In a country suffocated for decades by state censorship and media control, dozens of independent grassroots newspapers and websites have emerged since the outbreak of the Syrian revolt last year.
Most of these pro-revolution outlets operate in a shroud of secrecy, their contributors using pseudonyms for fear of regime persecution.
But their content is widely read by Syrians hungry for local censorship-free coverage, both inside and outside the country.
Suryitna (Our Syria), Oxygen, Hurriyat (Freedoms) and Enab Baladi (Local Grapes) are just a few newspapers set up by opponents of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, which met the uprising that began in March 2011 with brutal repression.
“When we set up Suryitna in September last year, I felt that many peaceful, civil society initiatives were not getting proper coverage,” the independent publication’s chief editor Jawad Abul Muna told AFP.
Most of the “papers” are online, but some activists also print and distribute hard copies in their areas.
“We were so surprised when we found out that hundreds of copies of our paper are being printed in the (central) city of Homs,” some 40 percent of which is in rebel hands, he added.
“As young Syrians, we wanted to participate and support the revolution in any way we could,” said Abul Muna. “The newspaper is a result of our joint effort.”
Like most Syria-based dissidents, Abul Muna uses a pseudonym.
In a state with an Orwellian track record of censorship and persecuting journalists who dare break the rules, dissidents who have spoken out and been caught have paid a high price, said Abul Muna.
“Anyone suspected of contributing to publications like ours gets jailed,” he told AFP. “Many people have sought refuge outside Syria to avoid that fate.”
Last week, international media freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) warned of the perils facing media workers in the “Bermuda Triangle” of the Syrian conflict, pointing a finger at both the regime and rebels.
“We also want to document the history of the past 40 years, which has been blacked out throughout its entirety under (Assad’s) Baath party,” said Abul Muna.
While most readers access Syria’s new publications online, some are printed and handed out. Distribution is carried out secretly in regime-held areas, and openly in what the opposition refers to as “liberated” zones.
The citizen journalists also face a more mundane obstacle, and that is the lack of funding, said Abul Muna.
“What really worries me is the extent to which our outlets will manage to keep participating in the process of change as time goes on, especially after the fall of the regime,” he added.
Free expression is self-defense
The citizen journalists behind some of the most popular grassroots projects make no bones about their lack of experience, but take pride in their exercise of free expression.
According to Enab Baladi’s “About Us” section, the online paper is “a space to allow for totally free thought.”
It is published weekly from Daraya, a town southwest of Damascus where more than 500 people were massacred in August, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The regime and the rebel Free Syrian Army exchanged blame for the killings, though Daraya has been a hotbed of sympathy for the revolt from early on in the uprising.
Four weeks after the horrific massacre became “old news” for much of the rest of the world, the paper’s editorial focused on the need to start rebuilding, and on helping the families of victims to overcome their loss.
“We are witnesses to our history, and we are part of the society that is going through this revolution,” said Enab Baladi’s volunteer chief editor, who identified himself as “Natur.”
“We feel we have a responsibility to speak out and document what is happening around us,” he told AFP via the Internet.
Asked why he thought so many free media initiatives have sprouted in such a short space of time, Natur said: “Free expression is a form of self-defense, a way to resist violence. And after so much violence, we are not afraid any more.”
Natur is open to criticism of Enab Baladi and looks forward to the day that peace will return to Syria, so he and his team of 25 volunteers can move on to running a professional paper.
“Our goal is to run an objective paper that is open to every Syrian’s views,” he said. “Right now, while we’re being shelled, it’s a little hard not to take sides.”