Connections often break down, power cuts are frequent and no one rings when the host invites listeners to call in, yet the group of Syrian exiles running Istanbul-based Radio Alkul is determined to keep broadcasting “uncensored” news back to those trapped in the country’s brutal civil war.
The station — whose name means “radio for all” in Arabic — started up in April last year in a cramped, ninth-story office in a seedy building in crowded Istanbul.
It now employs 12 people full time, both technicians and journalists, and at least one a former face on state-controlled Syrian TV now working under a fake name.
The group transmits over the Internet via a network of small, secret transmitters deployed in seven regions around Syria — but the war itself rules the timing.
“If there are no bombing raids we can switch on the transmitters,” program director Obai Sukar said. “However, if there is the slightest risk, we tell our people to stop because their lives are more important.”
Local sources in Syria often Skype in reports on the latest bombings and massacres, which have claimed more than 130,000 lives since fighting began in March 2011, according to a tally by the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Radio Alkul journalists wage their own battle against endless technical problems. Take one recent 20-minute broadcast.
Anchorman Mohammed al-Barodi was hooked up via Skype with a correspondent giving a graphic report of aerial bombings by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad against rebels in the northern city of Aleppo. As quickly as they establish contact, the link breaks down.
“This is a real problem,” Sukar said. “We often wait for a phone call, but then nobody calls. Admittedly, it’s not easy, what with all the power cuts and Internet breakdowns in Syria.”
Yet the station has plugged on for eight months, offering a daily four-hour program recorded and stored in Istanbul, then downloaded by its technicians in Syria.
It has about 100,000 people who tune in every day and hopes to go live this month, its founders say.
For some, the technical problems as less daunting than reporting under Syrian state control.
“Inside Syria, we cannot work freely, but when we’re reporting from overseas we can get ourselves heard by besieged Syrians more efficiently,” said journalist Ahmed Zacharya, who worked under state censorship in the central city of Homs before fleeing to Turkey.
Yet even a thousand kilometers from Damascus, the journalists feel they are not working without risk.
“Slava,” the 30-something former presenter for Syrian national television, uses an alias to avoid any reprisals against family members.
“I would never have thought that I could say the truth about the regime and what it does to its people,” she said.
Like other “free” radio stations that have sprung up in Syria’s civil war, Radio Alkul is fiercely opposed to al-Assad’s regime, but it rejects being labeled a “rebel” radio station.
With funding from US and European non-governmental organizations, Alkul is close to Syria’s exiled opposition National Coalition, yet it wears its editorial independence proudly.
“We have nothing to do with them, we have our own editorial freedom,” Sukar said. “When we criticize them, they go crazy.”
Sinan Hatahet, in charge of the National Coalition’s communication department, also defended the station’s independence.
“If the revolution managed to ‘sell itself’ to the world, it’s thanks to the independence of activists who worked with next to nothing from the inside,” Hatahet said. “We need to create free media as an example of the democracy we want for Syria.”