Radio free Syria

From an office in Mitte, six Berliners are working tirelessly to support the opposition in Syria via a chain of 11 dissident radio stations. We followed them for a day on the air.

Image for Radio free Syria
Syrnet social media editor Majid al-Bunni at work. Photo by Francesca Torricelli

A day on the air at the Mitte-based Syrnet dissident radio network.

In March 2014, as ISIS troups moved swiftly into Syria, crossing the Iraq border along a major corridor, they took over a slice of territory that included a military base north east of Aleppo which housed a one-kilowatt transmitter for the radio network Syrnet.

“We had to shut it down immediately,” says Philipp Hochleichter. “Imagine if terrorists used German taxpayer money to broadcast!”

Hochleichter is responsible for the technical infrastructure of Syrnet – a chain of 11 radio stations based in Syria and Turkey but run from Berlin under the auspices of the German foreign office. It is part of Media in Cooperation and Transition (MiCT), an NGO that also operates media projects in Afghanistan, Iraq and Mali, all from the same office at Brunnenstraße 9.

Syrnet’s six-person team occupies two spacious rooms, filled with transmitters, maps, laptops and glasses of mate tea. The wall displays the time in both Syria and Berlin. Programmes are broadcast every hour, 18 hours a day.

“It’s 14:00 in Berlin, so now radio Rozana is broadcasting news about Hezbollah,” says Yesser Afghani, a native of Damascus who has worked at MiCT since 2014, one of four editors at the Berlin headquarters. His colleague Ghatfan Mahmud, a 35-year-old who moved here after studying philosophy and working as a translator in Damascus, is on the phone with the manager of Welat, a station based in northern Syria that broadcasts social and political news focusing on the Kurdish territory. They want to organise a training course for the radio team in Iraqi Kurdistan.

“We’ll bring the Welat radio team to Erbil in Iraq. It is the only way to train the journalists, because they cannot go to Turkey,” explains Afghani. The station has “very big potential,” he says, “but it’s trapped between ISIS, Turkey and Iraq.”

One of Syrnet’s main goals is to support and shape independent media in Syria by coaching local opposition journalists, most of whom are activists, to improve the quality of their news production. “It is a fact that the radio stations are all against the regime,” says Afghani. “It is our job to show the reporters how to be as objective as possible. They receive training on radio techniques, moderation, breathing, voicing and producing.” The Berlin editors also supervise content and production to avoid the use of “aggressive language”.

On the other side of the desk from Afghani, social media editor Majid al-Bunni, 27, in Berlin on an asylum visa, receives a report on diabetes and emergency treatment. The broadcast is from Nasaem Syria, a radio station based in Gaziantep, Turkey and funded by a student in Aleppo. “I upload the radio piece with the title and author. Then it goes into the Syrnet app and onto Soundcloud.”

Al-Bunni is the only editor who calls himself an activist, but draws a line between activism and journalism. “If the opposition commits crimes or makes mistakes, we’ll tell them. For example, if they cut the water supply to villages or stop providing food, we immediately say that is not the way.”

His colleagues – Mahmud, Afghani and Mirvat Adwan, Syrnet’s only female editor – have been in Berlin for longer and weren’t actually in Syria at the time of the anti-Assad uprising. Adwan joined MiCT in 2007 and previously worked for a website focused on women’s rights in Syria.

“We don’t know if we are banned by the regime, and we don’t know if the regime knows we are involved in this project,” she says. “This is a chance to do something for Syria, from here.”