At the beginning of this month KPBS news director Tom Fudge shared a conversation he had with a Damascus-based journalist behind a network of unlicensed stations taking turns broadcasting independent news for just 20 minutes each.
The Daily Beast’s Mike Giglio recently reported that “at least a dozen FM radio stations that have popped up in Syria since the beginning of the war, many of them discreetly backed by the United States government.” Rather than broadcasting extremist Islamist anti-government programming, he wrote that these stations’ “underlying message is one of moderation and civility. Think National Public Radio in Arabic. What they’re hoping to do is undermine Assad and promote a more moderate voice for the opposition—in essence, to get a head start in the battle of ideas with the Islamists who might overtake Syria if Assad is overthrown.”
Giglio interviewed State Department officials about direct US support of these stations, who note that if President Assad’s regime were to fall, then having these stations on the ground would be useful. However, officials also strongly deny that these stations are operating as sources of US propaganda. Instead, Giglio reports that they are “trying to help the moderate opposition in Syria in a relatively hands-off fashion.”
Last Thursday Agence France-Presse reported on a station broadcasting to Aleppo, Syria’s second-largest city, from a transmitter based across the border in Turkey. The station, Radio Nasaem-Syria, also broadcasts online. According to the report the station produces three weekly programs from inside Aleppo, along with regular news bulletins. The rest of the time the station broadcasts Arabic music.
The more stations that pop up inside Syria or across its borders, the more difficult it is for the government to suppress them. While any single broadcaster certainly assumes personal risk, especially if caught with a transmitter, the fact that a station can fit inside a backpack and be moved easily helps to mitigate those risks.
While internet and mobile devices are important tools for information freedom in places experiencing political crises and war, radio remains a technology that is uniquely difficult for any government to control so completely.
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