Enab Baladi in Five Years … From Amateur to Professional
After much thinking and deliberation, the name Enab (grapes) was chosen for the newspaper, as it is directly related to our city, which is known for its history of planting grapes. The word also symbolizes authenticity and attachment to the land. Enab (grapes) also come in different varieties and types, which denotes the diversity in our approaches and ideas.
These grapes are “Baladi” (of my country) because they are produced by Darya’s residents and their cultivation relies on the people’s efforts and personal capacities.
These are extracts from the editorial of the first edition of Enab Baladi, which was released five years ago on 29 January 2012. The edition was released by a group of “amateurs” with no experience in journalism, “but they wanted to apply themselves to presenting another side of the Syrian revolution and participate in one of the free spaces the revolution had created, creating a platform for their ideas and pens to express their opinions freely”, as mentioned in the editorial.
Today, as Enab Baladi enters its sixth year, its journalistic experience has improved. This experience was mixed with the blood of a number of its founders while others have sacrificed their freedom for it. Thanks to the rest, Enab Baladi became a serious media organization characterized by professionalism and presenting diverse news content on Syrian affairs in many different journalistic forms.
60 Journalists and Dozens of Trainees … Towards Professional Journalism
Within less than one year of its launch, Enab Baladi expanded its geographical focus to move from reporting on Darya to covering news in the main Syrian regions. Enab Baladi also began strengthening its internal system and its administrative structure by benefiting from the academic experience of its leading members. It drafted its editorial policy and established its internal system early in its experience.
In the summer of 2012, the “amateurs” of Enab Baladi started their first media training in Lebanon. The training was led by the Lebanese BBC journalist, Nada Abdul Samad, at the invitation of the European organization, Internews.
This was followed by other trainings by local and international trainers, among them Yasser Abdul Aziz (Egypt), Baysan al-Sheikh (Lebanon), Yasser Zayyat (Egypt), Mona Magdi Farag (Egypt), Jo Abdou (Syria), Roman Zagaros (Iraq), Mohannad al-Haj Ali (Lebanon), Hala Kodmani (Syria), Bashar Sharaf (Jordon) and others.
During these five years, Enab Baladi participated in many workshops organized by specialized media organizations. It also gained dozens of training positions fro, which 60 of Enab Baladi’s journalists benefited (journalists, reporters and administrators).
Dr. Hala Kodmani, who heads the Syria section of the French newspaper “Libération”, says that Enab Baladi is an example of positive development and an accumulation of experience. Kodmani also considers Enab Baladi as an experience that has achieved professionalism in a context of continued and permanent escalation.
Kodmani attributed this development to the clear commitment and to the unity of the team, “This is related to Enab Baladi’s emergence in a specific place and among a group of relatives and friends”, said Kodmani while pointing out its ambitions for further development, improvement and innovation.
Kodmani, who has regularly assessed the professional performance of a group of Syrian journalists over two years with the support of the Danish organization IMS, asserted that the newspaper moved from the amateur phase to adherence to professional standards through the accumulation of experience and training, becoming level with Arabic newspapers, “and it is better than some of these”, according to Kodmani.
Kodmani added that constant development is necessary and that there is no newspaper in the world that has reached perfection, warning the organization against “professional orthodoxy” and emphasizing the need to work more on innovation and creativity at the level of writing, editing, tackling topics, angles and ideas, “This should be the objective for the next phase”.
Kodmani also pointed out that what distinguishes Enab Baladi is the “stability of the management and the organization, as well as the variety of supporting resources, which provides greater security and stability that lead to serenity and development.”
Among the training programs that Enab Baladi benefited from are those offered by the European organizations FPU and Internews throughout 2014 and 2015. These programs were delivered to a group of journalists from different Syrian newspapers, radios and news agencies.
Dr. Mona Magdi Farag, a journalism expert and a consultant to the organization FPU says that Enab Baladi “has significantly achieved” foundational and advanced skills. She also says that the newspapers should focus on developing individual abilities and specialized skills in the coming phase, which requires special training in the journalism field through experience and practice, “such as working on presenting in-depth journalism, investigative journalism and developing new prospects that fit the current developments in the field of media in terms of image and sound, as well as different visual elements”.
She also explained that the biggest obstacle lies in training reporters within Syria and organizing workshops to improve their basic skills, as well as retaining reporters after the training so they do not move to another organization or leave the job because of immigration or other reasons.
This is what Enab Baladi is trying to address through online trainings with reporters on the basics and ethics of journalism but the impact of these trainings is still limited due to factors related to the difficulty of delivering expertise and internet and electricity cuts.
Mona Farag advises the organization to promote more women specialized in writing on social topics and investigations that reflect daily reality and touch on essential activities, and focus on family and social relations. She also suggests developing the visual content to be able to present short live messages from the heart of events.
