Magazine article Newsweek

Underground Journalism Is Keeping the Fight against Assad Alive in Syria; A Boom in Journalism Is Keeping Opposition to Bashar Assad Alive

Magazine article Newsweek

Underground Journalism Is Keeping the Fight against Assad Alive in Syria; A Boom in Journalism Is Keeping Opposition to Bashar Assad Alive

Article excerpt

Byline: Charlotte Eagar

It's 4 p.m. Damascus time, and Umabdul al-Halabi (Mother From Aleppo) is showing on Halab Today TV. It's a sitcom; inside a barber's shop, a fat man is being shaved by a man with silly hair.

"The heroine is a mother with a son called Abdul. The show is about what we civilians are suffering in Syria--water problems, no food, how to deal with the issues--but it's funny," explains Khaleel Agha, the 43-year-old manager of Halab Today TV, a satellite-TV channel of Syria's opposition forces. "Comedy is one way of fighting the regime."

Umabdul goes out daily in 10-minute episodes, part of the station's 24-hour, seven day a week schedule. As with much of Halab Today TV's output, Umabdul's production standards are poor, and it is all filmed indoors. But it represents a miracle of resistance to President Bashar Assad.

"Our outside set was destroyed by barrel bombs while we were filming," says Agha, referring to the barrels of explosives and shrapnel dropped by Syrian government planes. "We get about 35 barrel bombs a day on average in Aleppo, and 20 and 50 civilian casualties a day. You can still hear barrel bombs while we are filming and see the cast's reactions."

Aleppo, the largest city in Syria, with a pre-war population of over 2 million, has been the scene of bitter fighting for the past two years. Estimates vary between 13,500 and 23,000 dead. The city is divided between the Syrian government and opposition forces--and, massing on its eastern flank, the fundamentalist militant group Islamic State, better known as ISIS.

The station focuses on news from Syria, Syria in the world's news, documentaries, video footage by citizen journalists and religious programs. "We show that real Islam is not about killing," says Agha.

"Our main challenge for the TV station is fear," he adds. Halab Today has been threatened by both ISIS and the Assad regime. One of its journalists was recently kidnapped and killed by ISIS; another was wounded. A third, now in Turkey, escaped from ISIS only after his prison was bombed. Agha is speaking to me on Skype from Turkey, where the office has 50 staffers in an unnamed location. Twelve staff members are still based in Aleppo.

"Our reporters work in teams of three, but none of the other teams know each other. If one team is captured, I don't want to lose everyone else. None of them show their faces on TV. I have software that disguises their voices," Agha explains. "They all work from home. We used to have an office, but the regime bombed it, and ISIS kept coming to search it."

Halab Today TV's two anchormen and two anchorwomen do show their faces on TV, but work under false names and are based in Turkey.

Halab Today TV also exists online (www.halabtoday.org). It was founded in Aleppo two and a half years ago by an Aleppo businessman who wishes to remain anonymous. Before he was asked to run the station, Agha, a former factory manager, had no media experience.

"None of my staff have previous experience. We've learnt everything from the Internet. We are not the best, but we are the most popular Syrian opposition TV station," he claims.

Halab Today TV is part of an extraordinary and spontaneous journalistic movement in opposition-held parts of Syria. It has at least two main rivals, Orient TV and Souria al-Ghad, which transmit from Dubai and Cairo, respectively. This is in a country that, until the revolution three years ago, had only three national newspapers, which were government-controlled, and only state radio and TV. …

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