The Journalists Risking Their Lives in Syria

29 October 2015


More than 11 million Syrians have been driven from their homes since 2011, according to BBC reports. The numbers of Syrian refugees fleeing abroad - more than 4.18 million - is partly what brought the 19 Million Project into being: an urgent GEN, FUSION and Univision News initiative looking into bringing media innovation solutions to the worldwide migration crisis. We’ve seen images of the ghost towns that the refugees have left behind. More recently, we’ve experienced a virtual reality report filmed in the deserted north western town of Jisr al-Shughur brought to us by Okio Report, SMART News Agency and ASML. It was unique; not only in being the first virtual reality report from the war-torn terrain, but because it was filmed by a Syrian who was trained by SMART News Agency and ASML - the Association for the Support of Free Media. But what about the media being produced inside Syria? 

map of syria

Data Journalism Project 2014 - A Pessimist's Guide to the World in 2015

SMART (Syrian Media Action Revolution Team) was created in April 2011 by a group of activists who were part of the Syrian diaspora in France. When Syrians began protesting off the back of the successful Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, Syrian activists in France got together to discuss what they could do to help the ongoing revolution. They decided they would start by shipping equipment to citizen journalists inside Syria in order to build a media network. They set up media offices, constructed verification procedures and supplied international and Arab media with information, including photos and videos. Chamsy Sarkis is SMART’s co-founder and director. “We gathered together around common values​ of democracy, pluralism, political and religious tolerance and the belief that a determined and dynamic civil society is an absolute necessity for Syria,” Chamsy says on his LinkedIn profile. Anyone involved risked paying with their life if they were caught.

Chamsy Sarkis

Chamsy Sarkis: Co-founder and Director of SMART

By early 2012, SMART was in a position to support a number of newspapers and radio stations that had sprung up inside the country. It had partnered with ASML - the Association for the Support of Free Media - which led to the June 2013 launch of the first printing press inside the now war-torn land. Much of the population in the besieged northern cities had been cut off from the internet and the television, and the aim was to keep this audience informed through print. The publications were - and still are - for local and national readership: Enab Baladi (meaning “the grapes of my country”) is a national publication that started in Deraya, a neighbourhood south of Damascus; Souriatna (meaning “our Syria”) is also distributed in Damascus as well as Aleppo, Idlib and eastern Syria, and Oxygen - reported on by the Guardian - is a local newspaper for readers living the farming town of Zabadani situated north west of Damascus. 

Souriatna front cover

 Front Page Of Souriatna

There are about 80 publications in circulation inside Syria, but most of them are not printed inside the country and are only available online, distributed as widely as possible by social media. Armand Hurault, Development and Public Relations Manager for ASML, explained that SMART and ASML have backed 25 publications since 2012 and currently back around a dozen. “The idea was really to support diversity in terms of media; print publications with a different stance from one another,” said Armand. “Any publication we support has to comply with our editorial ethos. So we don’t support any publication that calls for the partition of Syria, violence, hatred of secularism or racial hatred. And we don’t print any media affiliated to an armed group or to a political party.” 

Homepage of Oxygen

Front Page of Oxygen

In 2014, 420,000 copies of newspapers and magazines were printed by ASML at SMART depots inside Syria. The 2015 figure is expected to increase to half a million copies as children’s comics and magazines made it into print for the first time this year in the southern part of the country following the launch of a new print centre in Deraa. The printing is mostly done in black and white, sometimes including photos. Local newspapers, often started by young activists, tend to take the form of short bulletins that detail the latest military developments, humanitarian aid and news on the local councils.  

Men and boys reading papers in Syria

Reading The News in Syria

It’s the job of SMART staff to make the perilous journey from SMART’s two print depots into the towns. Distribution is carried out in coordination with civil society organisations. SMART and ASML partner with civil society organisations - schools, children organisations, orphanages and women’s organisations - in order to distribute print media in areas that are not under government or ISIS control. “We always encounter threats from armed groups so it’s really important for us to have connections with strong local relays that can stand up for us in case of trouble,” Armand explained. “The local organisations are crucial to our activities. We rely on teachers, lawyers and local shops to carry out distribution. You can’t do print media secretly. You give physical copies to people; it’s open. Armed groups know about it. There needs to be some kind of tacit agreement to do that. If you were doing this in an ISIS controlled area, you would get shot immediately. Print media distribution can only happen in areas that are controlled by moderate rebels.”