“In order for the work to be professional and successful, it is essential to create a team spirit as this is the pillar of success”, said Farag, explaining that “each person is playing his or her media piece within a big symphony that aims to achieve common goals”. She considers that the biggest characteristic of the staff of any institution “is the desire and the determination to learn, develop and gain knowledge”.
“Under the current circumstances, the unstable political situation and the social conditions that Syrians are going through, I think that success is a daunting task but it is not impossible for those who have the will.”
Who supports Enab Baladi?
In the beginning, Enab Baladi only needed 20,000 liras (400 US dollars at the time), which was donated monthly by an activist, in order to buy paper and ink to print the paper version. For a year, the newspaper remained without financial support, except for “irregular” donations from fans and people close to the project.
At the beginning of 2013, Enab Baladi obtained, for the first time, fixed monthly support from the Syrian “Association de Soutien aux Médias Libres” (Association to Support Free Media), which also undertook the cost of printing the newspaper in northern Syrian from mid-2013 until August 2014.
During the last three years, Enab Baladi received professional and financial support from Syrian and international organizations such as Internews, Free Press Unlimited, International Media Support, Adopt a Revolution, Norwegian People’s Aid, the French Agency for Media Assistance, the National Endowment for Democracy, the European Endowment for Democracy and the Regional Programme for Syria.
Nabil Sharbaji, the seed of al-Arishah
Five years into his arrest, the news of Nabil Sharbaji’s death in the regime’s prisons was confirmed to Enab Baladi’s team. Sharbaji is one of the most prominent founders of Enab Baladi and the only academic journalist among the team at that time.
Nabil edited the news in the first issues of Enab Baladi and he also filmed, with his own camera and voice, the announcement of the launch of “issue-zero” on 29 January 2012.
After around a month, Nabil was arrested in the city of Darya and successively transferred to several prisons and security branches before he was killed in the Sednaya prison for political detainees on 3 May 2015, according to testimonies from detainees who were with him at that time.
Nabil was committed to his “duty” towards the newspaper, even inside prison, sending a series of articles about his experience during the period he spent in Adra central prison in Damascus, which were published in the newspaper.
Muhammad Koraytem … Early Elections
Muhammad Anwar Koraytem, known as “Abu Nour”, was a member of the new organization’s executive board. He sought to establish the board early on in order to organize the work and manage the roles of the newspaper’s staff. The newspaper adopted that system until it established its statutes and internal regulations on 30 January 2015.
We lost contact with Muhammad Koraytem on 28 January 2012 after he visited a house in Darya on al-Modhamiyya Road when air strikes were underway in the area, in which missiles likely to contain toxic gas were also used.
Two days later (on Friday, 30 November), Muhammad Koraytem, Professor Abdul Rahim Sharbaji and the activist Marwan Sharbaji were found dead in the latter’s house. Their bodies were in a very bad condition following aerial bombardment targeting them.
Ahmad Shehadeh Develops the Organization’s Vision
When Ahmed Shehadeh joined the newspaper months after it was established, he had a role in improving the content of the newspaper, given his literary skills and political foresight. He was chosen as a member of the executive board and appointed as editor-in-chief, writing more than 30 editorials.
The newspaper benefited from his academic expertise (he holds a Master’s degree in economics) and his experienced of working with international institutions before the revolution. Even though there were no financial resources at the time, he developed a financial strategy that is still in place until this day. This strategy contributed to the development of Enab Baladi’s vision and helped maintain its financial stability.
Ahmed Shehadeh was killed on the evening of 12 March 2013 following a rocket attack that targeted his location in Darya.
Mohammed Shehadeh, Founder and Reporter
Mohammed Fares Shehadeh (Abu Yazan) is one of the founding members of Enab Baladi, in which he worked for one month before he left the team to devote his time to other activities, but he continued to work as one of its field correspondents.
Shehadeh also contributed to the establishment of the local council of Darya, in which he was a member of the “office for peaceful mobilization”, where he pursued his revolutionary activities until he was killed on 16 January 2013 when a shell targeted his car.
Alliances and Successful Projects
“Ethical Charter” for Syrian Media
In late 2013, Enab Baladi participated in the establishment of a media alliance “for ethical journalism in Syria”. This alliance includes a number of local institutions and began its activities by holding its first roundtable discussion in February 2014 in order to write a code of ethics for Syrian media.
Over the course of two years of work, more than 20 Syrian media organizations participated in nine roundtable discussions. They wrote a “Code of Conduct for Syrian Media”, which was officially released in September 2015. The total number of signatories reached nearly 40 Syrian media organizations by the end of 2016.
