The Syrian civil war has continued over a decade, killing hundreds of thousands of Syrians and displacing millions. Throughout the complex conflict, Syrian citizen journalists have risked their lives to provide timely, objective coverage of the war, as well as other issues important to Syrians. This year, independent media outlet Enab Baladi—a partner of the National Endowment for Democracy celebrates 10 years of reporting on the ground in Syria despite significant challenges.
Inspired by the 2011 pro-democracy demonstrations, a group of activists in the Damascus suburb of Daraya founded a local newspaper to fill gaps in coverage left by the country’s tightly controlled state-owned media outlets. They named the newspaper Enab Baladi, which means “grapes of my country,” a reference to the grapevines that were once grown throughout Daraya. Although most of the group had little experience with journalism, they printed their first edition in January 2012 and distributed the newspapers by tossing them over garden walls around the city.
“Enab Baladi was just a rudimentary leaflet documenting the abuses of Syrian security forces against dissidents and reporting on news that the state media tried to hide from Syrians,” said Jawad Sharbaji, Enab Baladi editor in chief. “It was an attempt to convey real images from the street and to make people’s voices heard and later evolved into an organized media outlet that operated according to professional rules and regulations.”
Ever since the first issue, Enab Baladi’s newspaper has been printed weekly, now reaching over a million copies and over 550 issues. The journalists only stopped publishing for two weeks in 2012 when the organization’s offices were destroyed following a massacre of civilians by pro-regime security forces in Daraya. Due to the increasing difficulty of distributing the physical newspaper in conflict areas, Enab Baladi also launched websites in Arabic and English to reach wider audiences.
The team at Enab Baladi has faced many challenges due to the ongoing conflict. Four of Enab Baladi’s founders have been killed since 2011—three in bombings, and one after years in prison. Their pictures appear on the masthead of every issue in tribute. The organization’s staff has also had to relocate multiple times, with many eventually leaving Syria due to security concerns. Undeterred by these challenges, the organization has continued to grow, expanding to cover more areas of the country and adding a website, a video channel, a Syrian news archive, and a podcast.
“After the fall of the city and all its suburbs to the security forces and the army, the team was forced to go out to different places inside and outside the country,” said Sharbaji. “Then the founders began to develop a new business model to ensure the sustainability of the newspaper. Now Enab Baladi is spreading more widely and more quickly and has become one of the most popular Syrian media outlets.”
Since its launch, Enab Baladi has remained staunchly independent and committed to providing objective and reliable coverage, a rarity in the country’s highly polarized conflict.
“Despite the deterioration of freedoms within Syria, continued conflict, and staff members’ relocation, Enab Baladi has built a reputable cadre of editors and reporters, growing from a small group of amateur citizen journalists into one of the most trusted Syrian news outlets,” said Karen Farrell, deputy director for Middle East and Northern Africa at NED. “They are building a foundation for freedom of expression and trustworthy independent media that is critical for the country’s future.”
Gaining the trust of a wide segment of Syrians and publishing continuously over the last ten years are important achievements for Enab Baladi. In the future, Enab Baladi will continue to address the complex issues that matter to Syrians, whether they are in areas controlled by the regime, the opposition, or have left the country as refugees. The organization is also committed to improving the professionalism and quality of Syrian media as a whole, offering training and professional development for young journalists and activists.
“Independent media is important all the time, because it owes its loyalty to the public and works for it and is keen to convey news and information without bias, falsification or favoritism to any party,” said Sharbaji. “It is even more important in the current circumstances in Syria, because of the polarization that the country has been living in for ten years. Political stakeholders have launched or supported media that divide Syrians, and increase social rifts between them, sometimes through inflammatory media messages or through misleading narratives.”