Radio and the Battle for Syria’s Hearts and Minds—and Ears

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Khalil Ashawi/Reuters

Twenty minutes—this was the small window of time that Majid (not his real name) usually gave himself to broadcast his radio dispatches and then flee. The Syrian was making a name for himself as a bold, young journalist in Damascus, venturing into contested neighborhoods in the capital’s war-torn suburbs to deliver his reports. The broadcasts were low tech and old-fashioned, produced for an upstart radio station called Al-Watan FM, or “The Homeland FM,” and went out on the local airwaves, crackling into a sphere otherwise tightly controlled by the regime. Any Damascus resident scanning the dial could tune in.

It was dangerous work. Pushing into the capital’s FM frequencies meant transmitting an easy-to-track signal from within the city. Government soldiers or regime thugs often came looking for Majid when he went on the air, so he tried to be quick—setting up, going live, then packing up and disappearing within the span of 20 minutes.

But one day Majid stayed around too long. Soon, government troops swept down on the neighborhood from which he was transmitting. In the end they found him, and dragged him away. Majid is now believed to be dead.

giglio-fe0232-syria-embed2 U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry with aide Jason Meininger recently. On Thursday, Kerry opened high-level Syria talks with the words: “This is not a game.” Susan Walsh/Reuters/Pool

Majid’s abduction, which took place late last year, highlights the danger for Syrian journalists still working in the country, voicing and broadcasting opinions opposed to the regime of Bashar al-Assad. But the director of Al-Watan pressed ahead, determined to bring dissenting voices on air. In the months since Majid’s disappearance, the radio station’s operations have expanded steadily.

Al-Watan was founded in August 2011, less than six months into the conflict that has now claimed more than 100,000 people. To get it up and running, activists smuggled radio equipment into Damascus, piecemeal, from China and Dubai, labeling the packages as computer games to get them through customs. At first, the service was spotty, comprising hit-and-run segments like the ones that Majid broadcast. Today, the radio station is on air for eight hours daily, with programming that ranges from call-in shows to educational sessions on topics like surviving a chemical weapons attack. It has a staff of about 30 people and runs its own news-gathering team.

It is just one of at least a dozen FM radio stations that have popped up in Syria since the beginning of the war, many of them discreetly backed by the United States government. These journalists earnestly push democratic ideals and seek to objectively report the news. The radio broadcasts also feature pop music and comedy, educational programs and soap operas, even cooking shows—anything to keep people tuned in. Much of the content is hyperlocal. The reporters say that broadcasting from their audience’s own neighborhoods lends them credibility and gives an immediacy to their message.

That underlying message is one of moderation and civility. Think National Public Radio in Arabic. What they’re hoping to do is undermine Assad and promote a more moderate voice for the opposition—in essence, to get a head start in the battle of ideas with the Islamists who might overtake Syria if Assad is overthrown.

Al-Watan’s director, Obaidah al-Kadri, says the goal of his station is to reach what he calls “silent Syrians”—the equivalent of undecided voters—those who “are not with us or with the regime.” Such “silent Syrians” don’t necessarily support Assad, whose attempts at suppressing dissent have become ever-more brutal, but they may be wary of the rebels, too—especially as Islamic extremists play an increasingly visible role in the fighting. And like undecided voters, they could be the deciding factor in who eventually wins.

In an age of tweeting, hacktivism, and cyberwarfare, radio may seem old-fashioned, but Kadri, who worked as a doctor at the outbreak of the conflict, believes it is a medium uniquely suited to reaching these undecided Syrians. A silent Syrian may not necessarily seek out independent news on satellite dishes or the Web but can perhaps be captured while scanning through the choices on the car radio or a portable at home.

giglio-fe0232-syria-wide1 Young Syrian men smoke shisha pipes in a refugee camp. Behind them is a poster for the Campaign in Support of Syrian Refugees. Ivor Prickett/Panos

Moreover, in a country ravaged by war, a low-tech solution like radio has certain practical advantages over TV and the Internet. As one Damascus-based media activist, who goes by the nickname Alexia Jade, puts it: “I am not a radio fan in general. But in the past months, people have been following these stations more than before, because of the long hours of power outage. This means no TV and mostly no Internet. But nothing stops a radio.”

SYRIAN RADIO journalists aren’t the only ones taking the medium seriously. Kadri’s station and others like it receive crucial support from the U.S. government in order to stay on the air. As part of America’s efforts to aid the Syrian opposition, the State Department is supporting around 10 radio stations countrywide.

State officials select and vet the journalists running the stations, then arrange for funding, which is provided by civil society NGOs and other channels using State Department money. For his part, Kadri used American support to secure key equipment, including transmitters with greater range that allow his team to broadcast safely from within rebel-held territory—though he proudly notes that his station was founded without outside help. State Department money for stations across Syria has also gone to training radio journalists and engineers, providing equipment like laptops and mixers, developing programming, and paying staff salaries.

Rami Jarrah, 29, made his name as a plugged-in media activist in Damascus and he currently runs an online news service. But he also recently linked up with the State Department to jump into radio. “We want to create a separate transmission with the silent majority,” he says. His new FM station in Raqqa has already come under threat from extremists, who have been known to carry out kidnappings and grisly killings of their opponents, but he says he’ll brave the danger because the work is so important.

