Syria’s media war

A photograph taken from Suruc district of Sanliurfa, Turkey, near Turkish-Syrian border crossing shows journalists work at Turkish side during the clashes in Syrian border town of Kobani (Ayn al-Arab), on November 27, 2014. (Photo by Orhan Cicek/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

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.

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An Orient TV presenter at work. When the uprising began suddenly in 2011, many of the channel’s entertainment team switched to news. “It was not for me to hire new people,” owner Ghassan Aboud says. “All the people working in Orient, they were from Syria, so they knew the situation on the ground. They saw that Orient TV is standing against Assad, and they understood what they should do.”

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.”

 

Behind the nondescript facade, Orient TV’s offices have the bright and inviting quality Levantine TV is known for. The satellite network now focuses on covering the Syrian conflict, but its legacy as an entertainment channel has left a mark. The women’s hairstyles are big and teased, and their lipstick is red; male news readers slick back their hair so it glistens under the lights. As I enter the studio, a young presenter, Mira Al Qass, swivels toward me in her chair, her hair-sprayed curls bouncing.

Al Qass tells me she has worked for almost 15 years in the region, with private and state-run broadcasters in the UAE, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia. But Orient TV, where she has spent the last year, stands out. “Orient TV is different because we have a belief—a cause that we are working toward,” says Al Qass, a Syrian from the Damascus suburb of Al Muhaireen. “It’s very important to get [to a Syria] without the Assad regime… I think all the people working here, they are working for this point.” Her colleagues nod in agreement.

In Orient TV’s main newsroom, the journalists who sit in orange plastic chairs at white desks often double as activists, on and off the job. When the uprising began suddenly in 2011, there was little time to hire news reporters, so many of the channel’s entertainment team simply switched jobs. “It was not for me to hire new people,” Aboud recalls now. “All the people working in Orient, they were from Syria, so they knew the situation on the ground. It was not too hard to get them [into] news roles. They saw that Orient TV is standing against Assad, and they understood what they should do.”

To augment its staff in Dubai, Orient TV tapped into social media to build a network of citizen journalists on the ground. Producers scrambled every day to find homemade footage of protests, demonstrations, crackdowns, and arrests. Each time they found a witness, the station gave him or her tips. Speaking over Skype, Orient TV staff relayed “how they should report, what they should see, and how they should follow the activity of the regime and the military also,” according to Aboud. Each day brought more news, and more chances to build contacts. He estimates that between 2011 and 2012, the station trained 1,000 activists in basic reporting skills, mostly over Skype and similar applications. Orient TV built a database of another 8,000 names of activists in many villages and towns who the channel could call in case of breaking news.

A small number of these activists grew into full-blown correspondents, of whom Orient TV has 22 inside Syria today. The channel preferred to hire locals who could read the shifting alliances that would soon become battle lines. As they had the activists, Orient TV staff trained their new reporters on the job, and sometimes more formally as well. When it was safe, the channel arranged for its ground team to cross the border into Turkey, where seasoned Arab journalists lectured on ways to circumvent regime surveillance and arrest, how to adopt a professional reporting tone, and other topics. “Maybe they were shouting Allahu Akbar while they were covering the news,” Mohammed Abdulrahim, the editor in chief, explains. Today, reporters leave the incantations to their interviewees.

 

Until this week, Aboud’s offices sat across the street from the Orient TV studios, in an older, mid-sized tower with slow elevators to his top-floor suite. On the day I meet him, he appears right on time in a perfectly tailored black suit. He greets me with a warm handshake and a request for my beverage order (coffee), which a server quickly delivers in a gold-rimmed porcelain cup. Aboud’s short bulky build gives him a fighting quality, while his manner, honed from years of salesmanship, is gracious and disarming.

