Programme journey

The ‘why’ of the EJSM program

The 5 years EJSM program[1], which stands for Ethical Journalism for Syrian Media, was initiated to help shape the fundamentals of independent media in a time of peaceful and violent social change from grassroots networks, actions groups to their eventual media outlets and organisations.

The EJSM program helps institutionalise, professionalise and facilitate the Syrian media sector from within to do its work in an ethical way and provide Syrian citizens with reliable reporting. Ethics is taken as a core starting and ending principle that guides and responds to professional demands and dilemmas that such societal turmoil present. In the conflict transformation context, the whole intervention was professionally driven away from politics and with an inclusive and human rights based approach.

Keep reading the efforts of actors on the ground who aim to work on the audience’s right to know the full picture of Syria no matter the divide, the violence, or differences.

The EJSM is a ‘all-media-round’ capacity building program that helped create a ‘transitional stateless’ independent professional and inclusive media framework and has turned in due time into a bottom-up media peacebuilding program. The focus was on how to bring grassroots citizen initiatives in repressive, violent and conflict contexts to a professional, ethical level and advocate for the role of media during this change.

The intervention of the EJSM was implemented by a successful partnership between Free Press Unlimited with its expertise in media comprehensive development and Synergy-Takamol[2] with expertise in good governance and gender mainstreaming. This 5 year long journey of support to the Syrian media sector began in 2012 at a time when the civil war left journalists in a highly polarized environment, defecting from both state and private media organisations in order to seek more independence. Many motivated citizen journalists joined protests against the oppression of the ruling regime, and to shed light on hidden realities. They wanted a revolution. At the same time, there was a surge in the number of broadly defined ‘citizen journalists’ providing coverage of protests and sought to document and disseminate their view of events as they happened. With the help of the program, the media organisations have grown in their main aim: to provide reliable information to citizens inside and outside Syria. FPU considers independent and reliable media a basic right of every world citizen. Every person deserves to know information so as to be able to make informed decisions about their lives and their communities.

The definition of citizen journalism

There are two definitions of citizen journalism that do justice to our program and help to understand its meaning:

  1. Shayne Bowman & Chris Willis:
    Citizen journalism is the act of one or more citizens taking an active role in the process of gathering, analysing, communicating and disseminating news and information, with the intention of providing independent, reliable, accurate, comprehensive and relevant information in support of democracy.

  2. Courtney C. Radsch:
    Citizen journalism is an alternative and activist form of news gathering and reporting that takes place outside established media organisations, often in response to shortcomings in professional journalism. It uses the same journalistic methods, but with different aims and ideals, and with an alternative legitimacy to traditional journalism.

Unlocking the collective power of citizen journalists

The Syrian uprising, inspired by the events in Tunisia and Egypt, deeply involved masses of primarily young active citizens, facing the common issue of the deprivation of basic human rights and social alienation. Many of them all over Syria started using communication tools to express and show the events on the ground. Mid-career journalists, authors, opinion leaders and other active parts of the Syrian society joined this movement and filled the information space with information and stories mainly through Facebook. Many of the activists gradually became ‘citizen journalists’, who were recognised as a key group that needed support. There was a critical need to build trust between them, as well as between them and the mid-career journalists, to develop a shared sense of community and build shared values and principles that underpin high-quality independent and ethical journalism. Within a reality that lacked a  tradition of free and independent media, raising awareness and knowledge was an intense effort. At a time when citizen journalists and independent journalists all over Syria wanted to act and raise their voices, they lacked structural support and safety. This reinforced the need for learning and enhancing journalistic skills, verification, safety and ethics as well as protection.  Over time, through providing this support, a smaller group of dedicated citizen journalists emerged with the potential to develop a stronger institutional presence as independent media organisations that could credibly serve the information needs of Syrian audiences. Continuing to work with this focused group formed part of the starting point of the EJSM program from 2016-2021.

Supporting Syrian independent media and independent journalists to create an ethical framework

It is important to create awareness of the challenges that were faced at the start of the program:

  • A lack of trust and pervasive fear
  • A lack of awareness, knowledge and shared principles on ethical journalism practices;
  • Minimal security awareness for preserving journalist’s safety;
  • The presence and participation women (and girls) lacked in key position in the media
  • Limited professional and audience orientated output;
  • A lack of sectoral interaction; inexperience to work together in general
  • A fragile communication and distribution infrastructure;
  • A lack of insight into the Syrian media sector and audience needs;
  • A growing divide between various affiliations, later also by ‘geographies’

From the beginning, it was realised that change had to come from within and that citizen- journalists had to be given the means to work ethically and responsibly. Investments in individual capacity were deeply needed, as well as building emerging organisations. That is why full attention was given to outlets, to media institutions, to codes of conduct and to self-regulating correction mechanisms. An unbiased and inclusive  position was necessary to build a relationship of trust with citizen-journalists, regardless of their background. After all, every perspective should be heard, provided it is nuanced, respectful and professionally reported. The program focused on consistently supporting independent professional and ethical journalists and media to become professional organisations.

