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The forgotten front: guerrilla radio and Syria’s information war

Shaping how the war is perceived through disseminating communiques has become a key feature of the Syrian conflict. EPA/Youssef Badawi

As the war in Syria has evolved, so has the contest within the country to control the conflict’s narrative. While Twitter and Facebook were the main forums for Syrian demonstrators to confront President Bashar al-Assad’s media machine in 2011, FM radio is now the battleground for Syrian hearts and minds.

Shaping how the war is perceived through disseminating communiques has become a key feature of the Syrian conflict. But judging by the bulk of Western media reporting, one would be forgiven for believing that Islamic State (IS) is the only group in Syria engaged in an information operations campaign.

The daily information battles inside Syria waged over its FM radio waves remain largely ignored. This is despite radio offering both fascinating stories and important lessons for designing effective communication strategies to the masses. We spent several weeks interviewing members of Syria’s underground radio stations to learn more about the information war inside Syria.

Why radio?

Amir, a senior producer from Radio Al-Kul (Radio for All), explained:

The situation in Syria is very bad for electricity and for internet. With FM radio, you can get to the people with only a frequency and they need only their mobile cell phone or a battery radio to listen.

Established in March 2013, Radio Al-Kul’s focus has remained constant:

Our target audience is Syrians because if you go to the past, the Syrian regime had the TV and radio stations for its propaganda. Syrians only have that [regime] point of view and we want to fight them [the regime] in the media wars.

The station’s programming has significantly narrowed in the past year to focus on news, air-raid warnings and religious programming. The latter is particularly important.

With extremist groups operating in close proximity to the station’s Syrian offices, it has used religious shows to try and undermine their appeal. For example, a recent broadcast featured street “vox pop” interviews that gauged local attitudes towards IS and encouraged residents to ask religious questions about the group. A Muslim cleric then provided responses to those comments and questions, thus directly addressing specific local issues and concerns.

With counter-narratives focused squarely on the regime and Islamist extremists, Radio Al-Kul’s allegiances are clear:

We have great relations with the Syrian people, with the FSA [Free Syrian Army] and the activists … Everybody here [at Radio Al-Kul] is an activist, not a journalist.

The station’s FSA ties have also helped it deal with a perpetual problem for all opposition radio stations: the protection and maintenance of radio transmitters smuggled into Syria.

Independent voices

Not all opposition radio stations are aligned with combatants. For instance, Sout Raya presents itself as an independent voice that objectively reports on all sides of the conflict. Mohammed, a senior manager at the station since its November 2013 launch, explained:

Freedom, justice and dignity. This is what matters to us and we will assist other stations that work towards these aims.

We appreciate that to be a mature media, a really independent media, we must always try to be objective and use neutral language in our reporting.

Given the unfathomable suffering of the Syrian people and the appalling atrocities that have been committed by all sides of the conflict – but particularly the Assad regime, which continues to massacre civilians in far greater numbers than even IS and with equal savagery – Mohammed concedes that this is often very difficult.

We are human and sometimes we react and take sides. But we do our best.

Sout Raya also focuses on providing a variety of programming for its Syrian audiences including talk-back, music, lifestyle and even comedy shows. Aasia, a senior producer, explained:

We don’t want to just talk about the war. We also want to provide an escape for the people. To laugh and be normal for a while.

Children’s programming has become a priority. We need the next generation to understand freedom, justice and dignity so they don’t repeat the mistakes and live the same lives as us.

Recognising the intimate link between the past and present while remaining hopeful that a better future can be forged is a central theme in Sout Raya’s programming. This idea is epitomised by the background of its largely Syrian staff. It is an inspiring mix of not just a variety of ethnic and religious identities, but former regime members and opposition activists too.

The ‘Daesh trap’

Despite the variety of opinions and views expressed over several weeks of interviews, one sentiment was unanimous: the Western media’s myopic focus on IS fuels its information operations campaign and undermines opposition efforts.

Amir explained that, in the past year, on the rare occasions that Western journalists have contacted him for an interview, it was to ask about IS.

Mohammed’s warning was particularly unnerving:

The important thing is how you react to Daesh [Islamic State] media. Daesh made a media trap and all of the Western media fell in it. They know the fears and images that the Western media is hungry for, so Daesh give it and the media spreads it. The regime wins too because now our revolution looks like we are all extremists.

Given the inadvertent assistance that the West has given IS’s information operations campaign – and the Assad regime – Syrian opposition radio stations could do with more help.

Note: The identities of all interviewees featured in this article have been kept anonymous. All names are pseudonyms. This article was co-authored by L. T. Anthony.

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