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Adib Abdulmajid: Building Free Media in War Torn Iraq & Syria

Adib Abdulmajid is a Syrian Kurdish journalist, researcher and analyst. Graduated from Liberal Arts in Damascus and mastered in Management of Cultural Diversity in Tilburg, Abdulmajid is the founder and chief editor of ARA News agency that covers ongoing developments in war-torn areas across Syria and the Middle-East.

He graciously agreed to speak with Clarion Project Dialogue Coordinator Elliot Friedland about the struggles of operating an impartial news service in one of the most dangerous places in the world.

 

Clarion Project: Why did you found ARA News?

Adib Abdulmajid: Providing information about war-torn Syria starts as activism, but if ARA News hadn’t improved its capacity to reach a professional level it wouldn't have reached over 700,000 visitors per month who mostly seek a reliable source of information that reports on poorly covered areas in Syria and the region.

I believe that professional media constitutes a main building block of a healthy society and contributes to the welfare of the people in any country. We have suffered a lot of misinformation in this region, where freedom of expression has been suppressed for decades and people have been obliged to follow the totalitarian media machine run by the authorities that have always tried to enforce and consolidate ignorance among the public.

We, as journalists, are trying to build something valuable for the future of Syria despite the ongoing devastating war.

 

 

Clarion: According to your website, ARA News "regards itself as a genuine participant in the transitional phase in the region from total­i­tar­i­an­ism towards freedom of expression and democracy."

Can you explain what you mean by that?

Abdulmajid: ARA News is trying to take a step forward towards free media in this region. I believe when the media is given the chance to operate according to professional and ethical principles and when people are accurately and sufficiently informed, there is less room for corruption and tyranny in the society. 

At the Syrian level, ARA News has an intensive coverage in Rojava (Syria's Kurdish region) where a large number of our reporters are based, besides publishing relevant stories about the happenings in other hot zones across Syria. Our agency was established with a vision to make a difference regarding media in Syria after decades of totalitarianism where the only available media outlets were clearly politicized – working for the ruling Baath party and the Assad regime. The Kurdish region was excluded and marginalized completely from Syria's national media coverage.

For the emerging organizations in Syria, reporting on the Kurds remains a challenge due to the scarcity of exclusive sources there whereas ARA News' team of reporters are aware of the demography and the backgrounds of the ongoing happenings besides our wide range of local sources, which facilitates delivering accurate information to the audience.

Furthermore, ARA News operates independently without any involvement from political parties. The agency takes the same distance from all parties to conflict in Syria.

That's what explains the willingness of all different parties to give their views to our reporters with confidence that their perspectives and statements will appear on an independent news site. We have published interviews with rebel leaders, Assad regime officials, Kurdish leaders from rival parties, Islamist figures, etc. Most of the new Syrian media outlets that emerged after 2011 have a certain discourse which is apparent in the way their stylebook and editorial policy, while we at ARA News believe in the right of all people to have information as a row material so that they can make their own minds without any intervention from our agency.

This is how the ARA News team believes they're making a difference in the media scene in Syria and the region. 

More than one reporter contributes to every news story or report. Several informants and local sources are used to get as much information as possible on the topic.

We have a clear division of tasks within the editorial board:

  • An editor produces the first draft,
  • which is then checked for accuracy by another line editor
  • before being reviewed by the managing editor
  • and finally approved by the editor-in-chief before going online.

So each article goes through a systematic procedure where accuracy of information is questioned and different sources are cross-checked to verify the content. In case a report needs extra information or explanations the reporters and informants become a part of the discussion, until the story is modified and edited into a more accurate version. Also, references from involved parties on the ground are used and officials are cited to maintain the credibility of the news item of in-depth report as much as possible.

ARA News has a stylebook and an editorial policy that determine the teams' professional behavior and the quality of the production.

The agency also has a monitoring committee that follows the daily workflow and makes sure of the content's quality in terms of commitment to the basic principles of journalism (objectivity, balance, protection of sources, and impartiality among others) and the ethical charter.

With such a strict system the published material is closely controlled and the risk of inaccuracy is minimized. 