In the past five years, strong partnerships with Syrian actors have allowed the program to provide independent Syrian media and journalists with reliable data and insights on the sector, and to give support in institutional and professional development to improve the quality and effectiveness of the media organisations. As a result, Syrian citizens have become more aware of their possibilities and opportunities to seek and receive reliable information.

The indispensable contribution of the partnership

The intense efforts over the five years from the partnering organisations and experts participating in the program lead to a sustainable result. As the program came to a close, media organisations have been able to develop and sustain their professionalisation and impact within the sector which reflects the long-term objective that the EJSM program was committed to:

Media and journalists, as independent players in civil society, constitute a diverse and professional information landscape and function as a catalyst for change.

The program’s carriers, Free Press Unlimited and Synergy-Takamol, want to visually document key outcomes of the journey that they walked through with partners and key actors in the Syrian media and Civil Society field. The programme was funded by the Swedish International Development Agency’s (SIDA) which focused on strengthening the institutional development of media organisations. Thanks to their support, professionalism of the Syrian media sector has improved considerably. Thus, the program was able to contribute to the development of an independent Syrian media sector that is able to provide credible news, information and services needed by the public.

The further development of the program

Development and change happens only through time, and if not genuine, is not sustainable. Five years is considered a long time in project jargon, however, significant change beyond the responsibility of a project would be visible in much longer cycles of time. Within the program short, mid, and long term strategic objectives were formulated. Yet, to monitor the progress intermediate objectives were formulated in order to optimise the intended impact of the efforts according to the needs of the sector and the political and social situation in Syria:

  • To support and contribute to reliable data on the Syrian media environment and audiences.
  • To support Syrian media outlets and media institutions towards sustainability and increase institutional and professional capacity.
  • To improve the organisation and effectiveness of the Syrian media sector.

In 2016, drawing from lessons learned,  progress was made in building trusted relationships and launching the Ethical Charter for Syrian Media. This is where the program underwent consolidation with support focusing on emerging media outlets and media institutions. Individual partner’s journeys were nuanced and varied, supporting the institutional development of media outlets to disseminate content that increased their overall reach as well as reaching diverse Syrian audience groups and meeting their information needs with credible and trustworthy journalism. The aim was to support media institutions’ initiatives to represent the sector and grow into inclusive and good governed (applying good governance) collective organisations to serve the media sector.

The development of a set of ethical principles for independent media, and more recently in 2020, the launch of a complaints mechanism by the Ethical Charter for Syrian Media (ECSM) to ensure accountability for Syrian media demonstrates key developments that the EJSM program aimed to support. Guidance has been provided by the program to shape and launch the ethical principles and to form an appropriate governance structure.

A description of  the main impact per thematic focus of the programme is described below and can be explored in depth through each character page:

A Transitional and Stateless Media Framework that was robust enough to survive a time of conflict but that could also operate in a time of stability”.

In essence, this is what the EJSM program stands for. In the beginning, the focus was on general training about basic, ethical journalism and once media outlets developed, the continuation laid in tailored, in-depth training. There was a strong focus on the professional content of reliable and ethical journalism. The progression eventually moved well beyond incrementally building skills and capacities of individuals. It embedded these acquired skills sustainably within the structures and culture of each partner media organisation. In doing so, the independent journalism and editorial capacities have reached a high level among partners and institutional management, financial and bureaucratic systems are in place.

Each year had specific strategic learning goals while the support transitioned from heavy to light, depending on the learning curve achieved. In the fifth year, more progress consisted of partners taking over the organization of program activities such as forums, debates and webinars while applying all learned skills and enlarging the outreach to stakeholders that have  strong potential for the future.

The impact on institutionalisation

The ‘activists movement’ in Syria went from ‘noise to voice’: from grassroot activism to full fledged institutions with professional editorial and organisational policies. EJSM committed to supporting the strategic capacity of the partners to lay the foundation for a public-interest-oriented, independent as well as quality media sector that looked to the future. This is particularly noticeable in the case of long-term partners, as professionalisation and good governance had to be practiced and integrated ingrained over time. Important that sustainably managing the quality and capacity of finance, administration and human resources are all included. Not to forget that this institutional building must set a sound and healthy basis to separate the economic side from the editorial side of the media organisation work.

