Holding on to Seafoam: Insights on the Reality of Radio and Web Publishing in Syria
In the absence of credible coverage from established Syrian media outlets, Syria’s has been the most socially mediated civil conflict in the recent history.
No more than 17 Syrian news outlets made the cut of Google News’ indexed websites and rank among the preferred search results when surveying keywords used by media covering the events in Syria.
67 radio stations broadcast in Syria, 42 were established in Syria after the 2011 outbreak of revolution, broadcasting either over FM airwaves, over the internet, or both. Our research has observed the relative strength of radios backed by militias, or supported militarily. Radio Damascus and Sawt al-Sha’b; of the Assad regime, Nour al-Islam radio in Damascus countryside; of the opposition faction Jaish al-Islam; the station Radio Of The Al-Tahrir Islamic Party, which is active militarily and preaching in Syria; the radio station Do’at al-Jihad (Preachers of Jihad,) which is affiliated with Jabhat Fateh al-Sham organization; Rojava Radio, affiliated with the military wing of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD); and Al-Nour Radio, the affiliate of the Lebanese Hezbollah militia, as well as Al-Bayan Radio which is managed by the IS organization.
Since the Syrian uprising in 2011, 600 Syrian media outlets were established. But over the last 2 years, over 200 outlets have ceased broadcasting due to unknown reasons.
In a study done back in 2013, Marc Lynch the director of the Middle East Studies Institute, and political sciences and international affairs professor at George Washington university, points out to the fact “Syria’s has been the most socially mediated civil conflict in history”.
Bloggers, citizen journalists and activists using online platforms filled the public sphere with a constant stream of news, videos and pictures, which for traditional media presented a challenge in dealing with the events and coping with the huge amount of data coming from Syria through citizen journalists and activists. The interplay between the two forces – old and new – resulted in a paradigm shift in the global media landscape. In the absence of credible coverage from established Syrian media outlets, the international press took a backseat to activists who used new media platforms to provide updates to the world and succeeded in driving the events in Syria to the forefront of the international attention.
Throughout the past five years of bloody war, both the Syrian government and its opposition strived to keep pace with the rapid development in new media platforms undergoing an
unprecedented technological revolution.
The findings of this study nonetheless make clear that, save for only a handful of exceptions, neither party to the conflict has been been able to claim an advantage in qualitatively shaping public opinion in Syria and internationally. This is, in large part, due to pre-existing political coalitions and ideological alignments which have intransigently molded the capacity of Syrian media, both establishment and anti-establishment, to shape the global discourse over the country.
Syria ranks eighth among Middle East and North African (MENA) countries in total internet users, with 6,426,577 users, representing a 28.1% of the total Syrian population. while Syrian internet media have a reduced presence and extreme poverty in its abilities to cope up with this strategic cultural leap.
The statistics point to a conclusion of an overall ill health of the Syrian media ecosystem: Government media has not given up on its one-line approach of presenting only opinions in line with Syrian regime. Opposition-run outlets — specifically print, web and online radio broadcasters – in turn did not demonstrate a serious commitment to adopting professional editorial policies and journalistic standards. On the contrary, they recreated the same patterns of one-sided coverage, only from an opposing point of view: their motto being, ‘whoever is not with us is against us.’ This was the conclusion of the French Media Cooperation Agency (CFI) in a report published in September 2015. The French report analyzed a number of factors, most importantly the content production’s ability to hold up to standards of journalistic practice; fact-checking, verification, multiple sourcing, account for bias, etc.
Our methodology, however, relied on following and analyzing spheres of influence – through collecting audience statistics on:
Web-based news media
Apart from considering the conclusions of past reports as part of our qualitative analysis, as well as the organizational affiliations of media outlets, the content of produced media has not been included in the scope of our study.
This study represents the collaborative effort of team WEEDOO, who conducted a data harvesting in Syrian provinces (governorates) with the cooperation and coordination of a team of professional researchers, digital media specialists and programmers, with the supervision of an advisory committee consisting of a number of Syrian journalists.
The purpose of the study was to measure the strength of Syrian Internet media outlets and audio broadcasters quantify the extent of its reach. Utilizing both existing data and data newly-collected by the WEEDOO team pertaining to audience size and reach of Syrian media outlets broadcasting over FM airwaves and over the internet, we have prepared an analysis of publishers’ reach, audience interests, and the efficiency of new versus traditional media in a shifting information paradigm.
Therefore the statistics of this study focuses, as mentioned, on the two key indicators of technical performance and level of content reach. The first dataset is concerned with websites, and the second is concerned with local radio stations and the scope of their FM coverage, number of online listeners, and number of listens on Soundcloud.
Audience Measurement Systems (AMS) were first conceptualized
in WENA (Western Europe and North America,) in the third decade of the twentieth century. AMS was associated with a political and economic context that allows for audience measurement organizations to operate within a diverse and competitive media domain, where outlets compete over audiences and advertisers.
As for Syria and the Arab World, where the media is mostly centrally controlled by a state apparatus, occasionally, in partnership with authority-affiliated private organizations, AMS had no presence until the post “Arab Spring” era.
