Media development organisations

Starting from 2012, several financial and intellectual resources were put in place by donors and foreign organisations to support the development of independent and free media in the post-2011 Syria. Until 2014, this trend was part of the political attempt to support the wave of opposition to the government of president Bashar al-Asad. Therefore, dozens of media outlets were born, with different ambitions and registers, but almost all in line with the political ideas and agenda of the opposition. These media mainly tried to cover areas outside government’s control, including the de facto Kurdish-controlled areas on the Eastern side of the Euphrates River. From a mere quantitative point of view, among the Syrian post-2011 media, those emerged in the Kurdish-held areas have survived more than the media outlets appeared in the opposition-held areas (for example, Ronahi TV, Welat Radio, Arta FM Radio). This is mainly due to the fact that since 2013 these territories have been gradually conquered by governmental forces. When in 2014-2015 the dynamics of the conflict in Syria changed (also due to, but not only, the rise of the Islamic State, the direct Russian military intervention, and the crisis of migrants in Europe), donors, cooperation agencies and media development NGOs began to reconsider their strategies and approaches. Most of them reduced their aid, or diverted their support to less politically explicit initiatives.

Therefore, the majority of the media set up between 2012 and 2014 have not survived, due to their financial unsustainability in the medium and long run. Only few of them have succeeded, having attracted new funds also from private sources, and/or implemented financially sustainable work practices. There is no doubt that the media development ecosystem has contributed to the birth, growth and affirmation of a kind of journalism that aspires to freedom of expression and thought and favours the creation of spaces for a civil and democratic life.

However, two factors have delayed and somehow also undermined its healthy and natural development. Firstly, the lack of coherence in the long term. In fact, supporting new independent media outlets was part of a wider political strategy and not as a principle per se, therefore, once the situation on the ground changed in favour of the government and its allies, donors have not searched for new ways and approaches to support media activists, and journalists fled abroad, or found themselves living in areas gradually fallen under government control. Secondly, the lack of a more comprehensive financial strategy that would disengage media outlets from the non-sustainable assistance of international organisations and NGOs and seek ways and strategies to make profits.

Nowadays, there are still several international media development organisations working in Syria and/or in the neighbouring countries. One of them is the Journalists for Human Rights (JHR), which is Canada’s leading media development organisation that has a project, based in Turkey, to help Syrian journalists enhance their skills and strengths and ensure the sustainability of a selected number of independent Syrian media outlets, by expanding their audience share and revenue base.

Media in Cooperation and Transition (MiCT) is a German non-profit organisation that implements media development projects in crisis regions. It started working in Syria in 2012 to support independent citizen media that do not encourage violent means or ethnic or sectarian discrimination.

Free Press Unlimited (FPU) is a foundation based in Amsterdam, which, since 2014 has organised round tables for Syrian journalists of different ethnicities, political affiliations, and backgrounds. If it is not easy to quantitatively assess the scope of these discussions, in the long run, such debates and meetings have contributed to spread a certain awareness and responsibility among citizen journalists and media activists towards inclusivity, respect of basic rights, and against discrimination behaviours based on race, ethnicity, sect, or gender.

In terms of synergies, the INGOs operating in the media development ecosystem have tried to support the creation of shared platforms among Syrian NGOs and media entities. These efforts have positively stimulated discussions among Syrians inside and outside the country, as observed by one of the authors’ participation in several media development workshops held outside Syria between 2014 and 2016; in addition to that, the author has collected several impressions discussing directly with INGO staff and Syrian media activists operating inside and outside Syria. International Media Support (IMS) is a non-profit organisation based in Denmark, which, among other projects, supports Radio Rozana (launched from Paris in 2013) and The Syrian Observer (an online news service dedicated primarily to translating into English news content produced by Syria’s press).

The Syrian Female Journalists Network (SFJN) is an organisation based in the Netherland, which has been carrying out projects in Syria and in the neighbouring countries to enhance female voices in the media field, to encourage female journalists to take over leading positions in their institutions, and to raise social awareness concerning gender equality and women’s issues in the media. In 2019 SFJN launched Qalat (that means “she said” in Arabic), a database of Syrian female experts in various fields to promote the skills and expertise of Syrian women in Syrian and international media, and break the male monopoly over sources of information and analysis in the mediaa.

Most of the aforementioned organisations worked or still work in areas formerly controlled by the opposition. The geography of the conflict has radically changed after 2018 and 2019 and is still evolving; with the exception of Idlib and the north Aleppo countryside, there are no other opposition-held areas. Despite formal control of the government, even the areas under its authority are in fact not controlled by the regime as before 2011. In all the areas (be they under the control of the opposition, the government or the Kurds) there are informal networks of journalists working under cover, under the radar, or operating in a relatively open environment. It is more difficult to find structured and registered organisations for journalists, as the current respective authorities (i.e. Turks, Kurds, Government and its allies) tend to impose restrictions on media freedom. In recent years, dozens of media development organisations and journalism NGOs reunited in the Global Forum for Media Development (GFMD), an international network of journalism support organisations.

Overall, journalism in Syria is certainly in a better state than prior to 2011. In every area, new room for politics and rights has opened up, if compared to the pre-conflict situation. This relative improvement is certainly unsatisfactory by international standards. However, an evolution has occurred on the level of awareness, use of technologies, professionalization and ethical consciousness.