The impact on gender

A realistic vision was set over time which reflected on the conditions on the ground, the various existing customs as well as stereotypes. The gender sensitisation process started with partners  on the individual and organisational level in first learning discussing and accepting different points of view, to end by agreeing on definitions and principles to respect. This later allowed for the development and implementation of gender policies, in which training and workshops were provided to sensitise on the topic of gender justice all the way through. Then the focus shifted to individual training and coaching and on mainstreaming the core principles of gender within the partner organisations through designated Gender Focal Points. A training manual (TOT) and checklist for journalists were drawn up for formulating gender policy. This enabled them to monitor, record and evaluate the content of the gender policy to optimise it. The second TOT-manual aimed at strengthening the introduction within the organisation and training new staff and freelancers in gender and the media.

All organisations involved today have a sound and realistic gender-bias-free working environment and  gender sensitive content. The current gender activities seem to indicate that the work on gender is developing into a new and deeper level of engagement with most partners, for example through webinars on gender leadership. The biggest impact is that a change in mentality is noticeable and there is a growing awareness of the importance of integrating women in all aspects.

The impact on dialogue and advocacy

Free Press Unlimited saw the problem of deep mis-trust as an obstacle to development, to build or repair the media sector, to reconcile and work towards a more peaceful and stable society. FPU saw the need for dialogue as a main umbrella under which to build new trust to prepare for the future. In the beginning, FPU took the role of organising, bridging and joining people together. It has now reached a point where partners and champions in dialogue are prone to initiate dialogue on their own terms and continue bridging communication across geographies. This process never stops and should be maintained in the future, especially as the political situation in Syria remains unstable and fragile.

There are indications that partners are beginning to embrace dialogue and develop capacity to convene, lead and organise it. As this reaches a more mature stage and expands, the sector as a whole will certainly see an impact. These efforts will foster a shared identity based on a sense of common destiny, common challenges and shared solutions. It is also expected that the motivation to discuss professionalisation within the media sector will increase and potentially will reflect in their performance.

The impact on security

Safety and security are intrinsic and inextricable parts of the work of journalists in conflict zones. They are essential components of the program for journalists to do a decent job. Safety and security must be continuously monitored and assessed, physically, digitally, and psychologically. The effect of the program is that journalists have come to see this subject that has potential to improve their life, to feel less alone and take responsibility for their well-being. Safety has become an integral part of their work. This is necessary because journalists have to deal with intimidation, stress and fear, or incidents on a daily basis. Partners started with unwillingness and are now actively approaching experts to be willing to talk and a more assertive attitude to use these resources.

The impact on research

In the first phase of the program (developing professional standards), the monthly media monitoring reports produced with recommendations helped to  improve journalists’ standards and this was a turning point for partners who actually followed the editorial advice. Partners could experiment, and at the same time gain experience, with other ways of presenting sources, offering more credible information, separating opinions from facts and improving their use of language and images.

In the second phase of the program, monitoring reports on complex events were introduced as the partners matured. The media content monitoring was brought to a higher level. The use of these reports demanded deeper reading, understanding and capacity to translate the content to each own reality. The reports were ‘food for thought’ for editors, reporters and quality controllers, as well as a good opportunity to realise what and how the sector was reporting about the same news. This type of research helped the editorial teams as well as the FPU team to assess the added value of  the independent media in the overall media landscape; how to use such added value and how effectively (with much less human and technical resources at hand) they should use their capacities to report complex events compared to more established media organisations.

With the increased interest in and capacity to deal and produce research over time, partners were made part of the research from day one, getting  involved in the planning, the assessment of the needs and the tools they could use to improve their editorial output. The impact has been encouraging because the curiosity about the research and the strategies on how to use research tools to assess new issues or evaluate their own work became an integrated part of the quality editorial process.


[1] The EJSM program started in September 2016 and ran until the end of October 2021.

[2] The Lebanese Association for Societal Synergy (Synergy-Takamol) is a non-profit, non-governemental (NGO) Lebanese organization, instituted in 2004, registered in 2009 by a number of professional women activists with a strong track record supporting actions aimed at promoting development, human rights, and the rule of law. Synergy envisions a society where individuals and entities work more effectively and creatively together, from the grassroots to the highest echelons of power; a political model in which input-processes of democratic participation and output-processes of performance reinforce each other.

Learn more about one of the themes:

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This project was supported by SIDA 2016 -2021