Building Bridges with the Global Media: Lessons from a Syrian Information Center
by Matt Broomfield
When my colleagues and I founded the Rojava Information Center (RIC) in December 2018, Donald Trump had just announced the abortive US pull-out from the Kurdish-led autonomous region of North and East Syria (NES), and a fresh Turkish assault against the region seemed imminent. But a lack of funding, status, professionalism, contacts, objectivity and legitimacy all stood between NES and a fair hearing in the Western press.
NES is better known by the Kurdish name ‘Rojava,’ referring to the majority-Kurdish region of Syria which achieved de facto autonomy from the Syrian regime during the outbreak of the Syrian revolution. The region has won international plaudits for its promotion of direction democracy, inter-community tolerance, and women’s autonomy and rights — most famously in the images broadcast around the world of its all-female Kurdish fighting force, the YPJ. But it has also suffered successive assaults from ISIS, the Syrian regime and the autocratic Erdogan regime in Turkey, killing thousands and displacing hundreds of thousands of locals.
From the ‘R’ in our name onward, RIC has never sought to hide our broad support for the democratic project often referred to as the ‘Rojava Revolution’ — nor our broad opposition to the destruction and chaos wrought by successive Turkish invasions and occupations of NES. Turkey is existentially opposed to any expression of Kurdish autonomy, and more broadly to the values of women’s rights and devolved democracy promoted in NES. As professional journalists and academics, we wanted to act as a corrective to what we saw as unfair media bias towards Turkey Turkish media hegemony, fostering a better standard of discourse, research and reporting on the crisis and political project in NES.
As such, the model RIC developed prioritized objectivity and direct access to sources on the ground. We believed there was both a hunger in the West for clear and objective information about NES, and a moral imperative in connecting Western press and researchers directly with sources on the ground in the autonomous regions.
On both these points, a strong response from our target audience has proven us right. (In the three years since its foundation, RIC has been cited in or supported many thousands of articles, working with all the world’s top media organizations: Al Jazeera, BBC, NYT, Washington Post, Fox News, CNN, NBC, and so on, as well as the UN, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International.)
In this two-part series, I will describe how this dual strategy enabled us to forge successful collaborative partnerships with the international press, before going on to explain how we collaborated with local journalists, activists and media organizations. These tactics have helped RIC to combat interlocking challenges of public burnout, professional skepticism in a ‘post-truth’ environment and orientalist misconceptions of the Syrian conflict. They may be of use to media activists and citizen journalists operating in other crisis zones.
A Qualitative Gulf in Media Coverage
For an example of the approach RIC sought to combat we can examine an AFP wire article heralding Turkey’s previous invasion, earlier in 2018, of the majority-Kurdish Syrian enclave of Afrin — also a part of NES. The invasion was in clear violation of international law and condemned outright by the UN, as Turkish warplanes and Turkey’s Islamist proxy militias drove out the region’s Kurdish and Yezidi populations to replace them with a patchwork of warring Sunni Arab militias. Yet in the space of just five paragraphs, the French news agency quotes the Turkish army, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, and Turkish state-controlled TV station Anadolu, all while referring to the assault via its official (and somewhat ironic) Turkish code name, ‘Operation Olive Branch’.
While the article repeats claims from its Turkish sources uncritically, there is no room for a single word from a Kurd, or any of Afrin’s military or political representatives. Even articles covering UN-attested atrocities by Turkish-backed forces fail to quote a single victim, official or witness from NES, giving space to Turkish officials to push back on the claims while stripping agency from their victims.
Here, pro-Turkish commentators would doubtless protest that the direct-democratic, Kurdish- and women-led political project underway in NES has itself attracted a fair amount of sympathetic coverage. But there is a qualitative difference between orientalizing one-off pieces gushing about the ‘badass Kurdish warrior heroines battling ISIS’ on the one hand, and the consistent, respectful repetition of Turkish state talking-points, readouts from Turkish press releases, and vox-pops with Turkish officials on the other.
There are multiple reasons for this discrepancy.
When we compare Turkey and NES, We are comparing a state and a non-state actor; NATO’s second-largest army in the Turkish Armed Forces and a lightly-armed former militia in NES’ Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF); a vast state-controlled media apparatus backed by a multi-million dollar lobbying drive, and an impoverished, unrecognized authority. For comparison, the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) has an annual budget less than 1% the size of Turkey’s.