We believe that delivering accurate information on the daily incidents, supported with sufficient background information and balanced statements from parties involved provide the audience with an opportunity to better understand the developments taking place across this war-torn region. 

 

Clarion: Where does ARA News get its support from?

Abdulmajid: I have launched this news agency together with a number of colleagues with fully voluntary effort. Currently we receive support from Free Press Unlimited (a Dutch organization supporting independent media in conflict regions) which covers our financial needs including the compensations of the whole team and logistic expenses for the daily operations.

Yet the passion remains and hopefully the agency's work won't be interrupted for financial reasons. 

 

Clarion: Maintaining a network of on the ground reporters during wartime, as you are doing, is very difficult. What would you say your biggest obstacles are and how are you overcoming them?

Abdulmajid: As a local news agency, ARA News has the capacity of handling risks to a certain level. In every area we cover we have at least two local reporters, aware of the demography, geography and the groups in control, beside the associated changes (which is an open scenario in a war situation).

Our team of reporters has encountered various kinds of challenges.

One was killed at the hands of the regime's security forces, another one has been in jail for more than two years now, and we have had 5 cases of arrest-release. 

Over years ARA News has been developing and improving its security measures and policy which was apparent in the decrease of such cases (thank God). ARA News' team of reporters operates with a deep belief in the importance of delivering information on daily happenings to the audience worldwide.

The team has shown a high degree of commitment to the basic principles of journalism regardless of all the difficulties they encounter on the local level, and we are very proud of that.

Beside our own reporters, we have a large information network across the region, which helps our editorial board verify information based on different sources. 

In all areas where ARA News operates there are security challenges, but the most dangerous spot for our reporters is the ISIS-held region.

Currently we have a network of 8 reporters in areas held by ISIS across Syria and Iraq.

Due to the high-level risk in places under ISIS control, we work according to very strict security measures. These include what we call "Cell Strategy" where each reporter works under cover, never identifies himself/herself as a journalist/ARA reporter, they don't know each other so that in case one of them is ever captured by ISIS would never be able to provide any information about his/her colleagues, and further such a strategy helps to get one story from more than one reporter (who operate in the same area) and evaluating accuracy of information becomes facilitated.

This is an example of how we adopt a convenient security policy based on the situation in a particular area. 

As an online news service, ARA News provides its readers on its websites (Arabic and English) and followers on social media with a variety of news reports, in-depth articles and video reportages covering hot topics from areas full of daily happenings, including the Kurdish region, Syria, Iraq, Turkey and ISIS territory. The agency adopts an editorial policy designed to meet the needs of online news readers, with not too lengthy texts, yet rich with citations from local sources supported with background information for those not too aware of the complexity of the situation in the region where ARA News operates.

Having access to stranded areas has enabled ARA News over more than three years to provide up-to-date news and report on poorly covered stories. Its strong local network and systematic verification of information through multiple local sources has turned ARA News into a source of information for renowned international media outlets, which reflects the reliability of our news and the strong coverage of relevant stories from rarely accessed areas.  

 

 

Clarion: What is the situation of press freedom like in Kurdish controlled areas of Syria and Iraq? 

Abdulmajid: The Kurdish regions in both Syria and Iraq still lack freedom of expression. Media outlets suffer a certain degree of suppression due to the dominance of political parties that do not accept any kind of criticism.

In Iraq, neither the ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) nor the second powerful party of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) have provided journalists and media outlets with sufficient space of freedom in order to play their normal role within the Kurdish society, as journalists have been repeatedly exposed to arrest and persecution for reporting on particular critical issues.

On the other hand, Syria's Kurdish region has been for years dominated by the Democratic Union Party (PYD), whose security arms have suppressed and arbitrarily arrested journalists working for independent media organizations that basically do not serve the policies and agendas of the ruling party there.

The Kurdish regions are in urgent need for independent, unbiased and professional media outlets that could end decades of misinformation among the people.

We, at ARA News, strive for accomplishing a step forward in the media landscape towards a genuinely professional media independent of any political agendas.

It is a struggle, but we are determined to continue to challenge those constraints. 

 

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