Despite the critical need for media research in the region, this fundamental shift in the relationship between media and audiences was examined only by four earnest research studies that attempted to monitor and analyse the newly emerged Syrian media framework and its audience reach; The 2012 BBC Media Action Report, The 2014 MICT study, The 2015 CFI report, and the 2016 FPU, MICT and GFMD joint research.
We at the WEEDOO team extend a hand to Syrian media managers, researchers, and academics as well as Syrian civil society and international organizations involved in the Syrian media’s affairs to work together in order to develop a realistic assessment and productive discourse about the media environment in Syria and collaboratively prepare strategies to raise the bar of Syria’s developing media capacities. It is our hope that focusing our efforts toward a concrete strategy based on regularly-updated performance indicators and building on the results of this study will be an investment in the Syrian media realizing its potential to not only keep pace with the development of information technology today, but open its horizons to new possibilities of taking the lead.
WEEDOO’s monitoring team conducted a geographical the web survey of 600 Syrian media outlets from October 2015 to September 2016, including six of which stopped production during our time of work. In total over the last 2 years, over 200 outlets have ceased broadcasting due to unknown reasons.
We collected data through 30 monitors inside and outside Syria who allowed us to monitor the reach of media to audience, with support from the researchers and programmers on the WEEDOO team.
Additionally, we utilized statistics provided by Alexa and Google News regarding websites and internet visitors priorities.
Click on the interactive chart for further information.
For Syrian radios, the data collection method varied according to each category:
1- FM Radio Broadcasters: For the periods between the 15 April – 4 July 2016 and also from the 1 June – 9 August 2016, our team conducted a geographical sweep to frequencies of 49 stations in different areas. Monitors in WEEDOO, along with monitors and technicians across Syria cross-referenced several of sources for data in each of the areas covered by the investigative sweep, measuring different times throughout the day, keeping in mind the conditions of broadcasting and reception. We have divided each province (governorate) of Syria into various sectors between rural and metropolitan. Note that we relied solely on frequencies identified on each station’s’ own website.
2- Internet Radio Broadcaster: We collected the number of listeners through the month of March 2014, then again in March 2015, and in the period between 10 April – 10 June 2016, and lastly in the period between the 24 July – 9 August 2016. It is common knowledge now that a new field of work has emerged called “listenership-internet radio”. This measurement method works by communicating with host servers to measure the number of listeners tuned in to an internet radio broadcast. The monitoring node an update on these numbers every minute through specialized software applications. Utilizing this method, the WEEDOO team designed a proprietary software
application that communicates with the host servers of 37 online media outlets, to measure their average listenership per minute. The numbers here do not include: Radio Fresh, Radio Rozna, Radio Shibak and Damascus Radio. For these five outlets, we are working on contacting their technical teams about sharing their listenership statistics in hopes of adding them to our database. Other radios that do not broadcast on the internet and rely solely on FM frequencies and were thus not included in this study are: (Nour al Islam) station, the official radio for Jaish al-Islam faction, (Preachers of Jihad) the official radio for the Fateh al-Sham organization, as well as Kurdish stations (Jin FM) and (Rojava), and the IS radio station (al-Bayan) and the local government-run station (Zenobia) in Homs.
3- To measure listeners statistics on Soundcloud, we wrote a program to scrape for published audio programs and record their number of listeners, and calculate the average by publisher. We identified 23 established Syrian media outlets who publish their content on Soundcloud and calculated their average number of listens per month for the period between January – August 2016. The statistics were recorded at the end of the month, and it is noted that listenership may have increased after the monitoring period.
Since the beginning of the 20th century, Syrians have made great contributions to a cultural renaissance in the Arab region. The media sector was no exception, as it is well known that among the pioneers of mass distribution of information of the past era was the famous newspaper, Al-Ahram, which was established by Syrians in Egypt.
One the most prominent Arab renaissance intellectuals, Abdelrahman Al-Kawakibi was among the first to establish a newspaper in Syria called Al-Shahba,’ which printed its first copy in 1877 and was distributed
throughout the whole Arab world.
Syrian radio broadcasting was born in a now-forgotten building on Baghdad Street in Damascus, with a program called “Here is Damascus,” first airing on February 3, 1947. And the first Syrian television signal began on the morning of the July 23rd, 1960, from a studio close to the broadcasting tower on Mount Qasioun.
Syrian newspapers became prominent fields of political debate, filled with different colors of political writing, populism and propaganda, while Damascus enjoyed an extensive broadcast reach. On TV screens, the visual and arts, political speech,
entertainment, societal problems, society values and ways of life were expressed to the growing mass media audience of the 20th century.
With the dawn of civilization’s third millennium, technological necessity had forced the Syrian regime through the Syrian Scientific and Information Association to leverage emerging media channels to the ideological goals of the Ba’ath state, and to contain the user’s usage of these new technologies. This came at a time when satellite TV devices had become common in the Syrian household, and which media outlets not stamped by the regime’s approval became an important
source of information.
In a 1998 study “Media and New Technologies: Journalists of Speed”, researcher Christophe Deleu documented the transformation to new media that was underway globally. His study centered on the decision of American magazine Newsweek to post a video related a breaking news development concerning the United States President in what came to be known as the “Monica Lewinski Scandal.” This decision, Deleu’s report argues, marked a milestone in prioritizing the instant accessibility of digital content over the traditional dominance of print media.
