by the staff. The aggressors additionally desecrated the Syrian revolution flag during both incidents.

None had already forgotten these cases of assault on April, 26th 2016, when the Radio Arta FM headquarter in Amouda was burnt down by masked men on behalf of the PYD Confederacy, according to a statement by its director Sirwan Haj Berko.

But Whom Do Alternative Media Address?

The figures in “Holding on to Seafoam” illustrate that there have been 1000-1521 intermittent hours of radio broadcast, out of a total of 1800 hypothetical broadcasting hours for Syrian radio stations. This begs the question: Whom do these radio stations work for?

“Holding on to Seafoam” did not observe any broadcast of Hawa Smart frequencies in Homs, Hama, Idlib, Latakia or Deir ez-Zor. Consequently, I attempted to contact the Hawa Smart staff to get a response to this issue, but to no avail. I contacted one of the journalists on the editorial board of Hawa Smart, who opted to remain anonymous. He expressed that, due to the lack of rapport with the audience, the Hawa Smart administration is unaware of the ceased broadcast to these provinces. The directors would only take measures if a broadcast tower was damaged, whereby the cessation of broadcast would become obvious and cause a scandal, he added.

The journalist further explained that the staff had on several occasions confronted the directors regarding poor internet coverage. The response was that they are targeting audiences within Syria via FM radio, which prompted some members of the staff to pose the issue that the FM broadcast was not reaching the highest point in Idlib, Jabal Zawiya, which was confirmed by their correspondent there several times. However, the directors said that their targeted audience in that region are those traveling from Bab al-Salama border crossing to the Hama countryside!

Whenever faced with an issue, the Hawa Smart directors were positive that the super flexible content of their station was suitable to three categories of targeted audience, with no amendments needed!

The journalist stressed that Hawa Smart executives do not themselves listen to the broadcast, and that if the staff were to broadcast the same news program on two consecutive days, none would be the wiser – a comment which I had received from several other radio stations. The source further stressed the capability of the directors to bridge technical gaps, alluding to the fact that their media production is aimed exclusively at donors, with whom they have direct relations. Their role in project directorship is not the result of experience or a set of skills, but to these relations.

Hawa Smart’s Facebook group, which is its sole window into the internet, has 67,000 followers, among whom only 3-5 thousand are real accounts, while others are bought through contracts with companies providing fake accounts, as per my source on the staff.

He concluded by expressing his dismay, as the proposition of any innovative idea by the staff is only met with condescendence and even sabotage by the directors.

It is worth mentioning that I resorted to this anonymous source due to my inability to contact the directors, despite the fact that one of the defining characteristics of alternative media is the direct relationship with the audience and the heavy reliance on the public to create content.

The Deaf Audience in the South

Finally, I headed to the south, and contacted a former board member of the National Coalition of Revolutionary Forces in Eastern Ghouta, who refused to disclose his identity due to personal safety concerns. I tried to discern the extent to which the public there follows alternative media outlets, only for the same findings to reemerge, confirming public preference of pan-Arab TV channels, followed by a little reliance on religious channels.

The source elaborates that electricity is only available for 2-3 hours per day, and only through subscription to generator services, which renders an avid following of any media outlet a near impossibility. However, even if conditions were better, people there are gravely fatigued, and have a very low tolerance for patronizing rhetoric. This is especially the case after they had sensed the great disparity between the media rhetoric of rebel factions and realities on the ground, most notably during the suffocating siege. This also explains the aversion many Syrians in this area have to following Jaish Al-Islam’s Nidaa Al-Islam radio station. This is despite the findings of “Holding on to Seafoam,” which pointed to the technical superiority of militia-backed radio stations, be them in opposition or allegiance to the regime, compared to other outlets. In reality, however, it seems that the public has turned a deaf ear to local broadcasts, and to Syrian media generally.

The source above also clarifies an aspect of his perspective on the relationship between alternative media, the revolution, and the Syrian public:

“Around 20% of the general public actively participates in revolutions, and that is in counties which could exert political pressure on the regime. Uprisings do not exceed this rate except in face of a foreign invasion. Opposition media has inflated its rhetoric directed at the opposition public, but it entirely neglected the silent majority. It also continued to dub any form of armed rebellion as being part of the revolution, which resulted in a negative impression in the minds of most people.”

Fake Audience

The study “Holding on to Seafoam” showed that only 17 out of 405 Syrian websites are in competition with the tens of thousands of international websites appearing on Google News. This can be attributed to the fact that the Google search engine excludes websites which implement paid promotions.