The Charter aims at developing ethical and professional media standards for the rapidly growing media sector in Syria, especially after the beginning of the popular mobilization in February 2011, as many media organization were established in the absence of unifying and laws to regulate the sector.
The Charter is based on the general ethical principles of journalism. According to its declaration, in applies to all those working in the media sector in Syria, whether written, visual or audio, or any other form of expression using any means of publication.
Dr. Riad Maasaas, Chairman of the Syrian Journalists’ Association, said in an interview with Enab Baladi during the launch of the Charter, “This ethical charter can be considered the first in Syrian media since the establishment of the Syrian state”.
Archive of Syrian Publications
In March 2013, a team from Enab Baladi started saving copies of Syrian publications issued during the Syrian Revolution and publishing them through Enab Baladi on a weekly basis. The idea evolved into a “Syrian Publications Archive”, which was launched on 21 November 2014 in its experimental form during the first conference of the Syrian Journalists’ Association held in Gaziantep in Turkey.
The archive is a project that works to document and archive periodical publications issued in Syria and abroad, on the basis that these periodicals are part of Syrian national memory and one of the faces of the birth of Syrian pluralism.
The archive aims at highlighting the Syrian political and social pluralism, as well as archiving and classifying the newspapers issued during the revolutions, to prevent their loss. This contributes to preserving Syrian history and building the memory of the Syrian people.
The archive provides several services, most notably the collection of Syrian publications on one website and the possibility to conduct advanced searches within the texts, titles, dates and names of writers.
Syrian Network for Print Media
In the summer of 2014, five Syrian print newspapers met in Istanbul and established the “Syrian Network for Print Media”, which is one of the most prominent Syrian networks in the new media sector. It aims at regulating and developing Syrian media. The network includes Enab Baladi, Sourietna, Sada al-Shaam, Tamaddon and Kollona Suriyyoun, and it expanded in late 2015 to include two magazines – Ayn al-Madina and Zaytoun.
Since its establishment, the network has coordinated the printing and distribution processes of its member newspapers inside Syria and abroad. It has also conducted a number of surveys and opinion polls about the interests and views of press readers in Syria and presented a number of training workshops for its leading journalists and correspondents with the support of local and international organizations.
The network currently distributes seven newspapers in more than 300 vital locations in the northern Syrian “liberated” areas, in addition to a number of Turkish cities that host a large number of Syrians such as Istanbul, Gaziantep, Antakya and Urfa.
The network recently launched a website featuring extracts from the publications of its seven members. This website aims at informing readers and followers of the most important coverage and investigative pieces on Syrian affairs.
How Syrians Evaluate the Experience of Enab Baladi
Enab Baladi’s reporters conducted a survey among a group of Syrian intellectuals and activists in four key provinces. The survey focused on the organization’s performance, which has entered its sixth year. Most of those surveyed were of the view that the newspaper had witnessed a remarkable development and expansion, making it one of the most important institutions among new Syrian media outlets.
Rif Dimashq (Damascus’ Countryside)
Adnan Taha, an administrator in the Douma Local Council, considers that the newspaper has covered all developments on the ground and civic events in eastern al-Ghouta throughout the past five years.
However, Thaer Hijazi, a media and human rights activist, reproached Enab Baladi for covering most events without specializing in a certain field, such as human rights or women’s issues.
For his part, the journalist Omar Zaree gave a positive assessment of the newspaper but stated that “some of its topics focus on the positive aspects of the Syrian revolution and turn a blind eye to the negative ones whereas the function of the media is to highlight the negative aspects in order to revise our approach.”
Jalal Tallawi, a correspondent for the “Smart” news agency in Homs, considers that Enab Baladi is carrying out its work consistently and has an audience in Syria, as it reports news “with respect and honesty” through its field correspondents. This is also the view of Jihad Idris, a member of the local coordinating committees in al-Waer, who says that the newspaper “accurately covers most of areas of Syria and addresses important topics in depth”.
For his part, Radwan al-Hindi, a correspondent for Sham News Network, spoke about a problem faced by the newspaper in terms of its distribution. “Most people inside Syria and in besieged areas are not aware of its coverage because of the lack of technical means of accessing it. People here cannot afford to access the electronic issue as it is difficult to get access to the internet. This is the case in our region, where we do not have the printed version. Enab Baladi should work on addressing this problem.”
Human rights and civic activist, Abdul Aziz Dalati, sees that the newspaper raises useful topics and has a talented staff. He also considers that Enab Baladi is “neutral and professional”, an opinion shared by the Syria Mubasher correspondent, Mohammed al-Hamid. Al-Hamid explained that the “newspaper was able to transmit the reality on the ground and helped to create public opinion and a very accurate image of what’s happening in Syria.”
