Hussain Berro is a man well used to drama. This Allepo-based actor and writer loves theatre and it was his inspiration until five years ago when Syria’s Arab Spring reform movement was blown apart by civil war and terrorism.
On September 10 he took the stage in a new role – as a leader of Syria’s beleaguered independent media community at the launch in Istanbul of an Ethical Charter for Syrian Media.
Over the past year he and more than 20 other editors and owners from across all platforms of Syrian media, and supported by the fledgling Syrian Association of Journalists, have been meeting to craft their own ethical charter.
They have a fresh vision of media for Syria, beyond the current chaos, in which journalism rooted in values will play its part in rebuilding the country.
The group elected Berro, editor in chief of Jasmine Syria, a feisty magazine founded by women with a revolutionary and cultural slant, as interim Chairman of the Board.
Their next step is to launch an ethical media association that will promote independent journalism and monitor how media respond to the charter.
They are confident this will be possible, even in the midst of a revolutionary civil war and a cross-border conflict that has divided and destabilized the Middle East.
Berro, himself separated by the conflict from his wife and daughter who are both now in Europe, is convinced that the charter and the nascent organisation behind it can make a difference. Like many others he was inspired by the revolution to take up journalism which had opened the door to free expression during the short-lived Arab Spring. It’s a door that refuses to close despite the war.
“The Arab Spring is finished right now,” says Berro, “and we have to deal with a new reality in 2015. That’s what we are trying to do, to strengthen journalism and starting with the media that have signed up to the charter.”
Nevertheless, it’s a sobering challenge at a time when journalism everywhere is under severe strain. And embedding values in Syria’s devastated media landscape might seem overly ambitious given the scale of violence in which tens of thousands of died, including more than 150 journalists.
“We came together because we all feel media are so important,” says Berro. “We believe it’s essential to build an ethical base in journalism and create a concrete organisation to promote and defend standards.”
The group is a rich mix of the citizen journalism and alternative media voices that emerged since 2010 and 2011 when the Syrian revolution ended more than 40 years of state-control of media.
But they speak with one voice in their call for responsible journalism and a Syrian media space stripped of stereotypes, warmongering and propaganda. Their charter ticks all the boxes to be expected in an ethical code for media and calls for journalists and media to respect the principles of accuracy, independence, fairness, humanity and responsibility.
“This Charter is a living document,” says the launch statement, “…it seeks to be an ethical reference for new Syrian media, promoting freedom of expression through professional and ethical journalism…”
How that will be done is still not clear and the group have asked for the advice from international supporters, including the Ethical Journalism Network, the global coalition of media which working to improve media standards. Meanwhile, they are appealing to all independent media in Syria and those forced to operate out of neighbouring countries to sign up to the charter.
Another member of the group, Ahmad Alahmad, owner and Editor of the Syrian Press Centre, a news agency based in Hama, Syria’s fourth largest city, says his staff have paid a high price for their independent journalism.
“We have been bombed by government forces and I’ve been injured twice,” he says. “Now we have built a bunker underneath the offices where our staff take refuge when we come under attack. But what can we do? We’re accused of being the opposition in Syria but we believe everyone must have their say.”
Leon Willems, Director of Free Press Unlimited, which along with a second media development group, Internews, has backed the initiative with funding from international donors, says the charter is a reaction from independent journalists to decades of harsh media repression.
“This is a brave, challenging and model response,” says Willems. “It’s a group of journalists and dedicated people, many of them new players in media, saying to the entire media community that we need to do better. And this charter is an invitation to join a process that reflects a different spirit for journalism in future.”
But the group don’t fool themselves. Syria will not have a democratic media space anytime soon, and for now the ethical journalism charter provides a rallying point for aspiring journalists.
But when the smoke clears and there is talk of peace it may also provide a starting point for discussion of a pluralist and self-regulating media landscape in Syria. Certainly Berro and his colleagues hope that in years to come Syrian journalism will emerge stronger thanks to this modest effort.
He dreams of going home with his family to a country with a democratic future, but perhaps not to journalism. “Truth be told, I want to go back to the theatre. That’s my real passion,” he says.