Media revolution: the Arab uprisings unleash fresh news brands and hyperlocal content

These are just a few of the many new media brands that have been launched in Syria since the start of the uprisings.  Read my piece in this month’s issue of Bold magazine for a look at the emergence of hyperlocal content across the region and the unprecedented impact it is having on both governments and viewers.

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THE MEDIA REVOLUTIONS OF THE ARAB SPRING // BOLD MAGAZINE JUNE 2012


By Habib Battah

A year ago, Khaled, a soft-spoken Syrian college student, was studying literature and writing a romance novel. But inspired by his father’s arrest last February in his small village, the 21-year-old began working on a documentary film covering the notorious prison conditions he feared his father was facing. In the process, he got in touch with the media office of the Homs Revolutionary Council, and offered to translate the reports it publishes on its Facebook page. The site is just one of many new media brands birthed out of the country’s current upheaval, distributing the bulk of images beamed out to millions of Arab households everyday.

In villages and towns across Syria, Khaled and hundreds of his young colleagues have assumed the role of reporters and media workers where professional news outlets have been absent. Not only because foreign journalists have been banned, but also because local newsgathering was nearly nonexistent.


Like most Arab countries, television station and newspapers in Syria are owned by the state and thus focus on the capital, while largely ignoring secondary cities. Homs for example, which has a population of over one million, had virtually no media landscape until the uprisings began. Now it is teeming with citizen reporters, even at the neighborhood level. Baba Amro for example, which saw some of the worst violence, has spawned the Baba Amro News Network.

“Every city has a media offices,” Khaled says.  “Every street has reporters.”

A flurry of local news brands have been popping up across Syria, each bearing its distinct  corner screen logo with names like Deir El Zor Press and Latikia News Network or LNN. These unprecedented outlets often broadcast simultaneously on blogs, Twitter, Facebook, Youtube even Skype groups. 



Fed by hundreds of ground reporters, many in their teens, the videos and scripts they host are uploaded over smuggled satellite receivers to circumvent the government’s strategy of shutting down the internet during military crackdowns. Once online, the hyperlocal content is made ever more accessible, especially to those that lack internet, when it is picked up and disseminated over Arab and international news channels. Syrians can also watch over half a dozen low-budget Syrian satellite channels now broadcasting into the country from bases in Europe or the Arab Gulf states.

THE HYPERLOCAL TREND

The direct relationship that has been forged between hyperlocal brands and global satellite broadcasters is a recent trend in the fast-evolving Syrian media scene. At the outset of the fighting, the bulk of videos had been distributed by national opposition media outlets such as Urgarit News or Shaam News Network, which served as predominant sources for regional broadcast giants Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya. The new shift to new local outlets such as Duma TV reveals contestation among disparate opposition groups which have multiplied quickly, according to Shakeeb Al Jabri, a Syrian activist and blogger based in Beirut.

“There’s a competition for breaking news,” he says.

Along with weapons and smuggled aid, the distribution of video is emerging as a key currency of political capital, Jabri explains, with the news networks often tied to local opposition councils.

“No matter how many cameras are sent in, they keep complaining there is not enough.”

Orient News is one of many new Syrian satellite channels airing live broadcasts from citizen journalists.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this influx of new and untrained voices coupled with broadcasters’ insatiable thirst for footage has also spawned allegations of unchecked exaggeration and forgery. The Arab world’s two leading news organizations have played a leading role in shaping public opinion strongly in favor of uprisings through round-the-clock coverage supplemented by flashy graphics and emotive music clips calling for the ouster presidents. Critics point out that the two all-news stations, funded by Qatar and Saudi Arabia, have failed to call for the ouster of friendly regimes. Banned in Syria, both rely extensively on amateur video produced by activists, some of whom have reportedly been hired as paid correspondents.
“Some are doing it for the money,” says Rima Marrouch, an Amman-based reporter for National Public Radio who deals with a number of activists. She worries that many do not understand the risks involved, with several reported jailed, tortured or killed.

