Aleppo TV provides lifeline in wartime

Broadcasting from Turkey, opposition station is vital source for Syrians on both sides of the political divide

Screen shot of the channel from the Internet live stream.
Aleppo TV

GAZIENTEP, Turkey — The scene on TV unfolds quickly, showing a group of boys playing soccer in a street littered with broken concrete, amid apartment buildings scarred by bullet and shell holes. One of the boys accidentally kicks the ball down an alley. Another chases it down. But the ball is right next to a hidden mine. As the boy is just inches from stepping on the detonator, a Syrian opposition fighter scoops him up. An announcer’s voice warns children to beware of mines and unexploded ordnance.

This is one of the messages that the Syrian satellite TV station Aleppo Today airs daily that, along with its news programs and a breaking-news ticker, have made it the most popular network for current residents of Aleppo, refugees who have fled the war-torn city and opposition fighters in Syria’s north.

“You see it in all houses inside Aleppo and outside, and even with refugees,” said a wounded fighter being treated in a Gazientep hospital who called himself Hussein Doshka, 34, from the Aleppo countryside.

On a recent day, wounded Syrian opposition fighters on every floor of the hospital had their TVs tuned to the channel for the latest news from their hometowns.

The 24-hour, opposition-aligned news channel started a few months after the uprising began in Syria in March 2011, in order to cover protests and broadcast news about the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad, back when it was hard to find any independent, non-government-controlled news out of Syria’s largest city.

”It’s an experiment of having a local TV [station] inside Syria, because previously we had only the government’s national TV,” said Aleppo Today’s manager, Khaleel Agha.

The station lets viewers know where fighting has broken out, where snipers are located, which roads are safe and what the constantly fluctuating currency exchange rates are. It also keeps viewers up to date on which border crossings with Turkey are open, and whether they are open to foot traffic only, or also to cars.

One public service announcement recently warned residents to keep their important documents at home, in a convenient place, so they can grab them and flee at a moment’s notice.

“It’s one objective of our channel, not just news,” Agha said of the public service announcements that tell people: “Be ready to leave your house if it is bombed.”

In opposition areas with no real government, and with accurate details hard to obtain, the station has made itself indispensable for survival in this war zone. “Everybody is relying on our information,” Agha said.  

One guy I know was in a regime prison. And he said, ‘Every time I went to see the officer … he was watching Aleppo Today.’ So they are watching us, this is clear.

Khaleel Agha

Manager, Aleppo Today

Viewers also watch Aleppo Today to find out the names of the people killed by fighting in opposition-held Aleppo. One segment, “The Outcome of the Bombardment,” broadcasts a daily update of the Aleppans who died in shelling the day before. Their names, hometown and location of death are shown as verses from the Quran are chanted.

Aleppo Today has an Islamic flavor, and the call to prayer is broadcast, in addition to sacred readings.

The station is nonprofit, and Agha says “rich Syrian businessmen” — whom he did not identify — make up the board of trustees and provide the $60,000 per month necessary to keep the operation going. But he denied there was any outside control over the station’s output. “We are putting everything [on the air],” Agha said, when asked about his editorial independence.

Aleppo Today’s offices were once based in Aleppo, but Agha decided to move the channel to Turkey last July, after the security situation in Syria grew increasingly dangerous, in part because of the increased power of groups like the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

“It's horrible — you can’t survive inside,” he said. “My family faced death many times, and when we came here my children spent a week just trying to forget some fear of the bombings.”

Aleppo Today’s programming is streamed from Turkey to Kuwait via the Internet, where it is then uploaded to a satellite. The broadcast can be accessed by anyone with a satellite receiver dish in the region.

But even in exile the station faces problems of security and politics that make surviving day-to-day difficult. Agha declined to meet Al Jazeera at the studios and insisted on meeting at a hotel in Gazientep. He said he was worried about being able to continue to work in Turkey. Turkish security officials have come to check out his offices several times since he moved operations there. “It’s very complicated here,” he said. ”In one day I received three [different visits] — two from police and one from security.”

That has not stopped Agha from gaining viewers — even among supporters of Assad. Agha says some regime officials and military officers also watch it. “One guy I know was in a regime prison,” he said. “And he said, ‘Every time I went to see the officer … he was watching Aleppo Today.’ So they are watching us, this is clear.”

Debris covers a street and flames rise from a building following a reported strike by government forces on March 7.
Baraa Al-Halabi/AFP/Getty Images

But there have been problems with the high accuracy and speed with which Aleppo Today reports some incidents. The channel was previously broadcasting images and then giving exact locations, down to the street intersection. The geographic data was aired so quickly after bombs and artillery attacks that Agha suspects regime gunners began to use it to gauge the accuracy of their targeting — and to adjust their aim if they were off the mark.

“They were sending bombs, but they don’t know where it hits, so we give them the exact location … down to the [longitude] and latitude,” he said. “So now we [broadcast] the big area and we don’t [broadcast] the specific area.”

Agha, a mechanical engineer by training, said he is learning as he goes along.

“I studied management, and I worked in the private sector as a manager for more than 15 years,” he said. “So I am a professional manager, but I never worked in media.”

Agha has a staff of 25 people working in the office and 10 field correspondents on the ground in Aleppo, where correspondents work with video and still cameras. They collect the material and then upload photographs and raw video footage, through a satellite Internet system, to Agha’s staff in Turkey, where the material is edited and turned into a finished product for broadcast.

He said the satellite expenses eat up half of the budget. The rest of the expenses go toward paying the correspondents in Aleppo and Turkey. He says the young staffers don’t make much — they, like him, he says, are involved in Aleppo Today because they’re passionate about it, not because they want to make a lot of money.

“This is volunteering, really, and [my employees] are just getting money to survive on, to have some bread only,” he said. “All of them are activists, and they are happy [about] what they are doing.” 

Slideshow: Aleppo struggles to survive

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