The manager of a three-month-old station in Syria’s increasingly volatile Kurdish region, Siruan H. Hossein, a 37-year-old journalist raised in Europe, says he receives financial support from the State Department via an American NGO. He uses the money to pay his staff of 40 people, who are spread across seven cities. He has also been given the equipment he needs to broadcast. While the station, called ARTA FM, receives a small amount of funding from other sources, Hossein says it couldn’t operate without U.S. support, which was key to getting it up and running in the first place. “We do not have the financial resources to do this ourselves,” says Hossein, whose staff has studied how stations like NPR and the BBC use richly layered audio and atmospheric sounds and are trying to incorporate it into their own broadcasts.

Hossein, whose family left for Germany when he was 13 and who grew up in the Ruhr Valley, says he returned to Syria after the revolution. “I came back to this region to do something,” he says, “and the best thing I could do is journalism.”

His station broadcasts in three local languages—Kurdish, Arabic, and Syriac, an Aramaic dialect once spoken widely across Mesopotamia. Like other stations backed by Washington, the main focus for ARTA FM is to push civil society, and its programs span topics from anti-sectarian advocacy and discussions on moderate Islam to journalistic reports on problems with the local water supply. ARTA FM also covers sensitive topics such as fighting between rebels and local Kurdish militias, Hossein says, in a way that “gives everyone the opportunity to talk. We show that we are independent, we just want to talk, and we don’t hide anything.”

giglio-fe0232-syria-embed3 Broadcasters celebrate a decade of Radio Free Europe, May 21, 1960. Bettmann/Corbis

Like the other Syrian journalists receiving U.S. support who were interviewed for this article, Hossein says his American backers don’t influence his coverage. “We are not forced to do anything we don’t want to do,” he says. “The only thing we can’t do is support violence, which of course we don’t.”

State Department officials, who provided Newsweek with an in-depth look at the radio program, say the Syrian journalists are encouraged to build credibility and independence. Washington’s main lever of influence comes in choosing whom to support. “It helps us to get messages of moderation out there,” one senior official says.

America has committed $250 million in nonlethal assistance to the opposition, spending $3.5 million to date on its media programs. According to the official, the radio program complements other U.S. media development initiatives under way in Syria, which include providing local journalists and media activists with training and communications equipment and supporting a handful of opposition satellite TV stations. “We’re careful about who we’re helping. We won’t [help] if we have concerns, and we do vet the people that receive the assistance. So I would describe them in general as the moderate voices in the country,” the senior official says. “We can’t control the messages, but where there are people that want to spread that kind of [moderate] message, we want to be sure they have the means to do it.”

STATE DEPARTMENT officials cringe at—and reject—comparisons between their Syria radio program and Radio Free Europe, which the United States famously ran during the Cold War as part of its efforts to undermine the Soviet Union, and which was later revealed to have acted, at times, under the directive of the CIA. The goal of this radio program is limited: trying to help the moderate opposition in Syria in a relatively hands-off fashion. In fact, as the Obama administration considers a potential airstrike on Syrian targets after last month’s chemical weapons attack in Damascus, analysts say that the State Department’s radio program in Syria—while just a small part of U.S. efforts and expenditures there—provides a window into how America has preferred to operate in the conflict so far.

“It’s absolutely within their comfort zone,” says Steven Heydemann, the special adviser for Middle East initiatives at the United States Institute of Peace. For one thing, it dovetails neatly with other American efforts such as promoting women’s rights and supporting local government councils—initiatives that have been launched “with an eye toward beginning to put an infrastructure in place for what they hope will become a viable alternative for the Assad regime,” Heydemann says. The hope is, he adds, that even the most rudimentary civil society institutions might create a situation in which “the odds that people move in the direction of democracy pick up by 1 or 2 percent.”

giglio-fe0232-syria-embed4 Buildings in a suburb of Damascus hit by heavy artillery shelling recently. Shaam News Network/AP

But some say the modest scale and ambition of the radio program reflect America’s hesitance to fully engage in Syria. While America has provided a significant amount of humanitarian aid to the country—about $1 billion so far—when it comes to assisting the opposition and especially the rebels more actively, America has played it safe, says Firas Abi Ali, the head of Middle East and North Africa forecasting at IHS Country Risk, a research firm in London. The radio program and similar efforts, he argues, are “intended to show engagement without committing to anything politically or militarily.”

Another State Department official who is closely involved with the radio program says that, if Assad falls, having the FM stations in place on the ground might be helpful. “There’s a lot of uncertainty on where this country will go,” the official says. “There is going to be a power vacuum. And in that situation, you need something that resembles [objective] truth.” The official also points out that one population you can reach through FM is the military. “They don’t have unfettered access to the Internet. However, they do have radios.”

Neither this American official nor Syrian activists were keen to talk about the details of their contact, such as how the U.S. finds and gets involved with the various stations. But it seems to be mainly a matter of networking: officials in the region will hear about someone who wants to start a station or is already running one and who needs help. A few savvy Syrians have approached the State Department directly with proposals, though that has been rare.

The American official said he was fine with the scope and aim of the program: “Nation building isn’t something that we’re good at. It’s just hard. However, supporting the pillars we can support, which will contribute to a free and open society—that’s something we can do. That’s something we can actually have a say in.”

Kadri hopes to eventually establish stations across the country. He says the danger for his journalists continues—both from the regime and from factions among the rebels. But he says it’s worth the risk: “We can reach the silent people in Syria, even those people who are supporting the regime,” he says. “What we’re trying to do is unite people.”

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