2015/Syria/Independent Media Line of Effort Summary
This evaluation was conducted between 4/30/2015 and 7/15/2015, and the report was submitted July 17, 2015.
Purpose of the Evaluation and Questions Addressed
This is an evaluation of the activities carried out under the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations’ Syria Support Program (SSP), implemented 2012–2015 in support of selected radio and TV stations. The purposes of the evaluation were to determine if SSP has achieved stated objectives with regard to media, analyze SSP impact, and provide recommendations regarding the design of current and follow-on assistance to independent media in Syria. The primary question addressed was: What have been the nature and extent of results of media programming under the two projects with regard to SSP’s four media objectives: (1) Establish an independent media capacity for Syria, (2) Counter regime and violent extremist narratives, (3) Hold opposition accountable, and (4) Lay the foundation for inclusive, tolerant debate. Research looked for such factors in the achievement of results as the nature and quality of assistance, the baseline capacity of stations, and external events.
The evaluation used a mix of qualitative and quantitative methods that reflect the program logic, research questions being addressed, and constraints on the ground. In particular, the use of multiple sources helps to verify findings while minimizing risk to researchers, while the use of structured analytic tools helps to limit bias. Evaluation methods included key informant interviews, analysis of the content of selected programs, audience survey, and review of project documents and relevant background material.
Capacity. SSP support for independent media represents a remarkable start in a context where no independent media previously existed. A number of radio and TV stations have been established, become more professional, and now operate on a daily basis in intensely difficult conditions. In terms of editorial and journalistic quality, along with production values, the evaluation found a wide range of capacity, however. With regard to audience share, an SSP-supported TV station performed well in comparison to others watched by Syrians in opposition-held areas. The radio stations were listened to less frequently overall, by a smaller proportion of survey respondents, but some radio stations performed well in particular localities. The social media presence of all of the stations has grown substantially and consistently over the life of the media program, with Facebook the major driver of the social media presence of most stations. The majority of stations are not yet sustainable in the absence of US government and other donor support.
Countering Violent Extremism (CVE). CVE is an important aspect of the stations’ work that appears in various ways in programming. News programs tended to counter regime narratives effectively, but some stations experienced challenges in covering non-state armed actors in a journalistically professional manner.
Holding the Opposition Accountable. Coverage of the national-level opposition was uneven in quality and frequency. Key informant interviews indicated that opposition leadership feels the stations are too negative in their coverage. Reasons include: too high expectations of national-level leadership on the part of media, and coalition difficulty in understanding how to interact with media. Local council representatives were more accessible and were interviewed frequently during programs concerning them, reflecting the presence of both councils and reporters on the ground. Many of the programs include constructive exchanges among stations, local council representatives and citizens.
Laying the Foundation for Inclusive Debate. The program has cultivated a group of young, progressive actors who are invested in promoting freedom of expression, inclusion and the peaceful resolution of conflict. The stations have normalized access to a multiplicity of views and information sources and allowed ordinary citizens, as well as local and national leaders, to express their opinions to a wider audience, through interviews, call-ins, “vox pops,” and social media. The evaluation’s analysis of a sample of content found that stations need to improve the quality of call in and talk shows, however, to ensure that a variety of points of view are included in a constructive manner. Stations’ social media metrics suggest there is not much interaction online. The analysis also found little coverage for and about women. In terms of station staffing, women appear to comprise a significant proportion of at least three stations’ staff. Women are generally visible in technical and management roles at the stations, and two stations are owned by women.
Factors Contributing to or Impeding the Achievement of Results. Equipment and stipends for core operating costs allowed rapid growth. The equipment provided was generally appropriate to and adequate for stations’ needs. The stipends are self-evidently of great value to the stations, but were insufficiently tied to the quality of station programming. Rolling three-month contracts, necessitated by funding streams supporting the program, made planning and the development of sustainable structures difficult. The impact of project training could not be determined due to the lack of pre- and post-training documentation. Gaps in documentation also make it difficult to assess the quality and impact of mentoring; feedback from the stations received via interviews was mixed. Monitoring was extensive, but insufficiently focused on results.
The conflict has had significant and ongoing effect on station operations, as equipment has been seized, and staff harmed and even killed. More broadly, the increasing presence of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in many areas of Syria has impeded the ability of stations to report openly without fear of persecution. The lack of reliable electricity and internet connections also presents challenges within Syria.
Based on its findings, the evaluation recommends that the Department of State: (1) take a holistic view of the media sector moving forward, and (2) focus on the quality of content with regard to news, information and concepts of key importance.