4- Media Outlets: Geographical Distribution and Production
Reporters Without Borders ranked Syria 177th in a group of 180 countries for press freedom in its annual index – merely one indicator of the grave difficulties and the dangers facing journalists on the ground in Syria.
Our survey identified 405 Syrian media outlets publishing on the web, as well as 262 News website and 67 radio broadcasters. Results are in harmony with the conclusions of a study by the French Media Cooperation Agency (CFI) in September of 2016, which stated that funders of new media in Syria have directed their efforts to radio stations, as the most capable of meeting citizens public service needs in volatile areas, with the constant cuts in communication and other necessities like water, electricity and transportation roads. The diagram below presents the categorized type of media outlets included in our study:
Geographical areas in which opposition media institutions are not capable of public activity in include the areas of regime control, those under the control of the nationalist Kurdish militias, and areas controlled by the Islamic State organization (IS) . Restrictions on media work are also present in areas under opposition control, in the countryside of Latakia and Hama, in Aleppo and its countryside, Idlib and its countryside as well as Damascus countryside and the southern provinces. The latest example of this was the forced closure of Radio Fresh FM’s broadcast and their website
Fresh Online broadcast by Jabhat al Nusra in Kafranbel. The restrictions and threats also targeted a group of local magazines printed in Turkey and distributed in Syria.
Continuous shelling by regime forces, the systematic targeting of journalists’ locations and media centers, as well as the tightening security grip imposed by armed groups are among the most prominent reasons for the suffocation of media work in opposition-held areas. Less than 10 agencies enjoy the freedom of work and have office headquarters, while
the remaining others are getting by with impromptu media offices or broadcasting centers, or via decentralized networks of correspondents scattered around, sometimes unprofessionally and unofficially.
On the other hand, outlets spreading the regime’s propaganda are not able to work in opposition-controlled areas.
In addition, in what is known as the “Democratic Self Administration of Rojava” in the areas of northern Syria controlled by the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), an
apparatus of militias imposes a monopoly on public work in the areas it controls, and is extremely restrictive in issuing permits to journalists. As a result, only a few websites are in operation – most of which follow the PYD Self Administration’s line. In addition, some media organizations have been attacked, for instance in April 2016, masked men torched the headquarters of Radio Arta FM in Qamishli. It is also well known, that no journalists are able to work independently in areas under the control of the Islamic State organization.
Our study also identified 5 media outlets active in the Syrian occupied Golan heights; including 4 websites and one internet radio. Below is a graphical diagram of geographical areas where, absent an active conflict, media outlets are allowed to operate freely:
In this study we have categorized media outlets by ownership, which varied from the government of the Syrian regime; private commercial companies; non-profit organizations; political parties and militias, according to the diagram below:
Media outlets are distinguished by content type, according to the diagram below:
As for the target audience: most Syrian websites restrict their production to Arabic language, which means they are specifically targeting an Arab audience. To lesser extent, some Syrian websites publish in both Kurdish and English, then Turkish, French and Russian, as shown by the diagram below:
Fresh Online resumed its activity on July the 10th, 2016, while Fresh radio resumed its broadcast on the 22nd of the same month only to go completely offline on FM and Internet later in august 2016 for staff safety raisons.↩
The Syrian Conflict has remained a top issue of concern in the fields of international politics, diplomacy and media for the past five years. The demands of 2011’s calls for social justice, freedom of civil society, and more specifically for freedom of press and the protection of journalists have focused the world’s attention on Syria. Despite being the subject of global attention, however, only one Syrian news publisher, Orient News, ranks among the 10,000 most visited websites globally. This demonstrates the underdevelopment of Syria’s media outlets, trailing behind a more advanced global media.
Data from internet analytics provider Alexa, operated by internet giant Amazon, Inc provides an authoritative world ranking of all websites on the internet, and an analysis of visitors by demographics and interests. Alexa’s indexes a website’s position in both the international ranking and within any given country, but does not indicate whether websites are owned or operated internationally – thus, the WEEDOO team expanded upon Alexa’s dataset to create a localized ranking of Syrian-run websites.
5-1 Syrian Websites Ranking on the Internet
In reviewing the statistics provided by Alexa of 405 Syrian media outlets on the internet in the period between the beginning of October 2015 until September 2016, we calculated the following:
A- Syrian Websites Ranking according to Alexa
One Syrian website, was able to secure – starting July 2016 – a place between the best 6,500 websites globally. Four websites were able to maintain their ranking between the 20,000 list, while two Syrian websites follow in the ranking of 20,000 to 30,000. Two websites ranked between the 30,000 and 40,000, one Syrian website between the 40,000 and the 50,000 and one between the 50,000 and 60,000, two websites between the 60,000 and the 70,000, and ten websites between the 70,000 and the 90,000. One website comes between the 90,000 and 100,000 ranking, while twenty websites rank between the 100,000 and 200,000, eleven websites between the 200,000 and 300,000, twenty websites under the 300,000 ranking and ten within the 400,000 ranking. Six websites between the 400,000 to 500,000 ranking, and nine between the 500,000 and 600,000 global ranking. For more details refer to the diagram referenced below:
Opposition-run websites were able to get the best ranking among Syrian websites in terms of visits, according to Alexa, with Zaman Al Wasl and Aks Alser alternating to occupy the first position of most visited until March 2016.
