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What future for Syrian journalism?
November 2, 2017
Author: Petros Konstantinidis

The SKeyes Center for Media and Cultural Freedom organized, in partnership with the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Liberty (FNF), a conference on Syria’s troubled media sector. The conference was also the occasion to present the preliminary findings of the SKeyes Center’s research on the content of the emerging Syrian media sector. “Journalism in crisis: A content analysis of the emerging media sector in Syria” gathered nearly a hundred Syrian and foreign journalists at Beirut’s Riviera Hotel on October 20, 2017.
The research results were presented by SKeyes executive director Ayman Mhanna. More than 12,000 articles were analyzed by researchers Jaber Bakr and Abdullah Amin Al-Hallak who studied the publications of 17 major media outlets over a period of six months, from January 1 to June 30, 2017. The report produced recommendations that can be of great use to international organizations that support the sector, as they give “a clear image of where improvements are needed” according to Mhanna.
Since the beginning of the Syrian conflict in 2011, the country’s media sector has witnessed major changes. The emergence of new media outlets has broken the state media’s monopoly on public information. Even though the support for the emerging media sector was strong and steady in the first few years, foreign funding for the Syrian media sector has fallen rapidly since 2015, with most funds being allocated to strategic communication, mainly around the concept of countering violent extremism. According to Croatian media consultant Biljana Tatomir, under the current circumstances, “there is a need to think in the long-term” to ensure the continued development of the Syrian media sector.
The issue of finding donors and funding was central in the discussions, as the present conditions in Syria pose “a constant existential threat to all Syrian media outlets” according to Yassin Swehat of Al-Jumhuriya. “We face sustainability issues every three months. We don’t like being dependent on donors, but we cannot achieve financial sustainability otherwise,” he added. On the differences between foreign and local funding, Jawad Sharbaji, editor-in-chief of Enab Baladi, was clear in saying that “foreign funding means less conflict of interest” compared to funding that could come from wealthy Syrian businessmen, and therefore more journalistic freedom, even though everyone recognizes the shortcomings of foreign funding as well. French media consultant Soazig Dollet focused on the importance of establishing good communication routes between donors and the Syrian media, alongside capacity building on how to draft proposals to acquire funding.
Apart from facing the dire financial situation, the conference also served as a platform to explore the circumstances that Syria’s emerging media sector has had to face since 2011. Online publications such as Al-Jumhuriya may not have to face the cost of printing, but also miss access to a certain segment of the population. Khaled Khalil, a journalist for the print newspaper Souriatna sees a more important distinction between mainstream and new media, than between the different available formats. “I moved to alternative media because of the ugly practices I witnessed in mainstream, state-owned media” he said, adding that “our institutions will survive” with a certainty that one can rarely find in a country that has been in war for the past six years.
Ironically, according to Syrian journalists on the panel, some state-owned media outlets seem to have witnessed some improvement in their content since they started facing competition from the emerging sector. According to Jawad Sharbaji, “we are starting to address other sides of the war, as shown by the increasing number of pro-regime people reading the new and independent media.” “We begin to create some common ground,” he added.