On Tuesday artillery shells landed near a hospital in Afrin in northern Syria. It was the latest round of fighting since Turkey launched a major operation in January to attack what it says are terrorists affiliated with the Kurdish People’s Protection units. Despite the momentous events in northern Syria, there has been a lack of on-the-ground reporting.
One of the networks, and the only pan-Arab network that has reported from the conflict, is Alhurra, which is part of the Middle East Broadcasting Networks, or MBN. MBN is an independent, US government and publicly funded organization.
“We wanted to give a voice to the voiceless, so we have been aggressively covering northern Syria and especially the attacks and invasion in Afrin,” says Alberto Fernandez, MBN president. Fernandez is a former US Ambassador to the Republic of Equatorial Guinea and has served as a diplomat to Syria, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates. Appointed in 2017, he wants to steer the channel through major changes.
According to Fernandez, the region has a plethora of Arab media which saturates the environment. “[There are] tons of stations and networks, a lot controlled by regimes or political movements or Islamists. There is very little which is about disparate or independent views that are not regimes or Islamists,” he says.
He wants Alhurra to focus on issues that are underreported. In Afrin, the major players tend to be the local Kurdish YPG, some pro-Syrian regime media and media that is on the Turkish side. Al Jazeera, for instance, is closely aligned with the Turkish government narrative. “Other stations have a pan-Arab point of view which is skeptical or critical of Kurdish aspirations.” This leaves Kurdish civilians and others in Afrin without a voice.
Alhurra’s most recent report was of the destruction of archeology by Turkish air strikes. The beautiful basalt-carved lions at a temple dating back thousands of years were shown in the rubble. Other reports from Afrin the network pioneered was speaking with people taking shelter in caves, and focusing on religious minorities who fear Islamist rebel groups said to be aiding the Turkish operation. One video has 200,000 views on Facebook.
“It is the first time we have had a correspondent in Syria in more than five years. In 2012 our reporter Bashar Fahmi al-Kadumi was kidnapped and disappeared near Aleppo. Alhurra’s broadcasts are in Arabic but their local reporter speaks Kurdish, which has aided Afrin coverage. “It has been great to have him on the ground. It gives us a ground-eye view of the suffering in Afrin and concerns of religious minorities.”
For Fernandez, the coverage also brings back memories of the 1990s when he served in Syria as a US diplomat.
“I went there many times,” he recalls. “It was a beautiful area, a part of the area called the ‘Dead Cities,’ which is a UNESCO World Heritage site and includes hundreds of ancient abandoned cities. You have gray stone and wildflowers and very pleasant bucolic area and people are gentle and farmers.”
It was overwhelmingly Kurdish, he recalls. That was a “honeymoon” period when Bashar Assad’s father was reaching out to the West and discussing peace with Israel in the early 1990s.
In those years, any Kurdish political activity was frowned upon but Abdullah Ocalan, the head of the Kurdistan Workers Party lived in Syria from 1979 to 1998. Turkey sees the PKK as a terrorist organization and accuses the YPG of being part of it. During the operations in Afrin, a Turkish UAV targeted a giant monument to Ocalan in late January.
“We try to report the facts as they happen. It’s a challenge to be factual and accurate in the Middle East,” says Fernandez.
This is the case in Afrin and elsewhere. “In the Arab world and Turkey, covering any part of the region, you have the challenge of regimes and governments that don’t like what you say.”
Given the dearth of reports on Afrin, especially in pan-Arabic media, Alhurra has received a positive response. “As far as I can tell from the pan-Arab media we are the only ones that have a reporter on the ground in Afrin now.”
Reporting from a zone so close to the conflict has many challenges, including communications. Sometimes reporters have had technical issues or resorted to Skype or phone interviews. But Fernandez says they’ll keep up the work despite the difficulties and potential danger.