From that time until July 2016, Zaman Al Wasl ranked as the first most visited Syrian website in Alexa’s world ranking.
Currently, the website of Orient News is the top-ranking Syrian website globally, and ranks among the 6,500 most popular websites all over the world. (Sham Times) news agency ranks fourth followed by the
Syrian News Agency (SANA) and then the website of (Syria Now).
It is worth mentioning that Orient News,Zaman Alwsl, and Aks Alser were existing established media outlets before the Syrian revolution, followed the events of 2011 with continuous and up-to-the-minute coverage and later utilized the reports of newer websites established after the revolution.
Its noteworthy to mention that both (Syria Now) and (Sham Times) news agencies are new media platforms loyal to the Syrian regime. They both started working after the Syrian revolution covering the Syrian
events in favor of strong media outlets loyal to the Syrian regime.
Also worth mentioning is the ability of Baladi News and Syria Alyom websites to be the highest in terms of growth among Syrian media outlets, throughout the time frame of the research – beginning of January 2016 until the first of September 2016. Baladi News also is ranked number 15 of the most-visited Syrian websites, while Syria Alyom ranks 70th.
Rozana FM Radio’s website enjoys the best ranking among radio stations, and among the 60 most visited Syrian websites.
Google News Index
Ar - En
Ar - En
Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA)
Ar - En - Fr - Tr - Es + 2
B- Syrian Websites and Google News Index
Using Google News – considered one of the most important worldwide news providers with its index consisting of well-respected international news agencies – our research found that out of 405 Syrian news websites ranging from news agencies, radios, magazines, TV channels and online news websites, only 17 websites are recognized in Google News’s index.
The websites that made the cut for inclusion in Google News’ index are mostly well-established traditional media institutions like the Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA,) the Organization of Syrian Arab Radio and TV, the privately-owned Al-Watan, which has close ties with the Syrian regime. No government run media were categorized as “trusted” by the Google News Index include Syria News, Aks Alser and All4Syria.
Determined efforts to produce news content by new websites established after revolution succeeded in gaining the trust of Google News, and subsequently of viewers: Enab Baladi Online, ARA News and Qasion News Agency.
These rising talents were able to achieve, in less that three years, all necessities of professional media production and legal promotion, which reflected favourably on their ranking by Alexa and other statistics providers. Today, Enab Baladi is ranked among the 15 most visited Syrian websites, while ARA News ranks number 40 most visited list, and Qasion News Agency ranks at number 55.
Apart from the examples mentioned above, it is a weakness of Syrian online media that their efforts to
date have not been up to the task of covering the Syrian events, leaving the scene to international media institutions far away from the events, but more equipped to produce content to meet the demand and standards of a global audience.
Another important indicator readily available for measuring attention on Syria on the internet is the entry for Syria on Wikipedia. In only a single month, June 2016, the Wikipedia entry for Syria was accessed 618,838 times in all languages, while the entry for Syrian Civil War was accessed 527,456 times. In July of the same year, the requests for Syria were 719,745 in all languages, and 677,656 times for Syrian Civil War.
These figures estimate that nearly a million search requests may be made on the internet regarding Syria and the Syrian war in a single given month. The largest percentage of those visitors went to regional Arab and foreign websites more capable in producing solid, verified and professional news content which adheres to the criteria which companies such as Google use in determining search engine rankings. Their higher rankings indicated that visitors preferenced these over Syrian websites – some of which often seek to acquire more reach using unprofessional or illegitimate means, and were thus penalized in search keyword rankings. No more than 17 Syrian news outlets made the cut of Google News’ indexed websites and rank among the preferred search results when surveying keywords used by media covering the events in Syria. In addition to all this, Google Trends gives for the past 3 month the keyword “Syria” (July 2016) its highest ranking with a full 100%, placing it among the most requested search terms on Google’s search engine.
5-2 Reasons for the Weakness of Syrian Websites
The competitive disadvantage of Syrian news websites among their international peers on the internet is simply demonstrated by the search results of a basic keyword. Until now, the top results returned by a Google search for “Syria” have been dominated by regional Arab and foreign websites. By contrast, we can compare this with Lebanese websites dominating search engine results for a keyword like “Lebanon,” which is both expected and natural.
One of the reasons for such reduced effectiveness on the internet, is the incompatibility of Syrian websites with the rules of search engines. Technical mistakes which are readily observable to Search Engine Optimization (SEO) experts prevents many websites from even being indexed at all by search engines, making them invisible to visitors using those avenues. Failure not only to comply with standards of good journalistic practices, but adhere to content-publishing rules of search engines, as well as the lack of effective keyword management were main causes of this.
Using illegitimate content promotion techniques is ultimately a negative and counterproductive factor in search engine rankings. A number of Syrian websites utilize paid promotion; in other words, fake traffic by automated bots which attempts to artificially inflate the number of registered visitors to a website – a disreputable practice which is nonetheless offered as a service by a number of unsavory companies around the world, most often in Southeast Asia and Latin America.
