News / Middle East

Waging Satellite Wars Over Syria

Satellite television channels with competing political agendas vie for the hearts and minds of Syria's millions who face an uncertain future

A house in Azaz destroyed by Syrian government rockets according to local residents, December 18, 2012. (Reuters)A house in Azaz destroyed by Syrian government rockets according to local residents, December 18, 2012. (Reuters)
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A house in Azaz destroyed by Syrian government rockets according to local residents, December 18, 2012. (Reuters)
A house in Azaz destroyed by Syrian government rockets according to local residents, December 18, 2012. (Reuters)
David Arnold
A bloody civil war has been tearing Syria apart for almost two years now and the United Nations estimates more than 60,000 have been killed with no end in sight.
 
But at the same time, another kind of battle is underway – one between the state-controlled media in Damascus and a dozen or so independent news outlets operating both inside and outside the country.
 
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has done his best to neutralize the Internet as a weapon for those who oppose him. Shortly after he took office 12 years ago, he began clamping down on troublesome websites, eventually banning Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and dozens of independent outlets that carried news and political commentary. 
 
There’s a lot of money being pumped into television channels from the Gulf, from Saudi Arabia
Opposition activists have fought back, using proxy servers and software that hides an author’s identity and allows citizens to offer YouTube video clips and 140-character tweets to a global audience.
 
Television, however, remains a major arena in the mass media battle for Syrian sympathies. And new outside groups have emerged to offer something more than the government’s censored television programs. New stations now regularly have programming with front-line reporting on the civil war, including a good dose of visuals from YouTube reporting on the revolution.
 
The new narrative of Syria’s civil war is now driven - and the future may be strongly influenced by - the wealth and political will of others: businessmen, governments and non-governmental organizations in the Middle East, Europe and the United States that push the buttons of satellite distribution and feed news and opinion into Syria.
 
Surrounded by opposing voices, differing ideas
 
“There’s a lot of money being pumped into television channels from the Gulf, from Saudi Arabia,” said Malik al-Abdeh, a Syrian journalist and commentator in London. “A lot of it has a political agenda, trying to promote certain leadership around the country…”
 
Abdeh, who consulted on an American Public Broadcasting System Frontline television documentary, “Undercover Syria,” said these channels share a mission of seeking Assad's ouster. He says that so far, the stations have made no effort to coordinate their efforts with the Syrian political or military opposition.
 
Major Pan-Arab broadcasters such as Aljazeera, BBC Arabic, Alhurra and Al Arabiya reach a potential 22.5 million Syrian viewers with news about Syria and the rest of the Middle East. There are, however, at least 10 stations operating from studios in Lebanon, Dubai, Egypt and Britain that focus only on Syria and its political future.
 
Before the uprising started, London-based Barada TV was sending its message of political reform into Syria with the help of U.S. funding. Al-Mashraq was founded by journalist and businessman Ghassan Abboud in 2007 in Damascus, and moved to Dubai after a 2010 raid by government security forces.
 
There are at least two channels in Amman -- Souriya al-Shaab, founded by a Jordanian businessman, and Shada al-Houriya, run by a Salafist cleric and his son. Yet another station, Souriya al-Ghad, operates in Cairo.
 
Most are clearly opposed to Assad, but at least one seeks to demonstrate some neutrality. A former Beirut bureau chief for Aljazeera in Arabic, Ghassan Ben Jaddou, left the Qatar media giant to open Al-Mayadeen in Lebanon and is reported to have dispatched journalists to report on Assad’s security forces.
 
Stations on the Syrian border transmit directly into the country, but others rely on the powerful satellite signals of Arabsat and Nilesat.
 
The Arab League shut down Syrian state television's ability to distribute its news on the Arabsat satellite service, and Egypt’s Nilesat followed suit, silencing Assad’s version of the conflict and further isolating his government from the world.

There is a huge, most big, market because the people are all interested in politics.  They are all politicians
Outside of the community of satellite broadcasting, new television stations have begun operating in the rebel-controlled areas of Aleppo and Deir Azzour, a governorate whose capital is currently under siege.
 
The rest of Syria’s local television consists of a pro-Assad private channel, Addounia TV, and an array of smaller specialized channels carrying religious programs, weddings and a channel devoted to boosting the moral of Libyans displaced since the overthrow of Moammar Gadhafi.
 
‘Exposing what’s going on’ into Syria
 
A staple of Syria’s opposition TV has been discussion and debate among anti-Assad exiles. One station, Barada TV, it's ready to begin full scale news coverage from the rebel-held areas.
 
“We will send the cameras,” said Ayman Abdul Nour, the new head of Barada TV. “We already have the people there with video cameras. We will interview people inside Syria and expose what’s going on.”
 
A recognized voice of Syria’s opposition politics, Nour is enthusiastic about the television audience in Syria, where rooftop satellite dishes are a common sight.
 
“There is a huge, most big, market because the people are all interested in politics.  They are all politicians,” he said.  “It’s the most popular issue in the world…”
 
Nour was a personal friend and media advisor to President Assad, but broke with the government in 2002 and started to promote political reform with his web-based All4Syria news service in Damascus. Under threat of arrest, Nour later left the country and went to Dubai’s Orient TV, where he produced commentary and debate programming.
 
A few weeks ago, Nour took over as chairman of the board of Barada TV, which was funded for many years by the Democracy Council in Los Angeles. According to the Washington Post, Barada got funding from Congress during the Bush administration. The funding reportedly ended a couple of years ago and Nour is now looking for supporters.
 
Nour is also rebranding the channel as BTV and said he will focus new television programs on community leaders and ordinary Syrians inside the country.
 
How the opposition’s reporting prevailed
 
The satellite television reporting about Syria’s revolution began a few months after the first protests when major TV channels in the Middle East aired a YouTube video of a man in flowing brown robes carrying the lifeless body of a child shot in the head. The man appeared in shock, walking slowly as others ran by him to escape the shooting of dozens of demonstrators in the little of Izra’a.
 
“It certainly succeeded in convincing many young Syrians to protest in solidarity,” Abdeh wrote recently. Citizen-journalists captured the drama of the protests and the government’s violent crackdown and their videos were packaged on YouTube with a few basic reporting facts by Syrians who organized Ugarit, Shaam, and Syrian News Network.
 
Abdeh said the citizen-journalists mainly used smart phones to capture their videos and had two goals – show other Syrian communities what they were doing to reform the government, and as the conflict grew, to recruit the world to their side of the uprising. 
 
“They saw the west’s role in Egypt, their role in Tunisia, the role that France, the United Kingdom and the U.S. played in Libya,” Abdeh said. “So Syrians were very sensitive to the fact that if they were to get rid of Assad quickly, they needed western support.

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