When Hala Khairalla produced her first on-location broadcast for Al Jazeera television in November 2011, she re-recorded it 26 times until it played in her dreams. It had to be perfect. Hala was the first woman from Syria that Al Jazeera put on the air to report on the violence spreading throughout cities like Aleppo.
Hala felt passionate about the importance of showing the world what was happening in Aleppo. But with no training as a journalist, the university student could not have foreseen that she was on her way to becoming the voice of the Syrian people, a woman who despite all odds was one of the country’s only sources of accurate news.
Now 25 years old, Hala was a 21-year-old college student studying Arabic in March 2011 when she started demonstrating against human rights abuses committed by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Aleppo. “Our demands were freedom, justice and the ability to express our opinions without being afraid of anybody,” Hala says.
Hala never saw news coverage of these peaceful protests, nor did stories show security forces beating demonstrators and firing at them. The broadcasts never announced where the regime had established checkpoints that restricted movement throughout the city.
Despite her lack of experience, Hala decided to fill the void. First she set up a Facebook page that reported what was going on in Aleppo. Soon major television networks such as Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya and Al Aan started to broadcast her freelance video reports and first-hand accounts to the world.
In April 2012, Hala covered a large demonstration in Aleppo, climbing atop a pickup truck to get a view of the crowds. Suddenly, she couldn’t move any part of her body. She heard people talking about a girl who had been killed. They were talking about her. A bullet had pierced her back and exited through her hand.
“I thought, ‘I am dead now,’ ” Hala remembers. Other thoughts swirled in her head, too. “I had this feeling that although there were all these dangers, I managed to tell the world what was happening. I felt that I did something very important, even if I lost my life because of it.”
Hala did not lose her life, though the armed men who came to the hospital with handcuffs might have wished her dead. Within a few months she was back on the streets and reporting again.
It was, and continues to be, extremely dangerous to be a reporter in Syria. That’s why Hala began using various pseudonyms to protect her identity. She filmed reports in secret at times and would put on disguises or modify her voice.
Launching a new station
In September 2012, President Bashar al-Assad’s regime retaliated against Free Syrian Army control of government facilities in Aleppo by cutting off Internet access and electricity in the city. Suddenly, Hala had no way to communicate or gather information. On the radio, Hala found only three stations, all broadcasting in Turkish.
“I started thinking, “Why don’t we have people in Turkey—or on the Syrian borders—who can launch a radio station?” Hala says. Then she started thinking: Why couldn’t those “people” be her?
With a few colleagues and a 50-watt transmitter in Aleppo, Hala launched Radio Nasaeem Syria from a studio in Gaziantep, Turkey, and started broadcasting on Dec. 27, 2012.
“It was a happy moment because we were able to make something out of nothing, just by our will,” says Hala, as the station’s director. With a second office in Aleppo, Radio Nasaeem became the first woman-owned independent radio station broadcasting in Syria.
For two hours each day, the small station broadcasted a show about people who had been arrested, killed or kidnapped. Within five months, Hala bought a 500-watt transmitter that enabled the station to reach thousands more Syrians. Three years later, Radio Nasaeem has increased its programming to 20 hours per day.
“Now people started to feel that this radio [station] is speaking on their behalf, trying to be with them in sadness and joy, and in all political changes around them,” Hala says. “In short, our radio station was with them through anything.”
The station provides essential information such as currency exchange rates and updates about fuel prices and road security. Her presenters bring listeners a sense of hope and connectedness within Aleppo and with the outside world.
“We are working on making them feel more relaxed and a little bit happier,” Hala says. “We are working on making them feel that this radio station is for them. …Stories that matter to them, their success stories and their sufferings.”
Radio Nasaeem Syria produces an interactive radio magazine that addresses major events in Syria as well as art, culture and sports. Weekly programs focus on the military operations, politics, health, refugees, civil society and women’s issues. A print magazine called Syrian Jasmine, distributed throughout refugee camps in Turkey and towns inside Syria, encourages women to raise their voices and stand up for their rights.
Expanding roles for women
Hala is more than an example of a successful Syrian woman demanding to be heard. She strives to expand the role of women within Syrian society, consciously hiring women for more than half the positions at Radio Nasaeem. Women rarely have the opportunity to work as journalists—these jobs are typically reserved for men. Hala—a driving force in the sector despite her young age—has organized journalism training so that these women can excel in a male-dominated culture.
“This was a result of two years of work in order to prepare those girls and push them to believe in themselves and believe in what they are able to do,” she says. “It is not a coincidence, and we worked on it the whole time.”
These young women reporters, presenters and producers—as well as their sources in Syria—remain in danger. Hala shares this danger, even more so as the leader of a prominent media outlet. Media activists perceived as opposing the Syrian regime, ISIS or the al-Nusra terrorist group are commonly targeted for arrest or harm.
But Hala persists: “I want the world to know that the aim and purpose of my work…is that there is a revolution—a revolution of people who are neither in militias nor armed,” she says. “[A revolution] started with…very simple demands like freedom, democracy, freedom of speech and the ability to speak without fear.”