The WEEDOO team’s research of Syrian websites’ visitor details found websites that garnered 10,000 or more monthly visitors with IP addresses from Panama, Taiwan, Afghanistan,
Vietnam and Chile. Syrian websites using these techniques may be unaware that search engines – which provide the benchmark for internet activity – also enforce standards of best practices, as well as legal principles regarding intellectual property, and have the capability and the sufficient artificial intelligence (AI) technology to distinguish between real and fake visits. Given the irregularity of such visits registered to Syrian websites from countries that do not speak Arabic as a second or even third language, these IP addresses may be flagged by Google’s robots for further analysis, which can easily detect requests that come for one single page each time, without browsing further to any other pages or links which are related to that topic, or are in the same language. IP addresses flagged by the search engine’s automated systems for unnatural activity may be suspected of being automated robots if they only visit disconnected web links, as opposed to surfing through related websites, or other popular websites in the Arabic-speaking world, as a human user would. In other words, search engines make it their business to tell the difference between real traffic and fake traffic. Websites who use such techniques to artificially boost their rankings aren’t fooling anybody but themselves. Search Engines are quite strict in dealing with such deceptive techniques, and penalize Syrian news websites who use them in search engine rankings.
5-3 Priorities: Visitors from inside Syria
Alexa states between March–July 2016, Google.com was the most visited website from inside Syria, followed by Facebook, YouTube and Blogspot respectively. Then by Wikipedia, Hotmail and Yahoo respectively. These results are generally consistent with all countries, as internet visitors share similar internet activities.
Second in line, after search
engines, social media and mailing websites, comes pornography websites. Commercial websites come in third, followed by news, tabloids and sports.
It is important to note here that between the 25 most visited websites from Syria is in first Syria Now, then the Syrian Arab News Agencies (SANA) website, and Sham Times. Note that no opposition-leaning
websites appear in the top 25 list. A key reason for this is quite clear: the total censorship imposed by the Syrian regime on effectively all opposition websites, or anyone sympathizing with their stances means that visitors inside Syria can only access these websites using proxy servers. The use of these and similar tools have become very popular in Syria – however, because the regime’s firewall is circumvented
by routing their traffic through a “proxy” IP address in a second country, such visitors’ access is not registered as coming from Syria. Because of these tools which are are used for privacy and anonymity, these visits are difficult or impossible to track, and are thus, unfortunately, not included in this study.
42 radio stations were established in Syria after the 2011 outbreak of revolution, broadcasting either over FM airwaves, over the internet, or both. Electricity and telephone line and internet cuts to most “liberated” area controlled by the opposition contributed to this approach as well. As a result, independent financier organizations, businessmen, interested foreign government agencies responded by supporting the
launch of alternative local radios to spread alternative information in emergency situations.
A report in September 2015 byCFI, an agency of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Development, found the majority of radio broadcasters in Syria utilized FM primarily, followed next by internet radio services, then by archived programs on Youtube and Soundcloud.
6-1 Broadcasting over FM frequencies
Airwaves — not inhibited by the crisscross of battle lines that divide Syria — have enabled information to reach the Syrian public in way that has persisted since generations before the war: right in their homes and streets, gathered around the radio, listening for the latest news.
In surveying FM radio broadcasters in Syria, we have identified a number of issues affecting these new alternative platforms, which have the capacity to reach more listeners in areas with limited media access, but have been weakened by wartime conditions and exacerbated by poor professional management practices. Here, we also suggested courses of actions for remedying these issues by addressing them directly and working to overcome these difficulties over time.
A– It is well known in the Syrian radio industry that the Islamic State organization (IS) has thus far been able to prevent any radio other than its own from broadcast from areas under its control.
The fate of both regime-run and opposition-run radios was similar.
Meanwhile, civilian residents of areas under IS’ control cannot listen to any other radio except for “al-Bayan,” the organization’s official radio channel.
Elements of the IS organization have consistently and savagely subjected media workers to exemplary punishment: in June 2016 the Syrian correspondent of Dubai-based Radio Al-Aan in Deir al-Zor governorate was killed in a video that IS later used for its own propaganda purposes.
B– Furthermore, our research has observed the relative strength of radios backed by militias, or supported militarily.
For example: Radio Damascus and Sawt al-Sha’b; of the Assad regime, Nour al-Islam radio in Damascus countryside; of the opposition faction Jaish al-Islam; the station Radio Of The Al-Tahrir Islamic Party, which is active militarily and preaching in Syria; the radio station Do’at al-Jihad (Preachers of Jihad,) which is affiliated with Jabhat Fateh al-Sham organization; Rojava Radio, affiliated with the military wing of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD); and Al-Nour Radio, the affiliate of the Lebanese Hezbollah militia, as well as Al-Bayan Radio which is managed by the IS organization.
C– Except for Deir al-Zor and Raqqah governorates, the strongest broadcast we monitored was by radios working from studios in regime controlled areas, numbering 25 radios. High quality broadcasting radio are the following (not in order): (Radio Damascus), People’s Voice (Sawt al-Sha’b), Youth Voice (Sawt al-Shabab), (Sham FM) and (al-Madina FM).
Only one station not related with the regime is on par with their broadcasting reach, namely (Al-Aan FM Radio,) a non-Syrian radio broadcasting from studios in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates who has a network of radio towers that cover all Syrian territories and qualifies among the top radio broadcasters, in terms of content quality and broadcast-continuity.