He leans forward in his gold-colored chair to recount how Orient TV was founded in a brief moment of optimism about his homeland. For decades, Bashar al-Assad and his father and predecessor, Hafez, used a 1963 State of Emergency Law to limit reporting on politics. In 2001, the younger Assad released Decree 50, which for the first time allowed private ownership in the media. The move was billed as part of a wave of economic liberalization, but politically, it had the opposite effect. Journalists could be charged with defamation, threatening national security, or disseminating disinformation—offenses that would get them jailed or worse.

Despite the restrictions on news, Decree 50 and subsequent relaxations did present an opportunity for entertainment. The broadcast market was promising, with advertising growing at about 10 percent per year, according to a report by the Dubai Press Club. Aboud had a fortune to invest, and a background in media; he had worked in public relations in the UAE before starting his car business, and held a degree in journalism from Damascus University. So when the opportunity arose, he leapt at the chance to start a channel. He says he spent $20 million setting up Orient TV, which opened in February, 2009 in Damascus, employing 149 Syrians.

With its sleek design, Orient TV put state-run stations to shame. The channel ran lush music videos, popular Arab films, and children’s programs; talk shows covered events like Dubai Fashion Week. But the real crown jewels were Orient TV’s Ramadan serials, including a remake of a popular 1970s series about an orphan named Assad Warraq. The coming of age tale wraps in murder, crime, prison, and moral redemption—the formula for a hit. By 2010, Orient TV became one of dozens of Arab networks across the region competing for ratings during the holy month, when families fast in the daytime and stay up late into the evening.

Within weeks of the channel’s launch, the government seemed to regret having granted the license. Aboud says he was summoned to meet Rami Makhlouf, a maternal cousin of Assad thought to control as much as 60 percent of the country’s economy. Keen to consolidate his grip on the newly liberalized media sector, Makhlouf offered to buy Orient TV. When Aboud refused, he was threatened, he says, with poisoning and bankruptcy. On another occasion, he tells me, a top general vowed to kill him by staging a car accident.

In July 2009, security forces raided Orient TV’s offices, seized its equipment, and forced employees to sign a document promising not to work with the channel. “They didn’t want to leave any independent voices,” Aboud tells CJR. Aboud was abroad when the raid happened, and he went back home only once afterward. His channel moved to Dubai with him. Syrians could still watch via satellite—by 2010, 74 percent of homes had a dish.

For nearly two years, Orient TV continued in exile much as it had in Syria. Aboud’s views of his home country, however, had darkened. In retrospect, he saw how corruption was spreading through the government as public discontent rose. “Since 2008, we noticed something really going on in society—some sort of mold,” he recalls. “We could even smell the blood in the streets. We just didn’t know when something would happen.”

That something came in late 2010 and 2011, when a wave of protests rolled across the region.

Orient TV couldn’t avoid mentioning the unrest in Tunisia, and then Egypt. “Our team was sure Syria would not be far from the rest of the Arab world,” Abdulrahim, recalls. Slowly, more news seeped into the broadcasts. “First 20 percent, then 30, then 50—and now more than 70 percent—of the time is news programming,” Aboud says. In early February 2011, the channel took the unusual step of running coverage to commemorate a government massacre of the opposition Muslim Brotherhood in Hama, Syria, in 1982. Programs edited by Aboud himself featured exiled opposition figures’ firsthand accounts of how the army rolled tanks into the heart of the city and mowed down civilians. By mid-March 2011, protests were erupting in Syria, and Orient TV became a devoted opposition news channel. 

At first, the proliferation of independent media seemed a godsend for the uprising. Sources like Orient TV “were breaking the news and highlighting what’s happening,” says Wissam Tarif, who has documented atrocities in Syria, first as founder of the regional human rights group Insan and today for the New York-based Avaaz. YouTube videos, live tweets, and photo streams seemed to provide a level of “ground truth that would have never been possible in the past,” according to a 2014 United States Institute of Peace social media study.

Just as Orient TV had tapped into this fertile citizen network, international organizations saw democratic potential. Groups such as BBC Media Action, the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, and Avaaz sent trainers to work with Syrian citizen journalists; governments including the United States and France funded similar programs to build skills. Although many trainees began with near zero media literacy, “now, everyone has equipment, and the vast majority of activists have attended not one training but many trainings,” says Tarif.

