Syrian Opposition Finds A Voice On Pirate Radio

Steve Inskeep talks to Syrian journalist Obadah Al-Kaddri about being named one of Time magazine's top 100 influential people. Al-Kaddri is director of Radio Watan, a pirate station heard in Syria.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Next, we're going to tune into the radio, as heard in Syria.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Foreign language spoken)

INSKEEP: It's Radio Watan. It's an opposition news source heard in parts of that country. Instead of being run by Syria's government, Radio Watan says it is independent, and also supported by U.S. government funds. The station is run by Obadah Al-Kaddri, who says radio penetrates parts of Syria where the Internet does not.

Why do it on the radio - of all the media that are available?

OBADAH AL-KADDRI: Actually, in liberated areas, there is no electricity, there is no TV. We make the FM radio because it is very easy to let the public to listen.

INSKEEP: Even in a bombed-out neighborhood, people may have radios that run on hand cranks or solar power. Al-Kaddri's studios are outside Syria, but if you want to do a radio broadcast, you need to be inside. Most radio transmitters do not carry that far. You've got to get a transmitter into Syria somewhere.

AL-KADDRI: I will tell you the story from the beginning. In 2011, our revolution become armed.

INSKEEP: Al-Kaddri was a surgeon back then, working in Damascus. But he began working with the rebels, helping them by sending media messages.

AL-KADDRI: To show our world what's happening outside Syria.

INSKEEP: There were many Syrians who were doing this, who were almost citizen journalists, in a way.

AL-KADDRI: Yeah, citizens, journalists. So, we decide to create the radio station. As you know, in Syria, you can't buy the transmitters.

INSKEEP: They don't allow it to be sold.

AL-KADDRI: Yeah, yeah.

INSKEEP: For the very reason that you might do the kinds of things, in fact, you have done.

AL-KADDRI: Yeah. So, we buy it through Internet from China. We send it to Jebel Ali, in the Emirates.

INSKEEP: The United Arab Emirates.

AL-KADDRI: Yeah. There, we have a businessman - Syrian. He changed the label of the transmitter from transmitter accoutrement to kid's toys.

INSKEEP: And the box labeled as kids' toys were shipped onward to Lebanon, then to Syria.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

INSKEEP: From numerous transmitters now, Radio Watan has been broadcasting news, as well as music. It all comes out of a studio in Istanbul, Turkey, and is sent by satellite to the local stations.

AL-KADDRI: One program is the idea of it to bring one of the leader of the opposition and to make the public ask him what they want about the situation.

INSKEEP: You regularly will bring an opposition leader on the air.

AL-KADDRI: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

INSKEEP: What are some of the questions that people ask the opposition when they're given that chance?

AL-KADDRI: Actually, they are upset from them, most of them.

INSKEEP: They don't like the opposition.

AL-KADDRI: Yeah, yeah. They are not accepting what they are doing. And the acting of opposition is so weak.

INSKEEP: The opposition is also divided with extremists often fighting moderates. Al-Kaddri says he knows people are listening, including regime supporters who write on the station's Facebook page. What do they say?

AL-KADDRI: They say you are destroying the country. You are the terrorist. You have to come back to the Bashar al-Assad, his base.

INSKEEP: The regime also got in touch more directly. Al-Kaddri contends that 15 of his relatives are now in jail, and he says two of his staff members inside Syria were killed.

AL-KADDRI: I have one of my team in Damascus. He is the broadcaster manager. He is arrested after three months. They send his ID card to his family. He has died in the jail.

INSKEEP: They sent his ID card to his family.

AL-KADDRI: Yeah.

INSKEEP: Just to let them know...

AL-KADDRI: He has died.

INSKEEP: Obadah Al-Kaddri himself says he cannot easily return to Syria, but he sometimes slips into rebel-held areas. He says he's doing audience research, asking people what they think of the station. It was in response to audience comments that Radio Watan began adding music to its lineup. People wanted something happy to balance all the bad news.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Singing in foreign language)

INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News.

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