Independent, ethical journalism in Syria

How can you, as a journalist, continue to report independently if war is raging around you, family members have been murdered and friends have been arrested? If in your country, Syria, critical reporting is not common anyway? Free Press Unlimited, together with Syrian media organisations, took up the challenge: how can we professionalise journalism?

‘I thought: how can I train these people? Some were traumatized, others no longer trust anyone. And they were completely unaccustomed to anyone bothering with their articles.’ Mona Abdelmaksoud is one of the trainers who taught Syrian journalists for Free Press Unlimited about the benefits of ethical, reliable reporting: regaining the trust of your audience.

Vehicle for propaganda

For a long time, media in Syria were controlled by the regime or regional powers that be. Propaganda was the norm and professional journalism virtually absent. The result: Syrians lost their faith in journalism. The Syrian journalists trained by Mona also saw the world as cruel and dishonest, and journalism as a vehicle for propaganda. It took a lot of patience and empathy, for Mona and the other trainers to convince the journalists. ‘Write for your audience. Do not report on the war, make stories about the people in that war instead.’ The journalists were able to make the switch: they continuously ask for feedback and write heartfelt stories.

The training is part of an extensive learning programme with which Free Press Unlimited supports the development of a professional and well-organised Syrian media sector. Together with Syrian initiators, we set up an ethical code of conduct (now signed by 40 media organisations) in recent years and contributed to the establishment of the Syrian Journalists Association (SJA).

Tallying reports

In 2017, 267 journalists and media managers from 8 young media organisations – inside and outside Syria – received training in, among other things, investigative journalism and safety. But also in matters such as fundraising, so they can safeguard their independence. Free Press Unlimited began systematically tallying news coverage in several Syrian media, based on about 25 criteria. Which topics are being written about? Are the messages not too one-sided? Are women sufficiently covered? With these insights, media organisations can improve their own reporting.

The SJA publishes monthly reports on the violence against Syrian media and (citizen) journalists. Their shocking figures – nearly 1,000 acts of violence against journalists, of which more than 400 murders since the uprising – are picked up by international media such as Al Jazeera and spread regionally and internationally. In 2017, the SJA became a member of the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ). This not only improves its reputation enormously, but also means that it can demand more international attention for the position of journalists and independent media in Syria.

Despite the difficult and constantly changing conditions, media organisations continue to take big and small steps towards the joint long-term goal: a reliable and independent press in Syria. Or, as one Syrian journalist says: ‘Our real enemy is journalism that is neither professional nor ethical.’

Project since: 2014
Donor: Sida
Contribution: € 2,200,000

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