Back in Dubai, Aboud says he started receiving phone calls from old contacts in the Syrian government, kindly asking Orient TV to “re-evaluate our opinions” about the uprising. Often, the advice came with threats to his family. “They call me and say, ‘We know your father is moving on this street and wearing such [clothing],’”” Aboud recalls his contacts telling him throughout March 2011.

That month, he moved all his close family members out of Syria, realizing that they would be used as leverage against him. Fearing the government would prevent their exit, he passed instructions through an intermediary: Leave at night, he advised, adding that they should tell border guards they were going on a short trip to attend a family wedding. Once out of Syria, his parents and siblings scattered between Dubai, Jordan, and Europe. By the end of that month, the phone calls from Assad’s government stopped, and the regime turned to more direct attacks.

 

Fifteen years before anyone had heard of the Arab Spring, the media was getting its first taste of complicity in mass atrocities in Africa’s Great Lakes region. On the dense mountain hillsides of Rwanda, nationalist channel Radio Television Libre des Mille Collines laid the groundwork for a Hutu-led genocide of Tutsis. In early 1994, Canadian Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire, at the time commander of the UN assistance mission in the country, warned his superiors of rising ethnic tensions. He started hearing broadcasts denouncing Tutsis as “cockroaches” ripe for extermination. That April, a torrent of violence ripped through Rwanda, leaving some 800,000 dead. “The local media… were literally part of the genocide,” Dallaire would later write. “The haunting image of killers with a machete in one hand and a radio in the other never leaves you.”

Rwanda cast a shadow on the media in conflict, prompting calls for early warning systems to monitor hate speech. But little changed, and when Syria’s uprising began, researchers working with Dallaire, now distinguished senior fellow at the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies, were watching nervously. “There was a lot of hope about the possibility of media and what they could do by reporting what was happening,” the institute’s media monitoring project manager, Marie Lamensch, recalls. Within days, what she saw quashed her optimism. First, she began to notice that state broadcasters were using dangerous speech, a term honed in Rwanda to describe borderline incitement. Soon, no one was making any pretenses anymore. Syrian government media actively called for opponents to be crushed. “Obviously that kind of discourse aggravated the conflict,” Lamensch says. “That kind of hateful language basically forces you to choose a side.”

In Syria, it wasn’t radios but smartphones that fighters carried. In the early days of the uprising, new media activists had focused on projecting Syria’s crisis to the outside world, hoping for the sort of intervention Western states had undertaken in Libya, where the UN authorized a no-fly zone. Yet as more and more Syrians started filming and tweeting, something unexpected happened: their audiences shrank. By June 2011, “social media increasingly focused inward on local and identity-based communities,” according to the USIP study, which analyzed the output of thousands of online accounts. The proliferation of information sources—once hailed as a sort of equalizing force—now facilitated the compartmentalization of viewpoints.

Fragmentation in the information war happened in step with splits emerging on the ground. Citizen journalists behind one group’s battle lines became targets from the other side, as Orient TV soon saw firsthand. Just two months into the uprising, the channel lost its first correspondent to regime sniper fire. Soon, stories started to circulate of families caught watching the station being arrested by government troops. Orient TV warned correspondents what they were signing up for, and included hostile environments awareness in some of their training. Still, Aboud admits, “their safety depends on God. We can’t do anything about it.” In Dubai, the media mogul forbade his children from walking alone; trusted drivers would shuttle them around.

The brutality of the regime’s initial crackdown—including against the station—left no doubt in Aboud’s and his team’s minds about supporting the emerging rebellion. Opposition supporters had begun to organize ragtag military resistance to the government, and defected army generals announced the creation of a “Free Syrian Army.” Soon, a menagerie of Islamist groups began soliciting aid and arms. The growing opposition was dominated by Sunnis, and regime attacks tended to hit their neighborhoods hardest. “The regime started a policy to attack only the Sunnis,” argues Abdulrahim, Orient TV’s editor in chief. “That’s why I was sure this would end in civil war, because when they directed attacks at the Sunnis, it led to creating a Sunni identity …such that now even people who are not religious, they would talk about themselves as Sunni.”

