Six years ago, in the early days of the Syrian uprising, a group of anti-government activists in a Damascus suburb decided to start their own newspaper.
“If I look back to myself reporting at that time, we were amateurs. We were biased most of the time. If they arrested someone, it’s my brother or friend. We were reporting the massacres being inflicted on our people, and that was the hardest part.”
“At that time, the international media couldn’t have good access to Syria to cover the news, and a lot of things were happening, but no one knew what was going on,” said Kholoud Helmi, a founder and editor of the newspaper Enab Baladi (Arabic for “grapes of my country”).
Among the approximately 25 people – the majority of them women – who started the paper in the Darayya suburb, only one was trained in journalism, Helmi said. They printed 300 copies of the first edition and handed them out at protests.
In the early days, the journalists were all volunteers, writing about events they witnessed in their own communities: towns besieged, activists arrested and killed. Their tone, Helmi recalled, was angry.
“If I look back to myself reporting at that time, we were amateurs,” Helmi said. “We were biased most of the time. If they arrested someone, it’s my brother or friend. We were reporting the massacres being inflicted on our people, and that was the hardest part.”
Since then, the circumstances in Syria and for Enab Baladi have changed vastly. Most of the founders, including Helmi, have fled Syria. Some journalists were arrested – some were released, one died under torture, and two more remain missing, Helmi said.
But even under such duress – and in part because of it – the paper has grown and professionalized. As the war dragged on, it became increasingly brutal and complicated. With the rise of the Islamic State and the Russian intervention in rebel-held east Aleppo that turned the tide of the war in favor of the Syrian regime, access for international media became increasingly difficult. Meanwhile, the largely young and educated activists who fled the country made contacts with international NGOs willing to support media work inside Syria.
About 4,000 print copies of Enab Baladi are now distributed each week in opposition-held areas of Syria and to refugees in Turkey, while the website – which includes Arabic and English versions of many of the stories –garners 2 million page views a month.
The newspaper covers developments in civil war, but it also delves into stories of daily life and social issues largely overlooked by the international media.
Recent stories have looked at the changing attitudes on inter-sect marriage among Syrians in regime- and opposition-controlled areas inside Syria and among refugees abroad; price-gouging in the besieged Damascus suburb of East Ghouta and the profits made by both rebel groups and regime-affiliated businessmen from smuggling goods into the area; and the widening gap in women’s style of dress between the increasingly conservative rebel-controlled areas and the increasingly Westernized regime-controlled areas. Helmi said one of her favorite pieces was an extensive look at destruction of Syrian cultural heritage and looting and smuggling of artifacts during the war.
The publication has also made creative forays into multimedia, including a cooking show series produced during this year’s month of Ramadan. Aimed at Syrians struggling with food shortages and rising prices, the series, “Akleh Ma Bitkelaf” or “Eating That Doesn’t Cost,” showed how to make dishes with a bare minimum of ingredients.
Helmi said the focus on human interest stories is deliberate and meant to fill a gap in coverage of Syria:
“The international media cares more about numbers, as if we are things and objects, not human beings, and that is why we try to highlight the very human stories about real people,” she said.
The paper also pays particular attention to women’s stories, often overlooked in war reporting. The fact that women made up the majority of the founders influenced the stories they chose to tell – and had access to – Helmi said. Women would open up to female journalists about sensitive topics, including rapes by security forces and militias, that they would not be willing to speak about with a male reporter.
“Because I am a woman, I had easy access inside homes,” Helmi said. “I could talk easily to women there, and they could speak openly to me about issues.”
It was also easier for women to pass through checkpoints as they traveled to report on stories. And women usually took on the dangerous task of carrying and distributing the papers.
“The international media cares more about numbers, as if we are things and objects, not human beings, and that is why we try to highlight the very human stories about real people.”
“It was easier for us girls to cross the checkpoints without being thoroughly checked by the security forces,” Helmi said. “The culture in our region is that the police officers or security officers don’t touch women, so they didn’t search them in full.”
Women reported from some of the most dangerous areas: ISIS-held Raqaa and in during intense fighting in Homs. In Damascus – dangerous for a different reason, because it is under government control – the reporter was also a woman.
But the correspondent in Damascus eventually quit reporting out of fear of being caught and sent to prison. Now the publication has no journalists left in government-controlled areas, Helmi said.
And in rebel-controlled areas, they face a different set of issues, amid the constantly shifting alliances among militant groups. They have also faced threats, Helmi said, for writing pieces critical of the hard-line Islamist groups, including ISIS and Al Nusra Front.
Many of the journalists eventually ended up in Turkey, where they established an office in Istanbul in 2014. There, they also connected with international organizations willing to give training and funding to media organizations in Syria. Through the international funding, they have been able to pay the network of about a dozen journalists who remain inside Syria, Helmi said.
Helmi, who is now living in exile in London and studying for a master’s degree in media and development, said the journalists and the paper’s approach have matured. One day, she hopes they will be able to open an office inside Syria.
“Yes, we are from the revolution…but we try to abide by the international principles of journalism,” she said. “We try to be a forum that represents Syrians in general. We try to cater to all the needs of the Syrians.”