Amude, Syria // At seven every morning, a cheerful voice crackles over the airwaves of northern Syria. As people stumble out of bed, or rub the sleep from their eyes on their way to work, they tune in as Avin Shekhmous launches into her two-hour programme about health issues.
The content of the show ranges from dispelling urban myths to providing more serious medical advice, a valuable service in a country where the war has put an acute strain on health care.
At 9am, the 28-year-old Ms Shekhmous bids her listeners good bye, takes off her headphones and steps out of the studio into the office space of Arta FM – the only independent radio station in the Kurdish-dominated north of the country.
“I like working in the media, and I want to change the mentality of the people here,” she says before settling down to prepare for her next show.
After four years of civil war, news in Syria is dominated by the fighting. Broadcasting has not remained immune, as the various factions try to control the flow of information.
Arta has bucked this trend since it went on air two years ago in the town of Amude located on the border with Turkey. The station strives to remain impartial, and focuses its reporting not on the war, but on the everyday lives of people living in Rojava, as the autonomous region in northern Syria is known.
“We want to enable people to hear about other issues than war, violence and guns. So that they learn about tolerance, and respect and acceptance of others,” says Siruan Hadsch Hossein, Arta’s founder.
Mr Hossein’s family left Syria for Germany in 1990 when he was 13. He became a radio journalist after graduating from university, and spent time in the Middle East teaching media training courses. When the civil war in his native Syria broke out, he saw a gap in the market and an opportunity to make a difference.
Funded by the US government-backed organisation Creative, the station has grown rapidly. It now employs 75 people spread over five offices, all located in the autonomous region. Its broadcasts cover topics ranging from the dire state of Rojava’s roads to the education system, where Kurdish is being introduced for the first time by the ruling Democratic Union Party (PYD).
To emphasise its non-partisan approach and to reflect the ethnic diversity of northern Syria, it transmits in Kurdish, Arabic, Aramaic and Armenian.
Syria’s religious and ethnic pluralism has come under threat from ISIL and other extremist groups. This diversity was skilfully manipulated by the Assad regime to create divisions within society and so prevent effective opposition to its rule.
The consequences of this divide and conquer approach linger on, and Arta is working to break these barriers.
“There is still a lot of mistrust between the communities. We are trying to promote unity. From the start, our team consisted of Kurds, Arabs and Christians,” says Mr Hossein.
Arta’s philosophy centres around promoting civil society, which can serve as the basis for a functioning democracy in northern Syria. It also tries to instil hope in a population which has lived through years of war. During this time, many families have lost relatives on the frontlines.
With work scarce, and basic services like electricity intermittent, many residents of Rojava have joined the millions of Syrians who have fled the country in the hope of a better life in Europe.
Arta is trying to convince people to stay, and to work towards a better future in Syria. Mr Hossein, who came to Germany as an asylum-seeker, says that the expectations of refugees are vastly inflated. Integration is far more complicated than anticipated, the job market hard to enter, and those who make the dangerous journey to Europe end up with a lower quality of life than at home, he believes.
“We tell them that it is better to live here with difficulty than to move abroad,” says Mr Hossein.
Immigration is not the only issue on which Arta sets itself apart. Its refusal to act as a government mouthpiece, and its habit of posing tough questions about the moribund infrastructure, struggling health system and a dire economy sometimes puts it on a collision course with the authorities.
The PYD, an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), officially ascribes to a form of grassroots democracy it calls “democratic confederalism”, in which power is devolved to local councils. In practice, decision making is often top down, and an authoritarian style of governance is hard to shake in a country that has been ruled by the autocratic Assad regime for decades.
“Some officials can act very arbitrarily at times,” says Mr Hossein.
Arta’s journalists can struggle to obtain the requisite government permissions, and on a few isolated occasions have been threatened by an irate official.
But while the authorities eye the station warily, they have not shut it down, and Mr Hossein believes that acceptance of Arta’s independent reporting is growing.
The station and the government share some common goals. The PYD is keen to promote gender equality, which has led to thousands of women joining the ranks of the party and its armed wing. Arta is equally serious about improving women’s rights, which is reflected in the high proportion of female employees and its programming.
For all its idealism, the government has yet to deliver on its promises, according to Ms Shekhmous.
“Women now have the same right as men to and pick up a gun and fight. But we still don’t have real equality,” she says.