It is very easy for journalists to call a pro-Turkey think-tank or official spokesperson, while NES’ spokespeople often do not speak English, and may be slow to answer press requests. During the Afrin war, moreover, Turkey was able to control access to the isolated enclave, meaning less than a dozen Western journalists were able to enter the region to push back against narrative dominance by official Turkish sources. The difference in Western coverage, therefore, is the difference in puff pieces and voyeuristic interest on the one hand; and institutional legitimacy on the other.
Objectivity as Media Strategy
RIC’s objective approach to the Syrian conflict has been crucial in breaking out of this mold. Unlike many elements of the pro-AANES or Kurdish media, RIC also works with reporters and investigators covering abuses and humanitarian issues within AANES-controlled territory, such as the ongoing crisis in Hol Camp. Though Turkey is responsible for the large majority of propaganda and false claims, during Turkey’s 2019 invasion of NES we fact-checked claims made by both sides, for example debunking old footage being circulated as showing fresh Turkish abuses, or urging caution over inflated casualty figures issued by Turkey and NES alike.
Albeit that RIC primarily covers issues like Turkish abuses in its zones of occupation, the ISIS insurgency in NES and the humanitarian crisis and embargo the region faces, we will assist journalists with all serious queries about NES. Journalists’ shock at our willingness to criticize all parties to the Syrian conflict (“I’ve never seen anything like it!”) speaks volumes to the bad-faith nature of the media debate over Syria.
A second key difference between RIC and other human-rights monitors in the region like the well-known Syrian Observatory of Human Rights, is our emphasis on connecting journalists directly with primary sources, rather than the typical model of writing up reports based on information from an anonymous (and, in SOHR’s case, reportedly unreliable) network of contacts. Our sources are named, contactable, and verifiable — indeed, my own role at RIC primarily consisted of sending an endless stream of WhatsApp contacts to hundreds of contacts all over the world.
RIC does not act as an editorial outlet, instead serving as a bridge or conduit to connect journalists with sources on the ground to conduct their own research — regardless of how supportive, critical or indifferent the reporter in question might be of the NES political project. This objective and professional approach has been critical in assuaging any fears journalists may have had over RIC’s legitimacy, and rapidly building the center’s credibility.
In focusing on helping foreign journalists complete their assignments rather than publishing our own news, we of course eschewed the editorial control local news agencies enjoy — a trade-off, but one which meant we were able to establish a much wider-reaching network of contacts as we sought to foster and deepen the quality of pre-existing coverage.
Replicating the RIC Press Model
My colleagues and I have been in contact with media activists working to draw attention to lesser-known conflicts like the ongoing crisis in Sudan’s Nuba Mountains. In the course of these conversations, it was sometimes difficult to see how our model, which depends on an intense if somewhat misguided level of media interest, could be replicated in the context of conflicts which enjoy rather less Western scrutiny.
Nonetheless, we believe our approach could prove of use to media activists and citizen journalists seeking to raise awareness and improve coverage in the white heat of other humanitarian, human rights and political flashpoints. ‘Citizen journalism’ and social media activism has its place, but there is no substitute for building links with international press. This may be a challenge for activists or local journalists frustrated by long-term international indifference or double standards advanced under the guise of western ‘objectivity’, but it remains a strategic necessity.
In a perverse way, the outbreak of war in October 2019 felt like the culmination of RIC’s efforts to build up a structure capable of challenging Turkish media hegemony. We were able to shoot a message to hundreds of press contacts, letting them know we were available to connect them with information, material, and — crucially — RIC ground teams and sources in the cities under attack. RIC fielded hundreds of requests a day and our researchers appeared nightly on Fox News.
But here I think of the Bertolt Brecht poem where he satirizes the general population’s indifference to catastrophe: “first we’re told 50,000 dead/and the next day it turns out: 3700… and still we can’t even/arrange a war like that every year.” The initial, utopian vision of the wave of anti-authoritarian protests known as the ‘Arab Spring’ was bound up with a narrative of social-media activism as inherently egalitarian, with decentralized protests organized via social media and anonymous online activism challenging authoritarian centralization. Both were drowned in blood, as authoritarian rulers reasserted control, and pan-national organizations from the UN to Facebook got in line behind the status quo.
This illustrates the need to combine the front lines, on-the-ground reporting which has characterized media activism during the Arab Spring with a well thought-out media strategy underpinned by a commitment to professional standards of objectivity, accuracy and clarity. To put it another way, the mass media cannot be short-circuited on Twitter: it must be engaged with on its own terms.
Matt Broomfield is one of the co-founders of the Rojava Information Center, the top independent news resource on the ground in North and East Syria. You can follow RIC on Twitter @RojavaIC and follow Matt on @MattBroomfield1.