April 21, 2014
Throughout the reign of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his father Hafez before him, the Syrian government has been notorious for its stifling restrictions on freedom of the press, with the state effectively controlling all dimensions of the country’s media landscape while stamping out any hint of dissent. In some ways, the outbreak of the Syrian civil war more than three years ago exacerbated these dynamics, as journalists covering the conflict have increasingly been killed or abducted by both pro- and anti-Assad groups.
At the same time, however, the removal of Syrian government institutions from areas throughout Syria has provided fertile ground for an upsurge in independent media activity, the likes of which would have been unthinkable for the 40 years prior to the Syrian uprising. Still, new publications struggle to secure funding and ensure the accuracy of their reporting while avoiding the wrath of hardline rebel groups in the area.
“Today, there is no censorship” in opposition-controlled territory, says Mohammad Salloum, editor-in-chief of Al-Gherbal, a magazine published monthly in the rebel-held town of Kafr Nabl in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province.
An April 17 photo shows 2,700 copies of al-Gherbal to be distributed in opposition-held central and northern Syria. Courtesy of al-Gherbal. photo courtesy of al-Gherbal.
In the first of a two-part interview, Salloum tells Syria Direct’s Raneem Qubatrus that this editorial independence “is the definition of both freedom and responsibility, but there’s also potential to drift toward irresponsibility and chaos.”
Q: Where did the idea for al-Gherbal magazine come from, and how did it start?
We started on January 1, 2013, when it was just me and my wife. The idea came when my hometown of Kafr Nabl was liberated from the regime, but sadly we started to see mistaken practices and a deficient understanding of freedom; some people felt that the revolution had ended and we had entered a period more about consolidating gains. But we felt that the end of Assad’s control in our area was the beginning of a revolution—a revolution of consciousness and making people understand the real meaning of freedom and democratic practices.
Q: What subjects does al-Gherbal focus on?
We’re concerned first and foremost with the Syrian citizen—we generally stand with the citizen more than the revolutionary and armed forces. We look at issues relating to corruption within the revolution, as well as positive activities and experiences in society. There’s a fixed section for Syrian antiquities and attacks against them, and there are other almost permanent topics such as women and children, and a section for letters, complaints and literary efforts from our readers.
Q: There are many easier ways to spread awareness and culture—why did you choose a magazine? And how did you begin to implement it?
We chose a magazine because we had no equipment beyond pen and paper. In the beginning, we considered entering broadcasting, but that requires major support that we didn’t have, particularly because we’re an independent team with no relationship with any office or party-affiliated media group. So we started an eight-page, bimonthly magazine in black-and-white, and we printed 150 copies that we distributed only in Kafr Nabl using my own equipment, like old laser printers and camera phones.
Q: How did you manage to progress from there? Did you receive support from organizations concerned with independent Syrian media?
In March 2013, the Syrian Bassmeh Foundation gave us a very helpful round of training and provided us with six months of funding ending in September 2013. This support was a big jump for al-Gherbal—we’re now a monthly magazine printing 2,500 copies and distributing them in rural Idlib, Aleppo and Hama. Our team is 12 people, and we print in full color. There are very few magazines printing inside Syria rather than in Turkey or elsewhere, but we have always printed inside.
Q: What mechanism do you use for distributing copies of the printed magazine?
The magazine is distributed by a small team in Aleppo, Hama and Idlib. We distribute via our contacts—for instance, if a person is coming from or going to Aleppo, we give them a number of copies to be distributed there, and so on.
Q: “Al-Gherbal” is the Arabic word for “sieve,” the tool used for separating wheat from impurities. Why did you decide to name your magazine this
Al-Gherbal is the tool that separates the good from the bad in wheat and other substances, and we claim that our magazine does the same thing—raising awareness among people and helping them distinguish between the good and the bad.
Q: Before the revolution, there were a number of cultural and youth magazines. What is the difference between the magazines today and previous magazines?
I followed a number of Syrian magazines, many of which were official state media, or some organizations that had been granted permission to print a private magazine after an agreement from security forces regarding the magazine’s topic. Today, there is no censorship on the subjects published. This is the definition of both freedom and responsibility, but there’s also potential to drift toward irresponsibility and chaos.
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