That persecuted group of Sunni revolutionaries, known as thuwwar, became the station’s key subject and audience. Orient TV covered the growing opposition to Assad, profiled martyrs, applauded defectors, and rallied around the “demands of the Syrian people.” The channel denies directing coverage toward any one particular side. “We try to give pro-regime voices a chance to speak,” Abdulrahim says. “But they refuse most of the time.”

As the conflict deepened, both traditional and new media coverage increasingly reflected their audiences. Orient TV had its niche. But so did Salafi station Al Wesal TV, which spoke to a Saudi-supported Islamist perspective. Qatar-based Al Jazeera Arabic trumpeted Jabhat al-Nusra, an al Qaeda-aligned rebel movement. Kuwaiti Islamist clerics formed their own social media universe, advocating donations to a small cohort of militias. Meanwhile, the Beirut-based Al Mayadeen lauded the Assad government and Lebanese Shia group Hezbollah, which entered the conflict in support of the regime in the spring of 2012. 

Viewership statistics show just how disparate audiences became. In 2014, a study by German nonprofit MiCT found that 22.1 percent of viewers in government-controlled areas named Al Mayadeen, the Beirut-based pro-government channel, as their most trusted source of news—over four times higher than in opposition-held zones. Orient TV gets most-trusted marks from 10 percent of opposition-area viewers, compared to just 2.3 percent in regime zones.

“Everyone is looking for sources of information that reinforce their views,” says Fadi Salem, researcher on Syria at Oxford University. “It’s easier not to consume balance. What they’re interested in is hearing about their victimization. The media is not there as a source of information … it’s more to fill an emotional need.”

Meanwhile, as Syrians readied for battle, each faction’s media began laying the groundwork: They needed to raise morale while crafting the image of an enemy who could be justly killed. It was the same tactic once employed in Rwanda, only now it was coming from all sides.

On Orient TV, correspondents lumped together nearly all rebel groups fighting the government, calling them simply thuwwar, says Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, a fellow at the Middle East Forum who studies Syrian social media. Such terminology glossed over internal divisions and painted a rosier picture of the war. Meanwhile, commentators on the channel sometimes portrayed enemies as gangs, infidels, and merciless killers. Aboud denounced regime supporters as an “alliance of minorities” set upon Sunni destruction. He has been quick to criticize political opposition figures who have even hinted at the idea of dialogue with the government. Orient TV’s website carries a disclaimer saying that the opinions expressed there are not necessarily those of the company or its owners. In reality, though, commentators have shaped the channel’s brand and audience.

Anti-government factions were hardly the first to draw battle lines. The government dubbed its opponents unbelievers, trying to stir strife. Ola Rifai, research fellow at the Centre for Syrian Studies at St. Andrews University, has documented the rhetoric in detail: On state radio stations such as Ninar FM and Sham FM, protesters were “khawna” (traitors) and “muta’miriyyn” (conspirators). Loyalists, meanwhile, were portrayed as upholding tradition, unity, and sovereignty.

Name-calling is one thing when it stays on the airwaves or online. But every new militia—opposition and pro-government alike—saw the media as a vital weapon in any battle plan. They designated Web-savvy members to run Twitter and YouTube accounts, design snazzy logos, and choreograph videos, all aimed at a captive audience of recruits and supporters. Soon, they learned to leverage their target audiences to target their enemies. 

In 2013, Human Rights Watch documented how a sphere of militant Sunni Twitter accounts urged rebels toward the atrocities that would eventually be committed in a massacre of Alawite civilians on the Syrian coast. For its part, the regime “saw in the power of social media the ability to bring people together and mobilize them quickly”—in other words, to incite, says Lamensch. All sides, she says, “really make use of powerful images to spread their message—a lot of dead bodies to say, ‘This is what your opponents are doing.’”

