Syria’s media war

Elizabeth Dickinson writes: The driver stops on a crowded, dusty road lined with cars. Used SUVs and sedans are parked two deep in front of tired warehouses bearing sun-bleached signs for a shipping company and a tire store. “Is it here?” I credulously ask the chauffeur who was dispatched to bring me to this desolate stretch of road. “Yes, wait,” he says, pointing as a man weaves his way towards us. I get out and follow the man to one of the warehouses’ unmarked doors. After passing through a lobby that smells of cigarette smoke and mint tea, we push through a second, locked door and into the newsroom of Orient TV, a Syrian satellite channel run and broadcast from Dubai.

The discreet exterior is no accident. Syria’s media is at war, and with its $1.5 million monthly budget, dozens of correspondents, and four regional bureaus, Orient TV is in the middle of it.

As the Syrian conflict has unspooled over the last four years, Orient TV has earned a reputation as an opposition bulwark. A Syrian automotive exporting mogul named Ghassan Aboud founded the channel in Damascus in 2009, intending to broadcast movies and frothy serial drama programs.* But since the 2011 Arab Spring, he has used the channel to become an outspoken advocate of rebellion against President Bashar al-Assad. In addition to Orient TV, he bankrolls a chain of field hospitals in Syria. He has sent hundreds of thousands of dollars of his own money in the form of humanitarian aid, advocated an anti-government stance to policymakers across Western capitals, and trained a legion of young journalists in the opposition.

Along the way, Orient TV’s evolution has tracked that of the broader Syrian media. Like much of the Arab Spring, Syria’s revolution began with a flood of optimism about independent, citizen-driven news. When protesters thronged the streets, obtuse state television and radio networks played patriotic songs on loop, while satellite channels like Orient TV ran grainy cellphone videos of police firing on peaceful demonstrations. By evading censorship, platforms like Twitter and Facebook achieved two things Syria’s tightly-controlled media never had before: They gave the political opposition a voice, and they exposed to the world Syria’s brutal police state.

Within weeks, social media had helped topple decades-old despotic regimes in Egypt and Tunisia. Orient TV, like so many broadcasters covering the uprisings, tapped into this new pool of readymade sources on the ground. Its journalists built a database of as many as 9,000 Syrian activists ready to send in video and tips. International NGOs and foundations sent smartphones to activists and deployed media trainers to advise them on Skype. A new generation of citizen journalists was born, helping to grow Syria’s mobile phone penetration rate from just 46 percent in 2011 to nearly ubiquitous today.

Yet four years later, the much-vaunted media revolution hasn’t delivered the freedom or the plurality it promised. As unarmed demonstrations gave way to conventional warfare, the media, too, entered the fray. The number of citizen sources grew, but their audiences fragmented. Opposition, regime, jihadist, and ethnic media today rarely resemble one another; the stories they tell speak less to a shared reality than to the fissures between different versions of the prevailing narrative.

These days, every militia and brigade has its own YouTube channel, theme song, and social media network. And as armed groups have grown to resemble media organizations, the media has started looking like militias too: partisan, sectarian, and driven by hate speech. On social media particularly, but in the established media as well, broadcasts don’t just report the violence. With inflammatory language and provocative storylines, they actively incite it.

Orient TV has not been immune to these trends. The channel was a voice of reason in the early days of the uprising, and remains among the most professionally produced and one of the few to have reporters on the ground, breaking news few others can. But Orient TV, which describes itself as a non-partisan opposition channel, also took a side. Critics see a station that panders to a limited, Sunni revolutionary subset, adopting sectarian lingo to speak to and about most everyone else.

Syria is hardly the first conflict in which the media landscape has become a battlefield. But the rapid expansion of social media in the last few years has sped the process. The sheer volume of information the conflict has produced, and the vast number of people who are shaping it, mean that everyone is both citizen and journalist, partisan and reporter. The media war is just as real as any fighting on the ground, because many of the actors are the same. Ending the military conflict likely won’t be possible until the information battle dies down.

This explains why Orient TV operates behind unmarked doors, tucked away a dozen miles from the flashy Dubai neighborhood hosting most other satellite stations. The channel’s stance hasn’t just won it critics, but also enemies. Orient TV and its staff have been targeted by the Syrian government, the Islamic State (ISIS), and many others.

And Orient TV is fighting back. “The journalists don’t take it just as professionals; they take the revolution as their cause,” says Aboud, the owner. “They take it personally because Syria is their home.” [Continue reading…]

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