While I was preparing this investigation, a journalist disclosed to me a method which is implemented by individuals in alternative media outlets to increase the number of views without being flagged by the Google engine: “kitchens” in the form of Facebook groups onto which the journalistic content is linked and posted, only for members of said group to register visits to the content in question. This renders exploring the inclinations of Syrian audiences through conventional statistics an inaccurate method, as hundreds of Syrian websites, both opposition and loyalist, go to great lengths to “counterfeit” an audience rather than “establishing” one.

Young Experiences

Two youth media experiences stand among the exceptions those surveyed had expressed: Radio Souriali and Abwab magazine. Listeners are immediately overwhelmed by the proposition Souriali makes in its motto, which instantly faces a visitor of its website: “By the way, this is not radio!” The “Holding on to Seafoam” study also documented 500,000 total listeners on Souriali’s SoundCloud channel.

Meanwhile, Abwab primarily garners its popularity through targeting an accessible audience, Syrians in diaspora, and specifically in Germany. Moreover, it owes its popularity to its being run by young people who are also in the diaspora, which enables them to more effectively be in touch with their audience. Only on this media outlet have I heard positive comments with regards to eliminating the barriers between the recipient audience and the content creators – which is at the core of what alternative media strives to be: amplifying the margins.

It is noted that the majority directors and content creators for these two outlets are young men and women, which means that this age group does not have a mandated representation. Those represent themselves and crystallize their own thoughts, through which they address their peers who are not in the media business.

An Audience in Absentia

It has proved difficult to discern the audience of alternative media as a mass of people who share the same incentives, which we could do in regards to religious TV channels or pro-regime media outlets. In an attempt to learn about this audience, I addressed the man who developed the methodology for the “Holding on to Seafoam” study, who specializes in audience measurement systems, Amr al-Hamad. He told me:

“The only substantial category is that of residents of local areas whose regions are covered via broadcast stations, such as Radio Fresh in Kafranbel, which usually broadcasts from on a narrow scale. Residents depend on these stations for certain services, such as reporting on the launch of regime aircraft from their bases to help people with preemptive displacement. This has usually been done in coordination with local Free Syrian Army factions. Apart from this, the audience consists of small cliques of what can be described as the bureaucracy of NGOs active in the sphere of the Syrian revolution, who are by-and-large the same category of people behind these outlets. As a result, their following of alternative media does not exceed being involved in their daily activity. Internet media is a new variety, and it attracts nontraditional categories; at least they have ceased to be traditional the moment they began seeking knowledge online. So we need new concepts and tools to understand and specify the recipient categories in such a new mode of cultural production, and the extents to which its creators are connected with them.

The Margins is Swelling

Through my contact with my sample of people, distributed across rebel-held and regime-controlled areas, as well as refugee in host countries such as Turkey, Germany, France and Sweden, I inquire about their take on alternative media. I came across one follower of these outlets with a whole array of concrete criticisms against them. The rest highlighted their mistrust crisis of Syrian alternative media, emphasizing that the content of any new Syrian media which does not designate Syria as its base of operations is, to them, untrustworthy.

Studies reviewed for this investigation prove that the old opposition media outlets, which were launched before the revolution, have continued to enjoy the largest audience among Syrian media outlets. Quasi-official regime loyalist outlets, on the other hand, which have emerged in the aftermath of the revolution, are the ones with larger audience. The majority of opposition-aligned alternative media outlets are all but squeezed out of the competition, which renders the margins they purport to represent entirely exposed to de facto authorities.

Alternative media address a fictional audience, proposing its issues and needs and improvising the means of tackling and solving them. This mission is undermined by their aversion to conflicts with this or that armed faction, which alienates the supposed target audience from the content. Discussion of issues often neglects the essence of their problematics.

Since the beginning, Syrian alternative media has only addressed this fictional audience, and has failed to concoct means of communicating with those stuck on the other side of “consciousness” so to speak. It has failed to address their concerns, until the margin has swollen and inflated, which is evident in official questionnaires time after time, to the dismay of the “core” which is reliant on its own “considerations.”

Finally, it should be noted that this work cannot constitute a definitive answer to why the relationship between opposition media and the Syrian public has deteriorated. Instead, it only attempts to explore the difference in perspective between the producers of opposition media, on the one hand, and a specific sector of the public which views itself as being excluded from that media that supposedly grants it a voice, on the other.

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Ali Bahloul

A participant in Al-Jumhuriya Fellowship for Young Writers.

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