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Berlin NGO smuggles pirate radio into Syria

Jörg Luyken · 23 Oct 2015, 12:32

Published: 22 Oct 2015 17:48 GMT+02:00
Updated: 23 Oct 2015 12:32 GMT+02:00

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Phillip Hochleichter passes me a black box about thirty centimeters in length and twenty wide. It is smooth and light with a corrugated surface. To a technophobe such as myself it could easily be mistaken for a digital radio or a home entertainment device.

But it's something much more significant.

Media in Cooperation and Transition (MiCT), a non-profit that encourages media development in war torn countries, has developed the device to covertly transmit their network of independent radio stations throughout Syria.

Hochleichter, who is head of MiCT's Syria project, explains that in a country where modern technologies are systematically shut down, stepping back to analogue transmission is surprisingly effective.

"If the regime [of Syrian President Bashar Assad] lose control over an area the first thing they do is shut down electricity, the internet, 3G and phone networks" making modern technologies unreliable tools for independent journalism.

But analogue radio is immune to these measures. "It is a passive technology. You only need a receiver, you don't need any other technology.“

"We realized many people still carry radios in their pockets – if you don't have an Apple or one of these modern devices your phone has a receiver,“ says Hochleichter.

So half the the infrastructure was already there waiting to be made use of. The tricky part was getting the signal out there.

Radio without masts

In peaceful countries radio is transmitted through large masts which send radio waves over hundreds of kilometers. But in Syria this often isn't an option. The Assad government in Damascus stamps out independent voices, and even in rebel areas it's often hard.

Local rebel governments love bureaucracy, Hochleichter laments. "They're always coming up with regulations making it almost impossible to get a licence [to set up a transceiver].“

That's where the little black boxes come in.

When hooked up to a satellite dish they receive a signal from MiCT's SyrNet – a network of nine radio stations broadcast from Turkey and Aleppo – and transmit it over five or six kilometers.

Ideally people should set up the transceiver in an abandoned building, Hochleiter explains.

"The idea was to develop a system that, once installed, was autonomous.

"You bring the device to some place, hook it up to a dish, install an antenna, put two solar panels on the roof and connect them to a car battery. Then you switch the system on and you never have to come back.“

If the government were to track it down, which is not too difficult with analogue technology, they wouldn't have anyone to pin the blame on.

So far ten of the boxes have been brought into the country, with ten more on the way.

At the moment two of these are headed incognito for Damascus where just one could provide pirate radio for a quarter of the city, Hochleiter estimates.

Along with four larger transceivers they now have in operation, the NGO reckon they could currently be reaching around 1.5 million Syrians.

Not just politics

So what can Syrians expect to hear when they tune into SyrNet?

For a start, it's not all politics.

"The first thing you'll probably hear is good music, Syrian people like to hear local music, not international music. When I tune in I always hear good music,“ says Klaas Glenewinkel, director of MiCT.

But there is also a public service aspect to it, he adds.

"We want to help give people in Syria information about security and health issues - for example where they can access hospitals.“

They also have a programme to bring together different political factions, and have established a show that is produced by both Arabs and Kurds.

For Mirwat Adwan, a Syrian who edits the radio shows from Berlin, what is exciting about SyrNet is that it is questioning taboos. One show has looked at the problems with compulsory military service, while another discusses homosexuality.

But she concedes that getting the journalists who work for them to shift their mentality from being activists to producing balanced journalism has been something of a challenge.

"Most of them didn't have any idea how to make a radio programme. We are trying to shift them from being activists to being journalists. To give balance and to meet out standards,“ she says.

Long-term, the NGO also see their work as detaching the journalists from their office in Berlin.

They describe themselves as an incubator, which teaches journalists everything from handling militia checkpoints to how to create a catchy jingle.

"Hopefully one day they won't need us anymore,“ says Glenewinkel. The sentiment fits - autonomous local journalism, powered by autonomous local transceivers.

For more news from Germany, join us on Facebook and Twitter.

Jörg Luyken (joerg.luyken@thelocal.com)

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