In 2017, the UN defined the conflict in Syria as the “the worst man-made disaster since World War II.” Now that the war in Syria entered in its tenth year, military operations are mainly concentrated in the northwest of the country and since the March 2020 agreement between Turkey and Russia to a cease-fire in Idlib, have significantly decreased. However, living standards of ordinary Syrians have worsened, due to the rapid collapse of the Syrian pound (SYP), which has plummeted to record lows. Moreover, the progressive distrust in the Syrian market and the decrease in investments entailed by the Caesar Act - entered into force on 17 June 2020 and applying new sanctions on any person, company or institution that does business with or provides support to the government - has contributed to further exacerbate the precarious conditions of Syrian people. Economic hardship has triggered a new wave of protests, scattered in some urban centres, but mostly erupted in rural areas. However, these protests have failed to become a nationwide movement, because had no connection with each other and lacked a shared common ground.
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, local fragmentation in Syria has intensified and multiplied in recent years. 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 and, in some cases, differences can be found also within these same macro-areas, but - where possible - distinctions will be made. In the course of time, Syrian Government and his allies have continuously retaken territories from independent groups. However, in some cases its power is merely formal, having ceded the real authority to mediators, warlords, foreign forces and their proxies. Since 2018, the area known as Greater Idlib and its immediate surroundings in northwest Syria—consisting of rural northern Latakia, northwestern Hama, and western Aleppo—has remained the last swathe of the country in the hands of insurgents, even though Turkey exerts a tremendous power through its military, security, economic and political representatives. The alternative government is in fact the Turkey-controlled Syrian Salvation Government, with its different ministries and local councils and the de facto Turkey proxy jihadist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) has become the hegemonic actor, with a particularly strong presence in the countryside closer to the Turkish border. Turkey has been increasing its efforts to extend its control all along the northern border of Syrian territory: areas east of the Euphrates River in the Kurdish majority zones—from Afrin in the west to Tall Tamr in the east—were occupied by Turkey and are now controlled by Turkey-backed militias. The Turkish October offensive in the northeast allowed Russia and the Syrian government to cross the Euphrates and reach the areas of Raqqa and Manbij, strengthening their positions in Qamishli and Hasaka. On the other hand, near the southern border there is another zone not controlled by the Syrian Government, the 55 km area around the al-Tanf air base held by the US troops and surrounded by Russian, Iranian and Syrian Army forces. Despite recurrent withdrawal announcements from Syria, the US still maintain in fact their military presence in the eastern part of the country, officially supporting the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in their anti-IS operations. There are still Islamic State Organisation (IS) residual forces in Syria, that, after the group was pushed out of its territory and its last stronghold was conquered by SDF in March 2019, have since used guerrilla tactics to attack security forces and civilians. In the oil-rich and highly-strategic northeastern provinces of Qamishli and Hasake, the US and Russia coordinate their activities. Russia tries also to expand its influence by giving support to Government forces in retaking control of Raqqa countryside and the eastern branch of the M4 highway. At the same time, Russia competes with Iran over energy resources and routes control in the western and central regions of Syria.
Apart from the geographical differences, 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 authoritarian 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 one of the world’s most dangerous country for journalists, with extremely high risk of arrest, abduction or death. In fact, as the figures released by the Syrian Network for Human Rights state, 707 citizen journalists were killed in the country from March 2011 until April 2020 and 422 are still detained, mostly by the Syrian government. Nevertheless, there has been a true explosion of “independent media” after 2011, many of which, after reaching the peak in 2013, have since closed. 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. Moreover, in recent years, especially local media (devoted for example to a specific city or region, or available only on Facebook) have gained relatively more independence. In such areas as Tartus, Latakia, Hama, local media running only on Facebook pages have managed to exert some kind of pressure on both local and central authorities and at this level, journalists have learnt whether and how to cross certain red lines. They have been able to denounce episodes of corruption in a frame of distorted governance dynamics, succeeding in circumventing censorship by not calling into question the status quo and not explicitly taking political stances.In opposition-held areas, the only real independent media are those funded by foreign INGOs, which for structural and economic reasons cannot invest as much and play the same role as the regional and local actors directly or indirectly involved in the conflict do. However, very local and grass-roots independent media initiatives in the years have proved resilient to openly denounce the socio-economic injustices of despotic local, central or foreign authorities.
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. 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, though, also because many of them are legally and physically based in Turkey losing their direct contact with the reality on the ground.