The civil war in Syria has raged for almost five years. What began as a peaceful protest in 2011, quickly developed into one of the bloodiest conflicts of our time. The Assad Regime has not only relied on force, but also strict media censorship. Territories outside of its control were abruptly cut off from the Internet. Large broadcasting systems were deliberately sabotaged and disagreeable journalists, persecuted. How is it possible, in the face of such circumstances, to guarantee independent news coverage?
The Berlin NGO "Media in Cooperation and Transition" (MiCT) has developed an auspicious solution: PocketFM – a small, solar-powered radio transmitter. This can be hidden on the roofs of houses for example, and transmits UHF waves, within a radius of several kilometres. In this way, radio in crisis regions surrounding Hama and Idlib, is establishing itself as one of the most important sources of information.
The success of PocketFM made international headlines in 2015. However, it was only mentioned as a technical aspect of a much larger project: Syrnet (Syria Radio Network) – a sort of oppositional broadcasting corporation.
I wanted to learn know more about it, so I made a trip to the office of MiCT, in an old Berlin building, not far from Rosenthaler Platz. There I met Mahmoud, a young Syrian worker, who was eager to tell me more. Syrnet, he explained, encompasses a variety of radio stations, mostly maintained by volunteers. Aside from the technical equipment, MiCT provides support in the form of editing and training. Mahmoud and his team regularly fly to Turkey, to organise workshops and training courses for young Syrian journalists, close to the border.
A diverse programme
Submissions are produced locally and then broadcast across troubled regions by means of hidden radio transmitters. Syrnet can also be received via live-stream or through an app, specifically created for this purpose. The programme mainly comprises journalistic content, but also includes music shows, radio plays and even a news programme for children.
Radio, Mahmoud believes, offers young Syrians the opportunity to respond to topics that they otherwise wouldn't hear about. Together we listen to the programme: "Shabab Case" – one of the radio show collaborations between Aleppo and the Kurdish town of Qamishli. However, it is not only ethnic barriers that need to be overcome. As we tune in, we encounter a programme about homosexuality – a subject that is strictly taboo in Syrian society.
Syrnet's unknown future
However, the liberal attitude of young radio journalists can provoke a negative response in some places. Mahmoud recounts a story of problems in the town of Kafranbel, where members of the Salafi al-Nusra Front shut down a radio station and arrested its editor-in-chief. The official reason: the discovery of an Islamophobic Facebook post by the editor.
Mahmoud, who has been working on the project since 2012, takes a positive stance. He hopes in the future to be able to attract more people to Syrnet, and is already planning the next workshop in Turkey. However, now that Ankara has introduced visa requirements for Syrians, it is questionable whether he will be able to continue with his work.