Into this climate of growing hatred walked the Islamic State. Since its emergence from an internecine feud within al Qaeda in late 2013, no group has proven as adept at exploiting Syria’s media divides. ISIS told followers, primed from months of deteriorating sectarian rhetoric, that it was establishing a caliphate, and doing so required a social cleansing: out with Shiites, apostates, and religious minorities. Soon, the group’s followers began act on that struggle, documenting their grotesque quest in a media campaign so slick and compelling it has lured thousands of converts the world over. 

 

Back in the Orient TV newsroom, Abdulrahim paces and hovers, awaiting word from a small town in Northern Syria. For the previous 11 days, the rebel stronghold of Zabadani had come under aerial bombardment from government forces. The satellite network had managed to get a reporter inside, but the situation was dicey. “This correspondent has been working in a hard situation for the last two years,” Abdulrahim tells me, recounting between cigarette puffs how the young journalist—most Orient staff are in their 20s—had been on the run constantly from one armed group or another.

As days at the office go, this is fairly routine for Abdulrahim. Six of the station’s journalists have died reporting in Syria since 2011, and another 15 are in prison, according to Aboud.

Orient TV has no security detail to protect its correspondents, and everyone at the channel knows these casualties are probably not the last.

Orient TV’s fiercest opponent these days is not the Syrian government, but ISIS. The extremist group is currently holding at least five Orient TV staff in unknown locations, and the station’s equipment has been the target of repeated attacks. In February 2013, ISIS hacked into the channel’s website and posted threats to its staff. As a self-perceived moderate and a liberal, “I was the first target for them,” Aboud claims now.

Orient TV has not called for violence or condoned atrocities. In fact, on this day, Aboud denounces calls by a rebel groups to burn ISIS members at the stake. “This is just another version of ISIS,” he says.

Yet after so many years of the media dehumanizing the enemy, all ISIS had to do was take the narrative to its apocalyptic extreme. The uprising wasn’t just a battle but a full-on religious war between a legitimate Sunni majority and a heretical Shia- and minority-backed regime, they said. The stakes were no longer local but existential: good or evil, redemption or hell.

Like the one before it, the ISIS revolution has been broadcast. No videos have traveled further or gotten more hits during the conflict than ISIS’s beheading films. No recruitment pitches have looped the globe like those of the extremist group. Incredibly, this has happened amid the same landscape of citizen journalism once vaunted as the new democratic wave. “ISIS doesn’t have official disseminators who tweet in its name,” says Charlie Winter, author of a Quilliam Foundation study on ISIS propaganda. “It’s spread by supporters of ISIS—but they are not employed to do it. …It’s quite a colossal messaging system we’re up against.”

Indeed, the irony of so much media is that these days the truth is harder than ever to find. Once, authoritarian Syria was a closed book. Today virtually every village and town can broadcast directly to satellite TV, and yet we are little better informed about the daily struggles of the civilians trapped there.

The noise serves the extremes all too well. No one will out-shout ISIS, whose violence is deafening. The regime, meanwhile, is content to use a “confusion strategy” to save itself, according to a recent Legatum Institute report on government propaganda. Amid a sea of half-truths and heated spin, even the most credible allegations of Assad’s misdeeds end up seeming like just “more noise in the din,” author and journalist Abigail Fielding-Smith writes.

These days, the media war is only ratcheting up—an ominous indication for the conflict itself. Syria is facing four battles, Aboud predicts: military, political, intellectual, and developmental. In his view, both ISIS and the regime will have to be defeated on all counts, a task Orient TV now sees as its mission.

*An earlier version of this story misstated Ghassan Aboud’s line of work.

Elizabeth Dickinson is a Deca journalist based in the Arabian Peninsula. Follow her on Twitter @dickinsonbeth.