Introduction

As already mentioned, today’s Syrian media landscape reflects two main phenomena: territorial fragmentation and political polarisation. Despite the general lack of professionalism and the related absence of the culture of freedom of press, media managed by government authorities continue to have more impact than those managed differently. The Syrian government enjoys an almost absolute monopoly in print media. Furthermore, thanks also to Iranian and Russian support, the Syrian government has succeeded in counteracting the narrative produced by pro-opposition pan-Arab TVs owned by Qatar and Saudi Arabia, through empowering and updating modes of delivering political messages through TV channels. Opposition-held areas are de facto deprived of printed media and do not have any direct control on TVs (with the exception of Orient TV), while until recently they could count on few radio stations that have only a minor impact. Really independent Kurdish media play a very marginal role, while almost all political-dominated Kurdish media have the lion’s share in addressing Kurdish audience therefore contributing in deepening the fracture among Syrian communities. 

Syrians have access to different kinds of media, according to the areas where they live and to the subsequent availability of services and infrastructures. For example, power shortages, convenience of generators and road closures are only some of the factors that also have a direct effect on the possibility for Syrians to access certain media sources. Major differences register for access to and consumption of Syrian TV, newspapers, mobile news and radio, which are predictably more available in government-controlled areas. Curiously, Syrian TV is reported as being slightly more accessible in contested areas (Free Press Unlimited - FPU et al report, 2016). On the contrary, there are almost no differences for Arab/International TV, social media and news websites. Pro-government news sources dominate in government-controlled regions and their presence is strong in opposition-held areas; while pro-opposition media, which predictably tend to dominate in contested areas, barely register in pro-government regions. People living in opposition-controlled places, are generally more active online than their fellow citizens in government-held areas. No major differences between regions register when it comes to possessing various social media elements or accessing social media platforms, with Facebook dominating and Twitter registering a significant following in both Syrias, while WhatsApp features prominently in contested areas only.

Government-held areas

The rise to power of Hafez al-Asad, the father of the current President, in the autumn of 1970, marks the structural consolidation of the Baathist rule (1963) and its improvement on two different levels. On the one side there was the real power, embodied in the secret services of control and repression, some military and paramilitary groups and some Baath party offices directly connected to the presidency. On the other hand, the formal power was represented by state institutions: Parliament, government, judicial apparatus, corporations, student and popular organisations. In such a framework, media still play the role of attesting the legitimacy of the formal power, while covering up the real one by any means necessary, hiding it behind an institutional curtain. According to Lisa Weeden, the most expert scholar on Hafez al-Asad’s propaganda system, the Syrian public opinion is aware of the existence of these two layers of power and of the role played by official media. But it behaves “as if” it was persuaded by the regime’s official discourse. With the rise to power of Bashar al-Asad in the summer of 2000, during and after the phase of consolidation of his personal power (2001-2005), the structure of the Syrian regime has remained substantially unchanged. Just like there was no modification in the relationship between government and media and state-run media and public opinion. Until 2011, prior to the eruption of the popular uprising, the majority of cultural activities and social mobilisations were still firmly in the grip of the state through its institutions and agencies on the ground. Since the main gateways for public space were closed, the Syrian youth - mostly those dwelling in the big cities - had to literally assault the web to bypass the state censorship and create platforms for social, cultural and mostly apolitical debate. Today, in government-held regions the situation is substantially unchanged, but cracks on the surface of the absolutist system are beginning to appear and the line between respect/violation of rules has started to progressively thin.

Opposition-controlled territories

According to the mentioned FPU 2016 study , 343 media organisations have been active in Syria since 2011, many of which have since closed. The cruelty of the battlefield, the reduction of international funds and the general deterioration of the situation on the ground are all concurring factors in these closures. Anyway, despite all odds, today more than 30 different political publications, of diverse ideological attitudes and affiliations, are printed and distributed in the different parts of the country controlled by opposition forces (according to the online archive of Syrian independent press: Syrian Prints Archive).

Kurdish-majority zones

Prior to the uprising of 2011, Kurdish journalism was basically nonexistent in the country. Any published material in Kurdish was banned since 1958 and the teaching of the language forbidden. The only publications related to Kurdish issues and aimed to a Kurdish audience were political leaflets and newspapers. Such publications were the expression of political parties and were circulated illegally in the Kurdish-majority area in the northeast of Syria and in the main Syrian cities. As any other form of journalism in the country, including journalism made for Kurds, was controlled and repressed by the government. In this sense - as media researchers Yazan Badran and Enrico De Angelis highlight - a “Kurdish journalism” in Syria could not emerge simply because a “Syrian journalism” did not exist either. Only in recent years, after the Kurds gained a certain level of autonomy, local media have started to flourish in the areas historically inhabited by Kurds. Overall, there are two main kinds of Kurdish media: independent and affiliated to political parties. Independent media have been following paths similar to media outlets in other Syrian regions: They started as blogs and/or content published on social platforms and are led by young activists. Some of them have even reached a level of institutionalisation and professionalism. However, they are not economically sustainable and to be independent from political parties and still be able to survive, they must rely on funding by INGOs (Ara News by FPU and Sida; Arta by Creative; Welat by Basma; Shar by Chemonics). Due to the fact that funding is usually renewed on yearly base, these media outlets cannot grow in size and have long-term strategies.