Known as “Syria Pioneer” Ahmed Al Sayed was one of Homs leading video journalists, uploading over 800 videos before sucumbing to shrapnel wounds while filming the shelling of his town in February. He was one of six citizen journalists killed so far this year, according to Reporters Without Borders.

Marrouch says online activists are increasingly sharing their passwords with friends and family to keep their sites ongoing in the case of their death or imprisonment.

QUESTIONABLE AUTHENTICITY

But many in the Arab world are skeptical of the citizen videos broadcast by major news networks. Brahim Al Amin, editor-in-chief of the influential Al Akhbar newspaper, has accused Al Jazeera of paying for staged footage.

Activists also doubt the authenticity of certain videos. Al Jabri, the Beirut-based activist, describes a clip from Rastan where a camera was trained on a building and then moments later it was destroyed by a mortar shell.

“The whole thing was staged. They had them fire the mortar,” he says in a reference to opposition forces.

Khaled, the activist college student, says rebels have sometimes burned tires in the streets to exaggerate bombardments for the benefit of cameras. And he confirms the complaints of many journalists over the wide variance in casualty figures. He recalls reports that said 20 were killed in massive battles in his village, but he says the figure was closer to one or two. “I was there. There was no shooting.”

But wire reporters for international agencies that spend their days sifting through videos and blogs say they have developed an eye for fakes and claim such exaggerations are inevitable. Viewed against the thousands of videos that have been uploaded from Syria so far, they see manipulated footage as a margin of error more than the norm.

Yet Al Jabri questions the speedy source verification process at the major Gulf-based Arab networks saying footage can often be recycled or come from questionable sources.

“When they make a mistake, they don’t issue a retraction. They just quietly delete it and it shows up on Al Dunia,” he explained, in a reference to Syria’s state-backed station, which has devoted lengthy specials to the alleged fabrications that it says have become endemic.

Al Jabri rejects that claim saying major Arab networks are editorializing content rather than staging it: “Al Jazeera is being biased to our end, but they are not fabricating videos.”

SECTARIAN FEARS

A greater worry for some activists is the growing popularity of religious opposition media that capitalize on sectarian dogma. These include satellite TV stations Safa and Wesal, both  affiliated with the Saudi-based anti-regime cleric Adnan Arour. While interviewed on the channels, Arour frequently rises from his chair delivering a crescendo of insults toward the regime and its supporters, singling out those who share his Alawite faith. In one infamous broadcast, Arour threatened “to chop off the flesh” of Alawites who fought with the regime and feed them to the dogs. Framing this narrative, Safa TV sometimes carries a corner graphic that reads “Sunni blood is united.”


 TV cleric Adnan Arour has singled out Alawites in his sectarian anti-regime rants 


Borrowing a tactic from reality TV, the two religious channels also display text hotlines on screen for what they say are fundraising efforts to aid refugees. Demonstrating their popularity, Al Jabri says the channels, thought to be based in Saudi Arabia, have raised over $3 million.


“Some currents are trying to impose an Islamist agenda,” he says. “It costs us support for the revolution among minorities and more secular Sunnis.”

Khaled is also concerned with the allure of religious rhetoric. Like many displaced Syrians, he says once religiously mixed neighborhoods in his village are increasingly being abandoned as fears of sectarian violence grow.

Friends from neighboring towns are now afraid to visit him while his father’s secretary has suddenly begun wearing a Hijab out of fear of feeling undressed.  “I fear for my friends,” he says.

Religious broadcasters, however, are not the only players in the new Syrian TV scene. Many of the new channels now broadcasting into the country over satellite are budget operations, airing a choppy stream of propagandistic imagery and music clips denouncing the regime. Others however have more advanced newscasts featuring studio anchors and ground teams, such as Barada and Orient TV, which are based in London and the UAE respectively. These stations also host talk shows and are even able to air live broadcasts through applications such as Ustream from activists on the ground. The feeds are often picked up by other larger satellite channels, providing yet another avenue for local citizen reporters to reach a mass audience. Residents say the new stations often change frequencies due to signal jamming from the state, but that they can easily be reprogrammed with fresh channel search.  

