ISTANBUL: Connections often break down, power cuts are frequent and no one rings when the radio show host invites listeners to call in with comments.
But the tiny group of Syrian exiles running Istanbul-based Radio Alkul is determined to keep broadcasting “uncensored” news back to those who are still trapped in the country’s brutal civil war.
The station – whose name means “radio for all” in Arabic – started up last April in a cramped, ninth-story office in a seedy building in crowded Istanbul.
It now employs 12 people full time, both technicians and journalists – at least one a former face on state-controlled Syrian TV now working under a fake name.
The group transmits over Internet via a network of small, secret transmitters deployed in seven regions around Syria – but the war itself rules the timing.
“If there are no bombing raids we can switch on the transmitters,” program director Obai Sukkar said.
“But if there is the slightest risk, we tell our people to stop because their lives are more important.”
Their local sources in Syria often Skype in reports on the latest bombings and massacres, which have claimed more than 130,000 lives since fighting began in March 2011, according to a tally this week by the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Radio Alkul journalists wage their own battle against endless technical problems.
Take one recent 20-minute broadcast. Anchorman Mohammad al-Baroudi was hooked up via Skype with a correspondent giving a graphic report of aerial bombings by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad against rebels in the northern city of Aleppo.
As quickly as they establish contact, the link breaks down. “This is a real problem,” conceded Sukkar.
“We often wait for a phone call but then nobody calls. Admittedly, it’s not easy, what with all the power cuts and Internet breakdowns in Syria.”
Yet the station has plugged on for eight months, offering a daily four-hour program recorded and stored in Istanbul, then downloaded by its technicians in Syria.
It has about 100,000 people who tune in everyday and hopes to go live in January, its founders say.
For some, the technical problems as less daunting than reporting under Syrian state control.
“Inside Syria, we cannot work freely,” said journalist Ahmad Zakarya, who worked under state censorship in the central city of Homs before fleeing to Turkey.
“But when we’re reporting from overseas, we can get ourselves heard by besieged Syrians more efficiently,” he said.
Yet even a thousand kilometers from Damascus, the journalists feel they are not working without risk.
“Slava,” the 30-something former presenter for Syrian national television, uses an alias to avoid any reprisals against family members.
“I would never have thought that I could say the truth about the regime and what it does to its people,” she said.
Like other “free” radio stations that have sprung up in the civil war, Radio Alkul is fiercely opposed to Assad’s regime but rejects being labeled a “rebel” radio station.
With funding from U.S. and European non-governmental organizations, Alkul is close to the exiled opposition National Coalition.
Yet it wears its editorial independence proudly.
“We have nothing to do with them, we have our own editorial freedom,” Sukkar said. “When we criticize them, they go crazy.”
Sinan Hatahet, in charge of the coalition’s communication department, also defended the station’s independence. “If the revolution managed to ‘sell itself’ to the world, it’s thanks to the independence of activists who worked with next to nothing from the inside,” he said.
“We need to create free media as an example of the democracy we want for Syria.”