Media, si ricomincia da Sham?

Dal sud della Turchia il racconto di come nasce il primo giornale siriano del post-Asad, per “superare l’epoca di Facebook”. Qualcuno si è accorto che la rete e l’attivismo di strada non sono sufficienti per produrre un’informazione il più possibile aderente a quel che avviene sul terreno. Senza però rinunciare alle fonti di prima mano.

Le buone intenzioni di un pugno di giornalisti siriani, i soldi di un imprenditore della diaspora, la lettura a nostro avviso troppo semplicisitica del giornalista del Nyt, che parla (e fa parlare) di Al Arabiya e al Jazira come di due tv che prima del 2011 erano “obiettive”. Non lo sono mai state, ma fin quando la loro parzialità si misurava solo sullo scenario palestinese-israeliano, andava bene: a sinistra nessuno aveva dubbi chi erano “i buoni” e chi “i cattivi”.

La questione siriana ci impone invece di rivedere le precedenti letture, per lo più occidentali, circa l’operato delle due principali tv satellitari panarabe: oggi le si accusa di essere solo al servizio dei loro rispettivi editori e proprietari. Ma gli editori c’erano anche prima del 2011, quando venivano indicate come modelli di correttezza ed equidistanza.

(Neil MacFarquhar, The New York Times) Absi Smesem became the editor in chief of a new weekly Syrian newspaper hoping to leave behind what he disparaged as the “Facebook phase” of the uprising.

The tall tales and outright misinformation that tainted so much reporting from Syria convinced him that more objective coverage was essential to bolster the effort to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad.

Too often, he said, he could not believe what passed for news on popular satellite channels, like the Qatari-owned Al Jazeera and the Saudi-run Al Arabiya, both staunch opposition supporters. The two channels relied heavily on unfiltered reports from local activists hired as correspondents, or, failing that, grabbed whatever they found posted on Facebook to report as news, he said.

When Mr. Smesem’s hometown, Binnish, in northern Syria, was under siege by the Syrian Army, he said, one activist-cum-correspondent used the local expression “Dabahoona dbah,” which in Arabic literally means “We are being slaughtered” — but which the people of northern Syria use to mean “We cannot breathe.”

Within minutes, a breaking-news headline scrolled across the television screen saying Syrian government forces were committing a massacre in Binnish.

“There are no objective sources of information on either side, neither with the regime nor the rebels,” said Mr. Smesem, 46, a veteran reporter with graying hair and an easy laugh. He told the story over a late-night cup of tea in a cafe in this southern Turkish city, a nerve center for Syrians struggling to shape their future state even as the gory civil war drags into its third year.

“We need to get out of this Facebook phase, where all we do is whine and complain about the regime,” he said.

Mr. Smesem said he believed that the rampant exaggeration harmed the cause of the rebellion. “When the regime simply denied the news, and they were right, that gave the regime more credibility,” he said.

For media analysts, coverage of the Syrian war has seriously eroded the reputations of channels like Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya. Where their newscasts once brought a measure of objectivity to a region dominated by servile state-run media, they are increasingly viewed as mouthpieces for the foreign policy objectives of Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

“The major pan-Arab networks have lost a great deal of credibility on the Syria story,” said Marc Lynch, director of the Middle East studies program at George Washington University.

Mr. Lynch said the change was particularly striking for Al Jazeera, once considered must-see TV during any Middle East crisis. “Al Jazeera has lost its ability to be the neutral ground where Arabs who disagree about things can argue,” he said.

It was in the spirit of objectivity that Mr. Smesem’s newspaper, Sham, another name for Syria in Arabic, began publishing in February. It was one of several publications introduced at roughly the same time.

The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, an opposition group stronger in exile than it is domestically, just began publishing its newspaper, Al-Ahd, or The Vow. The initial edition took a “we told you so” attitude toward the level of violence fomented by the government; the Brotherhood was evidently trying to address its checkered reputation within Syria for being partly responsible for the mini-civil war that erupted around 1980.

Another weekly paper, Free Syria, published in nearby Gaziantep, Turkey, shares an ideological viewpoint with the Sham weekly by endorsing pluralism, moderate Islam and democracy. At least one large military brigade is publishing its own paper, called Brigades, which has been raising questions about the origins of extremist Muslim fighters.

Numerous Muslim extremist groups, including the Nusra Front, or Jabhet al-Nusra, tend to print short pamphlets to spread their ideas, like attacks on anything that smacks of a civil state.

“We as Muslims have rebelled against all values of the infidel Western society,” said one pamphlet, called The Caliphate, published in the small town of Al-Sahhara in northern Syria. “So how can we kick secularism out the door while opening the window to accept it under a new form and a new name, a civil state?”

Sham is in many ways the most professional of the bunch, with a well-ordered, crisp layout. The newspaper is an extension of the Sham News Network, an activist news organization and research center. It was founded by a Syrian who returned to Damascus from abroad early in the uprising, and the paper is financed using money raised privately.

Mr. Smesem, working in a smoky, one-room newsroom with just a couple of other editors, said he relied on 15 reporters from throughout Syria. His commitment to avoid using activists to report means that coverage is sparse from some embattled cities, like Deir al-Zour in the east.

He avoids trying to cover every firefight, instead looking for themes or trends. Each 16-page edition includes cultural pages, translations from foreign coverage and one of the infamous cartoons from the town of Kafr Nabl that skewer the Assad government and anemic foreign support for the rebels.

“The distribution is a bit random,” Mr. Smesem said, with delivery inside Syria often determined by which roads are safe. Of the 6,000 copies printed, up to 4,000 are distributed free throughout Syria, with the rest available by subscription abroad.

Once the war ends, Mr. Smesem and his publisher said, they hope Sham grows into a full media empire, including radio and television stations. It is a common ambition for other Syrians starting newspapers now.

If Mr. Smesem avoids Facebook as a rumor mill when it comes to news, he embraces it and other satellite Internet connections as the means to stay in secret contact with his far-flung correspondents and the stable of activists on whom he relies for tips. His reporters write under pseudonyms — a few are even government employees, he said.

Although the paper staunchly backs the revolution, Mr. Smesem strives to include the Syrian government viewpoint, basically relying on official statements as the Western press does.

Mr. Smesem said he had faced sharper criticism from people in the revolution than from the government.

“Someone said he felt like he was reading a Russian newspaper,” he said. “People who are enthusiastic about the revolution think that we should not include the view of the other side because they don’t deserve it, but we are trying to be as neutral as possible.”

Mr. Smesem has used the paper to confront the mood of intimidation that he said had infected towns like Binnish, where supporters of the fundamentalist Salafi movement leveraged their success on the battlefield to take over the town council.

In one editorial, he criticized changes in the tone of the town’s weekly Friday protests since the Nusra Front began organizing them. The very people who now shouted about killing all the Alawites were once members of the Binnish Coordination Committee who marched every Friday in support of civil society, he wrote.

Now Sham editors worry whether the new freedom of expression that has emerged in the areas seized from government control will persist should the Assad government fall.

“The revolution has started to give what it was started for,” said the paper’s managing editor, speaking anonymously to avoid any repercussions for his family still inside Syria. “What we don’t know is what will happen after the regime falls.”

Hala Droubi contributed reporting from Antakya, and Sebnem Arsu from Gaziantep, Turkey.

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