Regime-run radio stations in Syria enjoy an almost complete broadcast coverage throughout Syria, thanks in no small part to the support of the security agencies which physically and politically secure of the infrastructure and staff of these stations, affording them use of the optimal transmission towers atop the the highest hills and the most sophisticated equipment.
Opposition-run radio stations in Syria number more than 30; Radio Al-Aan FM tops the ranking with coverage over 7 provinces, followed by Orient Radio with coverage in 5 governorates. Except for Al-Aan and Orient Radio, which are well-funded and have a developed infrastructure, the remaining radios hold in common some key identifying characteristics: lack of funding, low listenership percentages, and limited coverage areas often not exceeding one neighborhood, or a city or two in most cases. Hizb al-Tahrir and al-Sham al-Da’awia radio stations are a relative exception to this weak trend, with a coverage range of 4 provinces (15 km.)
By clicking on radio stations names and provinces you may get detailed information on FM coverage in Syrian provinces.
D- The highest coverage percentages for radios are distributed between the provinces of Aleppo and Rural Damascus with 21 radios each, followed by Damascus province with 20 radios, then Idlib with 18, Lattakia and Hasakeh at 13, Tartous and Hama with 10, Suweida by 9, Homs by 8, Dar’aa by 3 and Quneitra by 2. Last of all is Raqqah and Deir al-Zor, where one radio has restricted and monopolized their airwaves, “Al-Bayan” Radio – affiliated to the IS organization.
Situation of Syrian Opposition Radios
Broadcasting news over the airwaves in Syria’s war-torn areas poses the greatest challenges in the opposition-held areas which are constantly under attack by regime forces.
This resulted in – or conversely, can perhaps be a cause of – the dispersed nature and hyper-localization of opposition radio broadcasters, which is a unique feature of the circumstances of independent Syrian media efforts over the last years.
Examples include: Radio Fresh, whose broadcast coverage reaches countryside areas in Southern and Northern Hama, Alwan Radio in Saraqib, Hara FM radio in Aleppo; Arta FM, Jin FM and Welat FM in Hasakah and Nida’ al-Islam in Rural Damascus.
The most severe issue facing radio journalists working in opposition-controlled territories is the limited availability of spaces suited to the installation and maintenance of broadcasting towers. The conditions that make a location an optimal positions for a radio broadcast tower are also appealing to military factions for many of the same reasons – high altitudes and hilltops possess the greatest reach capability, and wartime circumstances mean that militias fighting over these areas make them unviable locations for journalists working to provide media to the public.
The second most severe issue is the systematic and repeated targeting of broadcast centers by regime forces.
Other issues that pose a challenge to radio stations in opposition-held areas include a comparative lack of technical and professional experience of both teams that produce content for broadcast, and teams that operate the mechanics of an FM broadcast; further, the lack of access to professional equipment such as microphones, cables, wiring, antenna parts, generators, and repair parts; as well as transport office and storage facilities areas besieged by parties to the conflict on all sides is a severe issue facing journalists in Syria.
It is important to point out to another issue that unfortunately reflects a dereliction of the media’s duty of transparency about their broadcasts: some broadcasters which have ceased broadcasting fail to acknowledge to the public the reasons they have gone off the air, yet continue to claim active operation, even after unusually long cutout periods. Short cutout periods of an hour or up to 24 hours are commonplace, but as one example highlights, during the WEEDOO team’s first monitoring phase, which lasted 50 days, we did not observe any broadcast activity on the frequencies of Radio Hawa Smart in the provinces of Homs, Hama, Idlib, Latakia and Deir al-Zor — even though advertisements and programs aired on Hawa Smart’s frequencies in other provinces continued to promote their coverage in these governorates.
In addition, during the 40 days of the team’s second monitoring phase, we recorded broadcast interruptions lasting several hours or up to days at a time by Hawa Smart in rural Hama, followed by a complete halt. This is a recurrent issue in monitoring Hawa Smart’s performance over the frequencies given for the capital Damascus and Rural Damascus. In our overall observations, Hawa Smart airs only in the city of Aleppo, yet continues advertising frequencies of eight provinces in Syria via their programs and promos, as well as social media pages, without providing any public statement or any other clarification regarding the technical issues.
Hawa Smart stopped promoting of their frequency for Deir al-Zor in their content in August 2016, leaving the remaining inactive ones for other cities. The example of Hawa Smart highlights a trend that applies to a large number of other Syrian radios, those with limited coverage restricted to a city or more.
The issue of transparency relates to a responsibility that opposition Syrian media institutions have acknowledged must be upheld: 38 Syrian media outlets have signed the Ethical Charter for Syrian Media, framed in September 2015 in Istanbul, which mandates opposition media outlets to deal with transparency, integrity and respect toward their audience. Hawa Smart was not a signatory to the Charter.
On the other hand, a positive example was observed in Alwan Radio – a signatory of the Charter, showing a clear commitment to transparency demonstrated by presenters regularly reminding their audience they are no longer on air in Aleppo for security reasons, which are far from unfathomable. During the first week of August, Alwan Radio published a statement declaring it is no longer on air because of the dangerous conditions resulting from the Russian airstrikes on the city of Saraqib. Fresh Radio in Kafranbel as well has announced their Facebook page that it will cease broadcasting by the end of July due to technical issues.