The journalist Alaa al-Abdullah, head of the Syrian Press Center office in Idlib, is of the view that Enab Baladi is working in an institutionalized way and was able to achieve a “high status as it is now followed by a large section of Syrian society” through the ability to write “outstanding” articles accessible to intellectuals and ordinary citizens. Al-Abdullah also noted the need for an “institutional and academic group” in which Enab Baladi would be a founding member.
Enab Baladi’s correspondent headed to the office of “Hibr” newspaper in Idlib City and spoke to Ahmad al-Absi, editor-in-chief of the newspaper. “What has distinguished Enab Baladi is that it has been a pioneer in the journalistic field since 2011, and what distinguishes it today is the participatory platforms that it was able to develop through alternative media. This made its work more professional, brought points of view closer together and managed to steer firmly towards professionalism.”
Ghassan Hanu, an administrator in “Hibr”, said that he has been following the newspaper for three years but criticized it saying, “I criticized it when it supported the French newspaper ‘Charlie Hebdo’ when it was attacked. We also criticize it for stopping its printed version – it should remain printed and close to the reader and the Syrian street.”
For his part, Ahmed Jaalook, who oversees editing at “Hibr”, says that Enab Baladi has been a pioneer in reporting news on the ground and it has a particular strength in drafting its headlines in a way that is “carefully studied”. However, he says that its main drawback is the lack of offices on the ground, its offices being limited to Turkey.
Northern Countryside of Aleppo
The survey respondents in Aleppo’s northern countryside all agreed on the positive role of the newspaper in covering internal Syrian affairs. This is what Majdi Allouch, head of a division in the “Free Police”, explained, saying that the newspaper “reported the sufferings of citizens and what is happening in Syria in a good way”. Jumu’a al-Tamre, director of Sanabel relief association, noted that the newspaper focused on the suffering of people, “especially those displaced”.
Abdul Qader Mohammed, a correspondent for Baladi Network, said that the work of the newspaper in the last five years was “good because it reported people’s suffering and highlighted the situation in the camps and the living conditions there.” This is also what the relief activist, Hisham Bakoor, who says that Enab Baladi’s most effective contribution is its focus on the humanitarian situation.
During the past five years, Enab Baladi has developed a set of statutes and internal regulations as well as setting editorial and administrative policies based on the experience of its cadres and the obstacles they faced. Moreover, it is working continuingly on spreading these policies through its networks and in communities where it operates, and sharing them with institutions and individuals.
Enab Baladi also regularly analyzes and monitors the public’s areas of interest and those of its followers. This aims at developing its reach to wider circles and meeting their expectations, as well as achieving a standard of journalism that befits Syrians.
Professionalism and Professionals
Those who experienced the establishment of a new Syrian media from scratch in the context of the al-Assad regime’s siege on all Syrians, and on journalists and the media in particular, can understand why alternative media initiatives have made several mistakes. Meanwhile, professionals were monitoring the new media and confirming to each other in their private gatherings what they think is an absolute truth – that the new Syrian media can only succeed at the hands of professionals.
While some new media initiatives were trying to avoid the pitfalls of the media scene and to reinforce the enthusiasm of its editors through training workshops offered by sponsors, some media professionals were trying to start afresh. They have been trying, for the last few years, to make the new media more mature in its production and more aware of the principles of journalistic work.
The ambiguous relationship between media professionals and the majority of the new “alternative media” organizations has always been questionable in the eyes of those who follow this domain. Some analyzed this relationship as a confrontation between the two sides while, logically, the relationship should become the very opposite of a confrontation!
Throughout the last period, Enab Baladi was no exception to this ambiguous relationship with media professionals, as its team insisted that it was able to develop itself without media professionals and that the team could achieve professionalism through teaching themselves and relying on training opportunities.
Some will measure success through what can be achieved in terms of content such as features, investigations, reports and news, and those will be of the view that the audience is important when news is recycled and published on social media networks, such as telegram and others. But will this save alternative media journalists from the problematic relationship with media professionals? In effect, the problem is the lack of belief in the possibility of benefitting from the latter. This is not a problem for Enab Baladi alone. It is a problem for many other newspapers. It is not only a problem for alternative media, but also a problem for professionals as they are still imprisoned by the stereotypes that they formed of alternative media. Thus, the onus to address this issue lies on both sides. As long as they are content with underestimating the value of what has been achieved during the past few years in terms of media initiatives and refusing to contribute or be part of it.
As a newspaper, Enab Baladi should take a step forward, in order to develop its position in the Syrian press landscape. This will not be done through hiding behind what has already been achieved but rather through being open to a different type of professionalism and taking the initiative to open its doors to more Syrian writers. This also requires moving towards broader news content and away from rehashing the same material and towards exclusive content in order to make the paper’s pages more attractive and closer to respected models among the Arab press.