x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

A rare window on Syria's deadly world

The opposition TV station Syria alShaab faces daily threats to its staff and contributors - and counts politics, not profits as top of its agenda.

Summer Ajlouni, the co-owner of Syria Alshaab, says 'if you don't show people exactly what is happening, then you will not move their emotions'. Salah Malkawi for The National
Summer Ajlouni, the co-owner of Syria Alshaab, says 'if you don't show people exactly what is happening, then you will not move their emotions'. Salah Malkawi for The National
The uprising in Syria has led forces sympathetic to the government to commit atrocities against ordinary men, women and children. And one not-for-profit TV station is at the vanguard of showing what is really happening on the ground in the war-torn country, writes Ben Flanagan
Politics comes before profits for a handful of television news stations that launched in the wake of the Arab Spring.
One of them is the Syrian opposition channel Syria Alshaab, which first hit the airwaves in July last year. It faces daily threats from those loyal to Bashar Al Assad, the Syrian president, the station's owners say.
"We're there to serve the revolution, and show exactly what is happening," says Summer Ajlouni, 26, the co-owner of the station, who is based in Jordan. "There's not really much objectivity going on in Syria. What they're doing is not human ... [The Syrian] people are not asking for much - they are only asking for democracy and freedom."
Syria Alshaab was launched by Ms Ajlouni's father, Mohammad, and she says the station is constantly at risk from those loyal to president Al Assad. She declines to disclose the location of its studios for fear of reprisals, saying contributors to the channel have been killed. "We are threatened every day," she adds.
The Ajlouni family is also behind ABS, a provider of television services with 14 locations around the world. Ms Ajlouni says while ABS is a commercial business, Syria Alshaab is not and she says her family has spent more than US$1 million (Dh3.6m) supporting the venture. Here, she talks about the station and its challenges.
qSo why did you launch the Syria Alshaab channel?
aWhen the revolution first started in March of last year, not a lot of people were saying much about it. People were afraid and worried. And people were getting killed, women were being raped and children were being tortured. It's been going on for well over a year now and just as many people, if not more, are dying every day.
What challenges does the station face?
Our presenters [with] families within Syria have been threatened. If they go back on air, their families will be killed and homes burnt down. One of our volunteers at the channel had two of his brothers killed; people that we have from within Syria [have been] killed because they work with us.
You do not reveal where Syria Alshaab is based. Why is that?
For security reasons. If we do state where we are based, we are worried that the Assad regime would try and find us and do something.
Do you have people on the ground in Syria?
Since we launched the channel we have been in contact with the Syrians and the Free Syrian Army. We have so many contacts with so many people, it's amazing. They come to us, we don't have to go to them any more. But you can't really send your staff to Syria, [the authorities] don't let anyone in.
Give some of the examples of the footage you have aired.
We have had people announce their defection to the Free Syrian Army on our channel. We have had exclusive footage and videos of people being shot, killed, and tortured. We have shown children that have been killed by the bombings, even being tortured. The things that you see … I wouldn't even know where to start.
So you don't hold back in terms of showing graphic content?
Not at all. It's a double-edged sword: if you show all that graphic content, sometimes people would not want to watch your channel because it's so graphic. But at the same time, if you don't show people exactly what is happening, then you will not move their emotions. They have to see. And maybe someone will be able to do something about it.
How is Syria Alshaab supported financially?
We do not run commercials on it. It's completely funded and supported by my father. We get nothing else in return.
Do you see it becoming a more mainstream channel in the future?
We're ready and we have our staff ready to go if - and hopefully when - the Assad regime falls. But we plan on continuing the channel as it is, or maybe giving it to the Syrians as a gift. This is the one and only thing we have done for a cause. We've had a lot of people call us and say they want to buy the channel, but that's not our purpose. We're not trying to gain a dollar or two, we're trying to serve a cause.