June 24, 2014
The partisan nature of the Syrian war is reflected in its often-biased media outlets. Independent, public-interest journalism is a new idea, but one embraced by the founders of Radio Baladna.
In two years of operations, during which time they have taught themselves broadcasting, the team behind Radio Baladna—which in Arabic means “our country”—has been labeled Islamist by Kurdish groups, secular by Islamist groups, anti-Arab by the Syrian regime and has drawn the ire of the exiled Syrian opposition.
But amidst those challenges, founder Monis Bukhari says his radio station has “become a voice for activists in the revolution while maintaining our journalistic integrity about the current crisis.”
Bukhari, who left Syria in July, 2011 and now resides in Germany, works with a team of journalists inside and outside Syria to broadcast Radio Baladna online and in eastern and northern Syria.
With independent programming focused on civil society, Bukhari tells Raneem Qubatros about the distribution advantages of radio and how the radio show “tries to raise awareness about what a real country looks like, since we haven’t had one for 40 years.”
Q: How do Syrian media and radio differ three years after the conflict began?
All radio stations that existed before the revolution are regime controlled. They repeat the official rhetoric and are heavily monitored and edited. Even private-sector radio stations were owned by businessmen loyal to the regime.
Today, some radio stations are independent and some are not, i.e. they belong to a political or military group.
I see the current abundance of radio shows in Syria today, independent or not, as a healthy sign, since it is the first time in 60 years that Syrians have access to a range of opinions from multiple sources.
Q: Why did you choose radio as your media format?
We had no previous experience in radio, but we chose radio since it is the easiest format for people to produce and access.
Radio Baladna does not require a strong internet connection.
Q: What are the most important topics discussed on Radio Baladna?
At first we started as a news station. With time, however, we began to notice that we were increasingly successful in our social programming, and that most of the questions being sent to us concerned civil society. We try to raise awareness about what a real country looks like, since we haven’t had one for 40 years.
Six months after we first began broadcasting, we created a policy that all of our programming has to concern the psychological and intellectual state of the Syrian people and raise the level of optimism.
Radio Baladna presents useful information to the listener in order to create a real vision about Syria’s future, while actively avoiding the type of media that has sown hatred in Syria. We are also helping build the foundations for a future, stable Syria.
Q: What have been the biggest developments at Radio Baladna since you launched in 2012?
In my opinion, the most significant development has been how we went from a group of activists with no journalism experience to a well-experienced team with real radio acumen.
Second has been our ability to become a voice for activists in the revolution while maintaining our journalistic integrity about the current crisis. This is a huge development since it was very hard at first to separate our personal feelings as activists from the need to produce objective and professional media content.
The third big development has been our ability as a radio program to reach communities outside Syria, which has been a huge help for us, even resulting in the German Foreign Ministry supporting our organization by providing us with training modules and financial support for six months.
Q: What is Radio Baladna’s reputation?
It has a great reputation among regime loyalists and pro-revolution citizens alike, with both calling in with questions and comments. However, those who support the opposition are not happy with our work.
I differentiate between the pro-revolution camp and the pro-opposition camp since those in the pro-revolution camp want a Syrian civil society that promotes freedom of expression for all Syrians, whereas the pro-opposition camp made up of the coalition is a group of people that has started to replace the old dictatorship with a new one.
Q: What is the price of Radio Baladna’s freedom? Have any members of Radio Baladna been threatened directly by the regime or another group due to a topic they published about?
Everyone working for Radio Baladna living in Syria faces serious danger since they are considered traitors and enemies of the state. If their identities were revealed, they would be arrested. Members of the crew have left Syria out of fear of being discovered.
Obviously some of us have been threatened by the regime and some by ISIS, and some of us have even been imprisoned and tortured to death. There are also a lot of people that have been forced to leave Syria and even stop working with us.
The FM broadcast of the program has been stopped more than once by both ISIS and the Kurdish Democratic Union Party. ISIS accuses us of being secular and anti-Islam and shut down the FM broadcast as soon as they entered Manbaj and Outer Aleppo.
The Kurdish Democratic Union Party, on the other hand, accuses us of being Islamists and of working for ISIS and anti-Kurdish forces. And the regime has closed down the online broadcast, claiming that it is anti-Arab nationalism and opposed to the Syrian regime.
Q: As an independent radio station, is Radio Baladna neutral?
No, never. We are professional, but support the revolution.
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