While Syria's state-run news outlets run a steady stream of reports about "terrorists" and international conspiracies against President Bashar al-Assad, opposition activists roll out their own endless barrage of footage highlighting atrocities and destruction by regime forces, with little in the way of context.
With media access difficult or impossible in most of the country and no tradition of balanced journalism, reliable, objective coverage of Syria is scarce. Cairo-based Syrian activist and media entrepreneur Rami Jarrah, on the cusp of launching a radio station inside Syria, is trying to fix that – but he is starting from scratch. By providing Syrians with rational, fair reporting, he hopes to help them avoid the worst of the uncertainty in the aftermath of this conflict – now in its 22nd month – when it ends.
"When someone comes in and wants to work with us, and wants to do it to help Syria, you have to convince them that the way you do that is by being neutral," says Mr. Jarrah during an interview at the Cairo headquarters of New Media Association (ANA), which he co-directs.
One of the major problems with Syrian troops, he insists, is not that most of them are "criminals," but that they simply "don’t know what’s going on" – and the same could be said of many of those in the extreme opposition.
Meanwhile, the international community is foundering amid attempts to understand what is happening on the ground. Because reporters have an easier time accessing opposition sources and visiting opposition-controlled areas, international coverage of Syria has been skewed, Jarrah argues.
"You aren’t seeing any media coverage of Damascus and Latakia," where the government is still strong, both because reporters are not granted access and because "those who support Assad think they should not speak to journalists, that the media is trying to weaken the country," he says.
And coverage of the opposition isn't very fair either, he says, claiming that Western reporters "are only going in with the extreme opposition," such as Al Qaeda-linked groups like Jabhat al-Nusra, which the US recently designated a terrorist organization. Jarrah says reports about the prevalence of such groups are "over-exaggerated" because they sell more copy.
Prison, pseudonyms, and flight
Born in Cyprus to Syrian dissident parents and raised in London, Jarrah was working toward a degree in journalism in Dubai when he visited Syria for the first time in 2004. He was arrested upon landing, accused of espionage, slapped with a three-year travel ban, and forced to remain in a country where he was initially unable even to read the language, although he spoke it fluently.
During the initial protests in early 2011, he was beaten, tortured, and released only after admitting to being a "terrorist." Left jobless after refusing to attend a pro-government rally, he became well known in the dissident community under the pseudonym Alexander Page for getting information to Western media outlets through his blog. His fluent English, training in journalism, anti-regime stance, and contacts all led to frequent requests for interviews in Western media. He granted them, but never revealed his real name.
In October 2011, Jarrah was tipped off that the pseudonym had been traced to him and fled the country with his wife and young daughter through Jordan to Cairo, where he has been since, working to get media equipment into Syria and get reliable information out. Last month, Canadian Journalists for Free Expression awarded him the 2012 International Press Freedom Award for his work supporting a network of independent journalists in Syria.
Now he is in Cairo, getting a media organization off the ground that he hopes will serve as a source for balanced reporting by Syrians and for Syrians. Much bloodshed could have been avoided, but much can still be saved, if appeals are made to Syrians’ critical thinking abilities, not their fears or sectarian and religious affiliations, he says – and objective reporting can do that.
No agenda other than objectivity
Jarrah has high hopes for Radio ANA. A trial version is already available online and it will be available on satellite in late January, although the official launch isn't until June 10. The station will broadcast out of Aleppo’s Bustan Al Qasr district and eastern Damascus.
Radio ANA has 16 reporters inside Syria, all of whom his organization has worked with over the past year and trained in technical skills – six in Damascus and one or more in other major cities. It also has a wider network of hundreds of citizen journalists it can tap for further information and on-the-ground coverage of events in cities other than those where staff reporters live.
The Cairo staff of the organization, who come from all across Syria, make every possible effort to verify the information from the citizen journalists by cross-checking information and paying close attention to location identifiers like dialects and landmarks spotted in videos, Jarrah says.
Although ANA intends to continue providing reporting on Syria to the international community, Radio ANA is setting out to be the first Syrian non-regime radio station broadcasting from within Syria without a particular agenda – other than objectivity. The ultimate aim, as Jattah stressed throughout the interview, is to produce an informed Syrian population, necessary if the country is to be rebuilt with the freedoms for which the opposition is fighting.