Where the poor are concerned, Syrian media has nothing to report

More than 2 million Syrians live below the poverty line of two dollars a day. But you would never know it from the Syrian media. Media analyst Ruhada Abdoush explores how Syria's poor are perceived, and ignored, by the media establishment.
syria poverty
One of the ubiquitous shoeshine boys who crowd the streets of Damascus. R.R.

DAMASCUS, July 15, 2008 (MENASSAT) – Arguments can be made about how accurately the state-run and privately-owned media in Syria portray social issues. But there is little dispute about the Syrian media treat its sizable population of poor people – some 11 percent of the population or more than 2 million people – with little or no consideration.

These are the people the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) categorizes as living below the poverty line of two dollars a day, and in Syria these are the people creating jobs with their own hands living on the day’s earnings to survive.

They live everywhere among the population, whether they are shining shoes, cleaning offices or selling liquorice drinks off Thawra Street in the Hamidiyeh neighborhood. They are indispensable to the economy because they do work that many are unwilling to do.

Yet, the Syrian population doesn't see them in the media.

Only during Ramadan

Examining the local Syrian media provides little insight into the lives of the disenfranchised.

Dailies such as al-Thawra and Tishreen adhere to the "we'll cover it when it's the appropriate time of year" school of thought.

During Ramadan, Syrians do find out about liquorice drink seller. Smiling, laughing and focused on quenching the thirst of the faithful, the drinks seller is often thrown into feel-good pieces together with the smiling shoeshine boy.

We find no serious reports looking into these people's needs or their way of life.

Other newspapers, such as the Communist Party-run al-Nour, covers certain aspects of the lives of the poor, but without depth and certainly without any critical voice directed towards the root causes of the poverty.

And media analysts are quick to point out that privately-owned newspapers such as al-Watan or Baladona also act as if there are no social or economic problems in Syria.

Looking at Syria's magazine market, the reports are certainly more in depth. Being poor for publications like Abyad w Aswad, Majallat Juheina, al Azmina or al-Iqtisadi is equated with having few social or economic safety nets.

In this sense, there is one area where coverage of the poor exists, but aspects of this analysis rarely cast blame towards the presidential palace, and they distinguish themselves by simply opposing the language of the official media. 

Turning to the electronic media, with websites such as Thara, Marsad Nisa’ Souriya and al-Jamal, the qualitative gap with the rest of the media is clear. This is due perhaps to the publishing freedom electronic media enjoys, or maybe because of the gravity with which they address issues of public interest and social awareness experienced by most Syrians.

Still, even in the electronic media the treatment of the poor mainly touches on domestic violence and its relation to poverty and unemployment.

TV drama to the rescue

Examining the TV stations, both local and satellite Syrian broadcasters  avoid any programs dealing with the livelihood of the disenfranchised in their news or analysis, relying instead on ornamentation and state slogans about government steps to address their plight.

That is unless Syrian TV dramatic series are considered as credible news sources.

Ironically, Syrian TV drama series do manage to portray characters that are indeed deprived both socially and economically. As an example, writer Fouad Humeira's popular series, Deer in a Forest of Wolves, which aired on Syria's second channel two years ago, often cut away to poor people in their homes wrestling with their dreams and their hardship.  

It is a trend that has been found in recent Syrian drama series through writers such as Dalah Al-Rahbi and Reem Hanna, both of whom have made the point that the poor deserve as much attention as the more economically well-off in Syrian society. 

Syrian media expert Hala Al-Atasy told MENASSAT that the media landscape in Syria is like "an island isolated from its surroundings."

"Syrian media cannot function individualistically. There is a need for comprehensive governmental planning to deal with issues of poverty," al-Atasy said.

"Media is one major part of it. The government must have a clear overall vision, and must revise what it allows media to say. Allowing the media to address issues with honesty exposes the size of the problems and their negative impact on society."

This is obviously something the Syrian government does not welcome with open arms.

Atasy also alluded to the fact that journalists rarely feel empowered to tell the stories of the poor because of the obvious implications for the societal problems that exist.

But by not covering the issues of poverty and the poor – largely because of a fear of painting a negative picture of Syria –  the media also have a hand in the marginalization of this class of people.