As the war in Syria entered in its seventh year in March 2017, the UN defined the conflict as the “the worst man-made disaster since World War II.” Despite efforts spent by various actors of the international community to reach a comprehensive political agreement, in the mid-term the Syrian situation continues to be dominated overall by a prolonged status of intermittent violence. In this fluid and volatile context, this report cannot be considered exhaustive of all dynamics and phenomena regarding media issues in Syria, for the extreme difficulties in conducting field interviews and collecting reliable data and updated information on the various themes. Furthermore, Syria cannot be considered any longer a unitary context. Therefore, also from the media point of view, at least three different ‘Syrias’ should be taken into account in fact. What is true in one area of the country does not necessarily apply to the others. For this reason, in each section of this analysis three different ‘countries’ will be examined: 1) Government-held areas, 2) Opposition-controlled territories and 3) Kurdish-majority zones. Not all the topics are relevant in the same way to the three Syrias, but - where possible - distinctions will be made. In the areas subjected to the Islamic State Organisation (IS) there is a media production, as well, which is undoubtedly mere propaganda (propaganda does exist also in other areas, though). Currently IS releases two online magazines - Rumiyah in several languages and Konstantiniyye in Turkish - to indoctrinate and recruit, with apparent tight (even if not official) links to Amaq News Agency. Nonetheless, here the IS context is only briefly mentioned because: a) it has a short history (starting only in 2014) and therefore it still represents a primitive case, without a proper regulatory framework; b) the polarised context in the areas under IS control intrudes so profoundly the media practice that the two main narratives involved (pro vs against IS, such as the US-funded Raqqa is being slaughtered silently organisation) offer contrasting, dualistic views, with the complete absence of grey areas; c) there are no chances for actors to professionalise.
Another distinction has to be made between established media (pro-government) and emerging media (post 2011). The development of the media field is the product of the oppressive pre 2011 context and the ongoing conflict, which has resulted so far in the death of hundreds of thousands of people and the displacement of an estimated 11 million Syrians. The popular uprising that broke up in March 2011, cracked down by the government and the subsequent escalation of violence by all the actors involved in the conflict, has led to a gradual descent into regional war, which has transformed the country - according to the New York-based organisation Reporters Without Borders - into the world’s most dangerous country for journalists. In fact, as the figures released by the Syrian Network for Human Rights state, 615 media activists were killed in the country from March 2011 until March 2017. Nevertheless, there has been a true explosion of “independent media” after 2011. The proliferation of media institutions has been quite chaotic and only recently people working in the field have become more aware of the importance of stronger institutionalisation. Also the Kurdish context has been affected by this break-with-the-past attitude. The repression and oppression by the government went further than in any other region: Kurdish language was banned until 2011 and any cultural expression of Kurdish identity was prohibited. With the autonomy self-proclaimed in 2016, for the first time in recent years a high number of local outlets in Kurdish were launched. The de facto neutrality of Rojava during clashes between the Syrian regime and the opposition forces has created a favourable environment for media institutions, with fewer restrictions than in the rest of Syria. However, local media are highly politicised and, being most of them affiliated with political parties, all too often biased.
Political and sectarian fragmentation and polarisation in the different areas of Syria have an immediate effect on the structure of the media landscape, not only at a local, but also national level. Politics through its partisan and armed structures has a direct influence over media production.
In government-held areas the Syrian media scene remains largely dominated by pro-government news sources. In this rapidly changing environment, though, the government has not remained behind. It has tried to update its media system, not by establishing new outlets, but by developing those already existing.
In opposition-held areas, the only real independent media are those funded by foreign INGOs, which do not invest as much as the economic, political and military powers directly or indirectly involved in the conflict do.
In Kurdish areas, the main division is between the PYD and its supporters on the one hand and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) - the largest party in Iraqi Kurdistan - and its affiliates on the other. A high number of journalists have reported being subjected to pressures on the side of the PYD and its supporters. Thanks to these connections with Kurdish parties, media outlets in Rojava have comparably more funds. It is the only area, for example, where TV stations have been established: Ronahi (linked to PYD) and Zagros TV (affiliated to KDP). It is not by coincidence that Ronahi newspaper has a circulation of 10,000 copies in Rojava, much more than what any independent media can afford.
Overall, the current conflict has encouraged professionalisation. The general context is mainly characterised by widespread improvisation, lack of long-term strategies and pressures and interferences not only from foreign actors, but also on the part of other Syrians with conflicting agendas. However, questioning the existing status quo has broken the deadlock in the media system and subverted the journalism culture, which for decades was completely absent under the Baathist rule. In 2010, immediately before the unrest that broke out in the country, Syria was ranked 173rd out of 178 in the Reporters Without Borders press freedom index. President Bashar al-Asad appeared on the organisation’s list of Predators of Press Freedom and the country was among the Enemies of the Internet. The previous year, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists placed Syria among the ten worst countries to be a blogger in 2009. There is much to do and what has been done since 2011 - even when in good faith - is not all to be saved. In none of the three Syrias taken into account there are schools of journalism conforming to Western standards. University institutions in government-controlled Syria or those emerging in Rojava do not offer real chances for improvement, due to lack of opportunities, prospects, political openness.
State interference in the media landscape varies according to the areas of the country: It is still very strong in the zones under the control of the government and in the Kurdish-majority regions. For instance, in governmental Syria, since the Baath coup of 1963, the function of the mass media has been conceived to be that of “guiding public opinion” and “consolidating the gains of Arab nationalism.” Institutions in general - and also those involved in publishing and broadcasting - would actually support the government’s activity, rather than monitor it. The first ‘media revolution’ took place in 1995 with the introduction of satellites, which opened a window to the external world for Syrians. The first private media institutions were permitted, but they were actually placed under a total state control. Moreover, only well-entrenched insiders with privileged positions were able to gain access to the sector. The second major change was the arrival of the Internet. But once again, service providers are companies run by or affiliated to the government. Numerous websites are blocked, Internet use is monitored and the correspondence is tracked, so Syrians wishing to access uncensored information have been forced to get around censorship by using proxy servers. The state control over media is less strong in the opposition-held areas, mainly due to the absence of a strong unitary authority. Armed militias and their political bodies try - sometimes successfully - to exert their authoritative influence on local media. The overall absence of a well-defined regulatory framework governing media in these zones makes all too often the journalistic practice a dangerous activity, with some factions kidnapping and detaining journalists, but also sometimes destroying equipment and facilities. However, thanks to the support of international NGOs since 2012, these emerging media outlets have reached a greater level of autonomy, albeit with extreme difficulties. Their local impact is often quite limited, also because many of them are legally and physically based in Turkey losing their direct contact with the reality on the ground.