jihadism: tracking a month of deadly attacks

Data Journalism Project 2014 - Jihadism: Tracking A Month Of Deadly Attacks

The threats posed by soldiers of the regime, ISIS and armed rebels make it impossible to ensure the safety of SMART’s 300-strong staff. “On the 26 September, SMART lost Obada Gazal, the reporter who filmed the virtual reality video for our project with Okio Report,” said Armand. “Obada was at home in Taftanaz in the north west of Syria. A truce had been declared a few days before so he didn’t hide when a helicopter came overhead. The helicopter dropped a barrel bomb that fell on his house. His wife and child were next door so they survived. Two days later, ISIS raided SMART’s office in Deir ez-Zor and kidnapped two SMART staff members.”

So far, propaganda has not arisen as a problem. SMART and ASML have a fairly relaxed monitoring policy of the publications they support. “We don’t read every publication but all the issues are available online and we check them randomly,” Armand explained. “If we were to find content that caused concern, we would summon the writers to a meeting to explain and take a decision from there.” 

Enab Baladi

Front Pages Of Enad Baladi

But SMART and ASML’s printing project is not the only one in operation. Some Syrian publications have their own small print and distribution capacities. The Syrian Network for Print, for example, is a partnership of five Syrian newspapers that run their own printing project independent of SMART and ASML. Efforts are constantly being made to smuggle press in from outside the country, although this has been made increasingly difficult since the border with Turkey closed in March. 

kids queue for mags in Syria

Distribtuion of Print Media by SMART Staff In Damascas

The conversations happening in the Syrian press are also of interest to external media. Expressions Syriennes, for example, translates a selection of articles and videos produced by Syrian media into French. It is one of the activities run by the Syrian Media Incubator, a project supported by CFI - the development agency of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Development. Situated in Gaziantep in the South West of Turkey, the Syrian Media Incubator supports seven Syrian newspapers through training and grants so that their editorial teams are able to set-up a printing and distribution network inside Syria.  

Expressions Syriennes

Homepage Of Expressions Syriennes

Nour Hemici, CFI project manager in charge of the incubator project, explained that, through the EU-funded project, there are now 300 print distribution points supported by CFI and International Media Support. The distribution points are located mostly in Northern part of Syria. “The Syrian Media Incubator is a space which is secure, free and open to citizen journalists, all these producers of information who risk their lives every day filming, documenting what is happening,” she says on the incubator’s website and on YouTube. “We have installed radio and television studios. Journalists can come here to produce, edit their videos and sell them to international agencies or work for their own media.”

 syrian media incubator

Homepage Of Syrian Media Incubator Project 

The Syrian Media Incubator (#SyrianMI) opened in August 2014 and has trained more than 200 journalists connected to 50 Syrian media outlets. The journalists, video-makers and photojournalists use the centre’s studio to record radio programmes, undertake interviews, edit rushes, shoot media campaigns and produce short documentaries. From time to time, when the border reopens, they make their way back and forth between Syria and Turkey. 


Nour Hemici, CFI project manager in charge of the incubator project

Mahmoud Abdel Rahman is a journalist for Focus Aleppo and AL Ghourbal and regular uses the incubator’s facilities. “I’m trying to go back to Aleppo,” he said at the time of writing this article. “But it’s very difficult as there are battles between Kurdish armed groups and AL Nusra Front on the main road into the city. Meanwhile, Russian bombing is ongoing in Aleppo together with the regime offensive. I need to go to Aleppo to work but the situation is terrible for us journalists.”

syrian media incubator (1)

Syrian Journalists and Photographers Using Syrian Media Incubator Project 

Like SMART News Agency and ASML, the CFI-supported Syrian Media Incubator is also turning its attention to children’s media. One of the incubator’s goals for 2016 is to provide training on content creation for children’s magazines. Another is to provide an information service for refugees. With so many Syrians fleeing for their lives, those who decide to remain face a tough fight for survival. Supporting the resilience of the Syrian media who remain in Syria is as crucial now as ever.

See also:

Call To Action: Media Innovation On The Refugee Crisis 

Pain of refugees

Jihadism: Tracking a month of deadly attacks

jihadism: tracking a month of deadly attacks

A World of Terror

 Jihadi map

A Pessimist's Guide to the World in 2015

 map of syria

* 2015 Report By The Syrian Center For Journalistic Freedoms