6-2 Broadcasting online
Where FM frequency broadcasting is presented with challenges amidst the reality of war – except for Assad regime’s stations – most outlets prioritized their online broadcast equally with their FM broadcast in an effort to reach higher listenership percentages.
WEEDOO’s team monitored the number of listeners over the internet for Syrian radio stations during the month of March 2014, then in March 2015. Followed by the period between the 10th of May to the 10th of June 2016, and finally in the period between the 24th of June to the 9th of August. Analyzing the statistics of host servers, we discovered:
Thebroadcasting systems employed over the internet primarily, suffered broadcast cuts that significantly impacted their listenership. For example: we recorded more than 1,521/1800 hours for just one radio, Rotana Style, over the course of monitoring in 2016. Broadcast cuts for Aleppo Today radio, as well, reached more than 1,000/1800 hours, and Farah FM radio with 1,141/1800 hours. And on the contrary, some radios use reliable broadcasting systems for their online space, Souriali Radio enjoyed a continuous broadcast over the course of our monitoring without interruptions, as well as Asima Online Radio.
As for average listenership per minute, the combined listenership of all Syrian radios did not surpass 2,000 listeners in the period between the 10 May till the 10th of June. And the number of listeners in all Syrian radios online decreased in the period between the 24th of June till the 9th of August to reach 1,719, a meager number for internet-based users tuning in to a topic as hotly contested as the Syrian issue. Relative to neighboring Middle Eastern countries as well, where youth radios broadcasting online from Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey are reaching record presence and are actively shaping youth culture, according to the numbers we extracted from the monitoring, matching and analysis.
In reviewing the combined online listenership of all Syrian radios: cumulatively, during the periods March 2014, March 2015, and those of 2016 from the 10 May – 10 June, and from the 24 June – 9 August, we found:
1- Sham FM Radio is in the lead over Syrian radios in listenership numbers online. Sham FM recorded an average of 330 listeners per minute, in the first period of 2016; 262 listeners in the second period; and 334 listeners during the same period of 2015, down by about 200 from its average of 533 listeners per minute in May 2014. These observations are consistent with the results of a study published in July 2016 titled “Syrian Audience – 2016” prepared from a research consortium of by three European organizations supporting new media in Syria.
2- Al-Madina FM came in second, with an average of 169 and 128 listeners per minute in the two monitored period of 2016 respectively. 76 listeners per minute for May 2015, and 125 listeners on average per minute for May 2014. Listenership levels varied for 2 Syrian radios between 20 to 40 listeners per minute, 8 radios with an average of 10-20 listeners per minute, while seven station had between 5-10 listeners per minute and 18 radios did not average more than 5 listeners per minute. One listener after peak time was common for many, monitored by our experts during the research times.
3- Specifically surveying opposition-run radio stations during the period between 10 May – 10 June 2016 Arta FMradio tops the ranking in listenership level, with an average of 30 listeners per minute. This in spite of its forced closure, after their studios were burned by elements of Kurdish militias in a firebombing attack in Qamishli Northern Syria, which impacted Arta FM’s broadcast output during the last month of our first survey, and should be taken into account. Nasaim Syria Radio ranks next with an average of 28 listeners per minute in the same period. As for the second period of the survey, the average number of listeners to Arta FM radio was 36 listeners per minute, followed by Nasaim Syria with an average of 26 listeners per minute.
4- Results show that the morning hours between 9 in the morning and 12 in the afternoon attract the most listeners, for both regime or opposition stations. Sham FM never passed the mark of 500 listeners per minute in these morning hours, while al-Madina FM radio scarcely exceeded the 300 listeners mark. For opposition radios, Arta FM and Nasaim Syria max out at about 100 listeners per minute on their morning programs.
New media tries to reach audience in various ways possible, where Soundcloud and Youtube websites are observed to be the most prominent in disseminating pre-recorded audible content.
WEEDOO’s researchers identified 23 Syrian radio stations who publish their content on Soundcloud, and monitored the average number of listens monthly for programs published during the period eight month between January–August 2016.
Reading the listenership statistics on Soundcloud, a lack of strategy by managers of Soundcloud accounts become apparent, as well as the lack of clear promotional plans. A clear exception to this trend isRadio Souriali, that scores the highest numbers of listeners for their content on Soundcloud, with an average of 812 recorded listens for its programs, and a total listens numbering around 500,000. Souriali Radio far surpasses other Syrian internet broadcasters – its next competitor averages less than a tenth of its reach at 122 listens, while the average number of listens among 12 other internet radio broadcaster come hover around 50 listens per program. The remaining stations’ number of listens ranged between 5 to 10 per program.
Do’at al-Jihad (Preachers of Jihad,) radio stations initiated its broadcast only a few days before finalising this research. Jabhat Fateh al-Sham front (Al Nusra Front) started its military ideological radio station immediately upon forcing Radio Fresh and Fresh Online to cease operation in Kafranbel.↩
7- Conclusion: “As for that which benefits the people, it remains on the earth.”