“SO LITTLE CONTENT”

The dynamism of Syria’s changing media environment reflects wider regional trends. Dozens of new TV stations are now broadcasting from Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and elsewhere.

But Marwan Kraidy, the co-author of Arab Television Industries, says there has been more buzz than substance.

“There’s so little content,” he said of some new broadcasters, giving the example of much-anticipated station “Libya Hurra” (Free Libya) TV. “It’s very slick–they have great graphics. But what’s beyond that?”

The television scene in Iraq, which has seen an explosion of new channels, has also been worrying, says Kraidy, a professor at the Annenberg School of Communication. “We’re seeing a lot of Takfri channels,” he said, using the Arabic term for those who accuse others of infidelity. The channels often serve to stoke sectarian tensions with violently graphic speeches by clerics.

At the same time, there is much opportunity with so many new citizen journalists, especially in Syria.   

“These could be the Al Jazeera’s of five years from now,” he said of the new local outlets.

New Syrian channel Safa TV uses text hotlines to raise funds. 

News is not the only TV genre where change is taking place. With Ramadan around the corner, expectations are high for the first post revolution season of TV dramas, which are traditionally released during the holy month. With the production industry split between Egypt and Syria, scripts are likely to be illustrative of political developments in both countries.  

Some 60 new television series are now in production in Egypt, a record number, according to Lebanese director Assad Fouladkar. He says the revolution has significantly loosened restraints on political content, which was strictly prohibited under the previous government.

Fouladkar says the uprising has allowed him to make changes to his upcoming satire comedy, which tells the story of a bureaucratic nightmare a man faces when trying to obtain his birth certificate. One of the antagonists, who had cautiously been named “the general manager” has now been changed to “the minister,” making the show more realistic.

“We felt more free to express what we wanted to say,” he says. “Before [the revolution] you couldn’t say anything political.”

PUBLIC BACKLASH

Still, the shedding of decades of autocratic rule has also brought a fair share of vitriol. Although the series is set in the pre-revolution era, Fouladkar says fear of a public backlash forced the producers to remove a picture of former president Mubarak used as a prop in a government office, replacing it with an Egyptian flag.

While new political freedoms seem evident, a certain chilling effect has settled in the industry on social issues, Foulakdar argues, citing the recent court ruling against comedian Adel Imam. The 72-year-old screen legend was sentenced to three months in prison for “insulting Islam” earlier this year. A veteran director, Foulakdar says there are fresh fears over female wardrobes and the shooting of intimate scenes, which were less problematic under the previous regime.

“This is not really freedom because the Islamists are taking over.”

But others say the picture is less clear.  

“There is a big question mark over what you can and can’t do,” says Professor Kraidy. “Some are saying this is the time to push something risky.”

Far less debate revolves around Syria’s upcoming productions this Ramadan, which are expected to steer clear of political commentary.

“They want to tell people it’s safe, nothing is wrong,” Fouladkar explains.

Yet with so much violence on television, and so much revolutionary content expected from Egyptian TV series this season, avoiding politics may not be such a bad move, he says.

“When you are in war, you don’t want to watch a movie about war. Viewers want to escape.”

Khaled, the young literature student turned activist, disagrees. He feels the material on television should be relevant to his nation’s daily struggle to survive. “We are losing loved ones everyday. We are living in the reality, why would we want to escape it?”

Khaled says his experiences covering the turmoil made him more conscious of news production. “I’m looking at where the camera is placed, how it moves. I wasn’t thinking about these things before.”

He’s hopeful that the new Syrian citizen news agencies will evolve into institutions in the future. “They can become like Al Jazeera or Al Arabiya. Maybe a TV or radio station in Homs.”

But Khaled plans to go back to writing his romance novel, albeit with a twist. “I’m adding the revolution to it.”