Syria's accidental journalists

Syrian journalism is famous around the world for its wooden language and constant praise for the powers that be. That is hardly surprising when most people working in journalism are not journalists, and most journalists are out of work.
By Mazan Morshed
SYRIA, Damascus. ©AFP / Louai Beshara
Syrians gather in Damascus during President Bashar al-Assad's campaign. © Louai Beshara / AFP

DAMASCUS (MENASSAT.COM) - In the middle of the Salihiyya market, Taher lay down a blanket on the floor and displayed a small collection of smuggled European men’s shoes. His eyes remained alert as they inspected the road for any patrol that might suddenly appear and confiscate his merchandise. In order to acquire it, he had to borrow money. His only hope was to sell it - even though the revenues were meager - to get rid of the label: unemployed.

Taher is neither illiterate nor does he come from an environment where the profession is smuggling. He is simply a journalism graduate from Damascus University.
Taher's case is not uncommon. Although over one thousand students have graduated from the media department at the faculty of arts at Damascus University since it was established in 1986, surprisingly few graduates go on to find a job in the media. On the other hand, less than twenty percent of the people actually working in the media are journalism graduates.

A handful of graduates were able to find work in the government-run television, audio and print media, while others found an opportunity in the private sector which has recently started to expand after the government granted more licenses to private newspapers and magazines.
But for the vast majority of journalism graduates there are only two options: emigrate to one of the Gulf states or change careers altogether.
Butheina A. was among the first to graduate from the media department. Until this day, she is still moving from one job to the other without finding a position in the media sector.

“I have tried to write in the private sector but I was never able to get a permanent position. Apparently, even free publications required personal networking. Still, I can’t see myself working as a substitute teacher after having studied journalism."

It is easy to get discouraged. Mahmoud C., another journalism graduate, is  now selling cotton in a shop in the Al-Humeidiyya market.

“Had I known I would end up working in a shop, I wouldn’t have went to college to begin with", he said. "If I had started working in the market at fourteen, I would have been a shop owner by now. As for journalism, I haven’t thought about it for a long time. I lost faith when I discovered that the names you see on the newspapers' front pages, both official and private ones, belong to people who have nothing to do with journalism."
So who are the people actually working in Syrian journalism? The majority were appointed through a widespread system of nepotism, which starts with the editor in chief and ends with the prime minister.

There is the well-known newspaper editor, who has held his position for over ten years, and who likes to relate the story of how he landed his job. After he got his high-school degree - he was the first to get it in his village -, one of his relatives pulled a few strings and he was appointed in that newly-established newspaper. He was bragging about being the oldest employee at the newspaper.

In fact, the man was right to use the term 'employee' because to him, and to many like him, journalism was never anything more than a job that secured a salary at the end of the month.

So the majority of working journalists in Syria are really 'accidental journalists', people who discovered journalism only after a job in the media was handed to them on a sliver platter through their connections.

Consequently, they write only what they know will please the people who got them the job in the first place, or what they think might further their careers.

Is it any surprise then that, in their hands, Syrian journalism has become known for its stiffness, its woodenness, for endless repetition and exaggerated praise for the powers that be?

Imagine the frustration of Syria's media graduates, people who actually wanted to be journalists only to discover that all the available positions were already taken by people without the slightest interest in journalism.
“I am always surprised when I hear that this or that journalist at an official newspaper is in fact an industrial institute graduate or a history graduate", said Sana B., another unemployed journalist. "I am a journalism graduate and I can’t find a job because people like that are occupying the positions which I believe are rightfully ours."

And it's not just the Syrians either.

Khaldoun G. repeatedly tried to get published in the official Syrian newspapers but also in other Arab magazines with offices in Damascus. To no avail.
"The first shock in my professional life was when I discovered that the majority of Arab newspaper correspondents in Damascus were not journalists.", he said. "Most of them did not finish their studies to begin with. They got their positions due to nepotism and connections whether at the Ministry here or in the newspaper for which they work."

"At the level of the state, I took part in the few competitions organized by the Information Ministry. However, I was never appointed because it was never about competence. It was about how much 'push' was behind a candidate. The one with the most 'push' got the job whether he was qualified or not."

Needless to say, Khaldoun G. has since found a job in a field unrelated to the media.