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European Pirate Radio Network Broadcasts Alternative To Syria's State Media


Syria is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists, according to Reporters Without Borders. Still, independently produced, local and other news important to Syrian's is starting to thrive, thanks to a team of Germans and Syrians running a pirate radio network from the heart of Europe. Esme Nicholson has the story.


ESME NICHOLSON, BYLINE: This is Syria Radio Network, or SYRNET for short. It broadcasts news and shows from nine Syrian pirate radio stations, most with studios in neighboring Turkey.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: (Foreign language spoken).

NICHOLSON: They all have reporters on the ground, but because of the bloody civil war in Syria, they have problems getting their dispatches to the Syrian people. Najat Abdulhaq is from the German NGO Media in Cooperation and Transition.

NAJAT ABDULHAQ: They have the day-to-day local services, like which borders are open? What is the exchange rate of the Syrian lira? What is the price of diesel? And - or if the schools are open.

NICHOLSON: While the network is opposed to the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and so-called Islamic State or ISIS, Abdulhaq says SYRNET strives to produce accurate and balanced reporting. The Berlin NGO says it only works with members of moderate opposition groups.

ABDULHAQ: There's always the debate about what is news and what is propaganda. And we really work on them to avoid to have any broadcasts to encourage violence or to encourage any bloody actions.

NICHOLSON: But without this German NGO, SYRNET's reporting wouldn't reach Syria at all. Frequent electricity cuts and erratic Internet connections make online broadcasting difficult. So the group's engineers in Berlin have resorted to using old-school, analog technology.

PHILIPP HOCHLEICHTER: Satellite and FM radio are very robust, analog and passive technologies - right? You do not need to have a good working Internet. You basically need to have a radio.

NICHOLSON: Philipp Hochleichter heads up the technical side of SYRNET. He says that most people in Syria have access to a radio, whether it's a transistor radio, a car radio or even the FM receiver inside a cell phone. To reach their listeners the old-fashioned way, SYRNET needed FM transmission towers. And they've managed to gain access to five of them inside Syria's rebel-held areas. But these large towers are difficult to maintain in a war zone, so SYRNET invented Pocket FM.

HOCHLEICHTER: This is the current version of Pocket FM, the - version two.

NICHOLSON: The device Hochleichter is holding looks a lot like a kitchen radio. But it doesn't receive signals, it sends them. Pocket FM is a micro-transmitter with a radius of about four miles. It downloads SYRNET's online broadcast from a satellite and rebroadcasts it as an FM radio signal. So far, nine of these pocket transmitters have been smuggled into Syria. Easy to set up, they run on solar power and require no maintenance. The oldest has now been up and running for 10 months.


UNIDENTIFIED ARTIST: (Singing in foreign language).

NICHOLSON: Pocket FM even searches for a new frequency should the Assad regime jam SYRNET which, according to Najat Abdulhaq, it frequently does. She says they are offering many Syrians their first chance to hear an independent voice.

ABDULHAQ: This country had at least 40 years of one TV station and one radio station, which is the state radio station and which broadcast the thing government or the system is interested to broadcast.

NICHOLSON: Abdulhaq estimates that thanks to Pocket FM, roughly 3 million Syrians can tune into something different. For NPR News, I'm Esme Nicholson, in Berlin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Esme Nicholson
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