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Opposition TV Channel Launches, Then Goes Dark

Syria Media Report, 29-Aug-08
Syria’s first opposition television station has gone off the air after only nine days.

New Syria TV –the first attempt by the Syrian opposition to launch a television station – began broadcasting on August 17 but stopped being transmitted on the evening of August 26.

The channel, broadcast via satellite from Brussels, is backed by the opposition National Salvation Front, which is led by former Syrian vice-president Abdel Halim Khaddam, a powerful opposition figure who split from the regime in 2005.

Bashar Elsbei, the head of New Syria TV’s Washington office, said that while the problem might have been caused by a technical glitch, the National Salvation Front suspects the Syrian authorities were responsible for the blackout.

Technicians had not yet determined why the signal was not working, said Elsbei, although he was optimistic the station would be broadcasting again by next week.

New Syria TV is broadcast through EuroSat’s Hotbird network, which is available in Syria and much of the Middle East. The party had hoped that it could use satellite technology to beam opposition views into Syria, where the government maintains a strong grip on the media.

The front alerted Syrians to the channel by sending out thousands of text messages on August 16, the day before the station launched.

During its short time on the air, the station broadcast six hours a day of news, talk shows, documentaries, as well as soap operas which Khaddam’s now-defunct media company produced in Syria.

Khaddam opened the channel with a short speech in which he spoke of corruption, repression and Kurdish rights, and said the station was "for all Syrians”.

The channel’s programming last week included discussions about corruption, the country’s economic hardships and human rights concerns at the Saidnaya military prison in Damascus.

The front said the channel was funded by private Syrian businessmen.

The National Salvation Front raised eyebrows when it decided to open a Washington office and meet Arab, European and United States government officials in 2006.

The Syrian government dismisses opposition movements that have ties with other governments or international groups.

Inside Syria, the channel was not widely watched initially, although it caught the attention of opposition figures and intellectuals.

“The media plays a big role these days,” said one opposition journalist in Damascus. “It’s important for people to know what’s going on – to make them see and listen to others who are critical of and opposed to the situation [inside Syria]. That will encourage them to break the silence.”

Many Syrians were unaware that New Syria TV was opposition-backed, as the message sent via SMS only said that a new channel was launching, said the journalist. But many of those who received the message have not watched the channel because it is available only through Hotbird, which some Syrians refuse to subscribe to because the network also carries pornographic channels.

Elsbei said the front decided not to place the channel on one of the popular Arabic networks so that other countries in the region would not have problems with the Syrian government.

The National Salvation Front, he said, is engaged in a “peaceful battle against the regime”.

Viewers noticed technical difficulties prior to the station going off air. Critics said that if the station was able to resume broadcasts, it would need to increase its technical capacity and also build credibility to show it was not the mouthpiece of a former high-level Syrian official.

“Most people, even from the opposition, don’t like the National Salvation Front because of its affiliation with Khaddam, a long-term regime figure,” said one opposition activist from the countryside around Damascus. “That will probably affect their view of the channel.”

New Syria TV’s programming included a feature on the imprisoned leaders of the Damascus Declaration, a major opposition group.

The activist praised the station for this type of programming, noting that “most people don’t know the names of the leaders of the Damascus Declaration… They don’t know the goals of this movement, and they don’t know what the opposition work on or do”.

He said he personally would not be willing to be interviewed by the channel.

“It’s very dangerous right now, and the authorities regard the National Salvation Front as a red line,” he said.

(Syria News Briefing, a weekly news analysis service, draws on information and opinion from a network of IWPR-trained Syrian journalists based in the country.)