The Syrian revolution gave rise to a new media reality in which hundreds of media offices were created being operated by citizen journalists. Open news groups and dedicated social media pages started rapidly emerging in every city, town and neighborhood. These developments toward new media practices were not limited only to “liberated” areas held by the opposition, but also became prevalent in government-controlled areas, especially among militias loyal to the regime, and areas controlled Kurdish militias in Syria’s north. Over time, the sea change brought by the revolution has been adopted by the full spectrum of actors from aid organizations and humanitarian initiatives to political parties and blocs, cultural organizations, and even military factions who are keen to utilize this new paradigm as an opportunity to grow their influence.
As with any period of revolutionary upheaval, the tumultuous period of trials and errors mark the growing pains of a greater cultural transformation which Syria and the Middle East are undergoing as technology’s capabilities advance. In this new era brought on by the Arab Spring, the reins of information production are being seized from from the grip of the old guard establishment media to the public domain, giving rise to new hopes of a pluralistic media scene no longer governed by the traditional single-party political interests, one that increasingly finds ways to subvert the strict scissor of censorship.
Serious commitments to covering news as it happens by a diverse range of new citizen-based outlets spanning all sides to the conflict have achieved noteworthy successes in becoming reliable media outlets with strong followings sometimes transcending Syria’s borders. Content produced by these outlets, whether written or audible, electronic or paper, often enjoys considerable support by the vested interests they are aligned with – be they commercial, militia, or governmental – Syrian or foreign. Such support has often provided opposition media outlets with the basic material and logistical requirements of media work, as well as professional development and staff training. Stepping back from the complexities of the conflict and looking at the wider trend in the Syrian media environment, noting that today an unprecedented 400 media outlets are receiving such funding opportunities, we can observe that the culture is evolving to place a high level interest in the media sector by much of Syrian society.
For its part, the regime-affiliated media did not fall behind in updating its media strategies – even though it imposes strict editorial policies for all media initiatives in areas under its control, the overall media landscape has been opened up considerably, relative to the ideological dogmatism of the past. For the first time, permits have been granted to private and independent media efforts. Many commercial companies registered with the regime’s government as legal media outlets are today broadcasting over electronic websites, news agencies, local radios, and others. This shows that the regime is continuing its policy of market liberalization policies that started a few years before the revolution, but have nonetheless been slow to reach the media sector. At times, non-official outlets of this new type have excelled over regime news agencies, radios and official websites. In actuality, the influence of a regime-affiliated radio station like Sham FM or news agency like Sham Times News in spreading news through new media channels can often surpass agencies under direct government control.
In areas under the control of the militias of the PYD, also known as (The Self Administration of Rojava), the party established a federation of media outlets under its control, called the Union of Independent Media Outlets (YRA). Based in the northern city of Qamishli, it monitors media work in areas under their control. Licences are given to a few independent outlets, and to some others with relative affiliation to the party. Unfortunately, international monitoring organizations that monitor violations against journalists have recorded systematic abuses in PYD-controlled area. Nevertheless, some independent media institutions are capable of working without any affiliation to party institutions.
The self administration internationally promotes an image of exceptional respect for human rights and basic freedoms in areas under its control, including the freedom of expression and of the press. In return, it receives political and organizational support from various sources – but reports from journalists working in these areas refute these claims, as intentional harassment is frequent, and has included violent attacks against media workers. A recent report by (Reporters Without Borders) detailed the recent violations of the administration towards Radio Arta FM – which is funded and backed by European donors and international media organizations. These journalists who work in areas under PYD’s control and are targets of abuse and restrictions on their work – ironically – often receive support from the same international donors that support Syrian civil society.
When all factors are considered, it is clear even the difficulties of war could not hold back the hand of history in turning the page and bringing a wave of advancement in the media sphere, in which new independent outlets in various formats have excelled and exceeded experienced traditional media institutions in Syria. This should be regarded as a cause for our faith in the human spirit throughout the country. Where civil society organizations advocate for increasing attention to the development of media platforms and the freedoms to use them, we are naturally in support of these efforts.
Our current assessment now finds strong resolve: when humans are free and liberate their abilities, they produce a universal good for the benefit of the people and strive to provide their best contributions to the collective. Without a doubt, no one of us can truly comment on the quality of work done by those working in Syria while bombs of all kinds and sort rain down on them from the sky at the hands of not only their own government but various other countries.
We believe that where there is a will, there is a way. “As for the foam, it vanishes, [being] cast off; but as for that which benefits the people, it remains on the earth.” “Quran verse”.
But what about the big picture? The mosaic of the Syrian war presents few rays of hope. What can be said about the over 200 Syrian media outlets that were shut down in the past two years? What is the destiny of talented journalists who have the misfortune of finding themselves at media outlets which are limited by their sponsors’ willingness to fund them? How is it that Syrian media outlets have failed over the past three years to attract a bare minimum number of followers and now play less of a role in shaping public opinion in Syria? Given different circumstances, the huge amount of energy that goes toward outputting news and information about the Syrian conflict could be focused on bringing society forward – instead, they are enmired in reinforcing its divisions.
The question which remains is how the different parts of the Syrian media sector can move forward as a whole while the strings attached to them pull in separate directions?
While they have the support of partisan patrons today, this may change tomorrow. While the framework of the Syrian civil media remains tied to the fleeting, temporary conditions of the constellation of international interest and armed coalitions entrenched in the conflict, its ability to evolve, grow and fulfill its responsibility to the public will remain tied down to the intransigence and instability of the international diplomacy embroiling Syria.