June 2, 2014
In July 2011, a group of young Syrians at the University of Damascus began distributing, by hand, an independent, pro-opposition newspaper they titled “Souriatna,” meaning “Our Syria.”
Three years later, Souriyatna is one of hundreds of pro-opposition media outlets, having distributed their 141st copy on June 1st in parts of Damascus, Aleppo, Idlib and eastern Syria.
Like all other new journalistic ventures, the newspaper faces a bevy of challenges, from securing funding to ensuring professionalism and impartiality in a media sphere that, for more than 40 years, has faced stifling censorship and state control of the press.
Despite the fact that some of the paper’s 1o journalists are in hiding and move frequently due to security threats, says Jawad Abu al-Mana, Souriatna’s Editor-in-Chief, they will continue to publish.
“We’re focusing all of our energies on moving from being ‘revolutionary’ or ‘free’ media to independent media,” al-Mana tells Raneem Qubatros.
Q: Is Souriatna subjected to any harassment because of the material it publishes?
We try to cover issues and details that have some relationship to the Syrian people, regardless of the individuals involved. But this can have a negative impact on us in some cases. For instance, we published a dialogue with National Reconciliation Minister Ali Haidar, and I think this was the first and biggest interview that a regime figure did with an opposition group. But the piece was detrimental for him because he didn’t know how to interact with us in an effective way, even though we did nothing to make him look bad with our questions.
Similarly, we undertook some investigations into fiscal corruption and theft among those groups tasked with caring for the families of the regime’s casualties in Latakia and Homs, and explored the corruption of individuals like Minister of Housing and the governor of Homs and figures from the National Defense Forces in Latakia, all of whom were involved in scandals. What happened—and we were very surprised by this—was that in the aftermath of these three investigations, the regime removed the governor of Latakia and the head of the Political Security Branch.
A Syrian man reads a copy of “Souriatna” in Idlib province. Photo courtesy of Souriatna.
Q: What was the impetus behind starting the newspaper?
Media freedom in Syria had been stopped since the days of unity with Egypt [from 1958-1961], when Gamal Abdal Nasser cancelled all permits for magazines and newspapers in Syria—there were more than 300 publications of all types in Syria that Syrians couldn’t go back to working on. That was followed by a large generation of Syrians unfamiliar with the concept of independent media in all its forms, including newspapers.
Q: What is your level of independence today in comparison to that during the Assad regime?
There’s no comparison—you know, and we all know, that Syrian media was limited to government newspapers al-Baath, Tishreen, and a-Thawra. Even after 2000, when some independent outlets emerged, they remained within the regime’s orbit because they were based on investment laws from Hafez al-Assad’s rule. The comparison is virtually impossible—you can compare with the period before unity with Egypt, that was the golden age of Syrian media before Nasser revoked all media permits.
As far as independence, I personally feel that there is a huge opportunity for independence and neutrality in alternative Syrian media, but we have to keep in mind the extent of the relationships between new media organizations and their supporters or funders. Some funders might impose their own conditions on these publications, because the organizations that will be able to continue producing are the organizations that have political and media support.
Q: Would it be reasonable to say that Souriatna is directed toward the Syrian citizen, regardless of his stance toward the uprising?
We’re focusing all of our energies on moving from being “revolutionary” or “free” media to independent media, but we are biased toward a revolution of freedom and dignity.
The paper was born of the revolution, but Souriyatna aims to be a first rate, objective, independent media body working to reflect the opinion of the Syrian street, whatever that opinion may be; only our audience can say how much we succeed in this area.
Q: How do you deal with the security threat that you face as a team inside Syria?
Some of our team members don’t have any threats against them, but others are wanted and we keep relocating them from one safe place to another. We try not to pass through checkpoints or other places that might have security.
Some of us have a media background and specialize in media, others are activists and academics. We organize our work online; any meeting in person would draw the attention of security forces. Even with everyone present in the same place, the internet is the safest way for us to meet.