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Aleppo Today TV becomes vital news source amid Syria's chaos

By Gul Tuysuz and Ivan Watson, CNN
December 13, 2012 -- Updated 1120 GMT (1920 HKT)
  • Aleppo Today broadcasts from a country neighboring Syria
  • The content is beamed through other countries to avoid jamming by the Syrian government
  • It aims to be impartial about the situation in Syria, but some say it fails

(CNN) -- Amid the chaos of flying bullets, roaming checkpoints guarded by gunmen, and the constant threat of a street battle erupting around the corner at any moment, a new underground television channel has become must-see TV for residents of Aleppo, Syria.

It doesn't look like much. Aleppo Today TV, with it photographic slideshow of Aleppo in happier times accompanied by Syrian music, is not what many would expect from a 24-hour news channel. But two rolling news bars at the bottom of the screen have become a vital news source for residents navigating the shifting violence in Syria's largest city.

"Aleppo Today started at a time when a person in Aleppo might know that someone a couple of blocks away got killed, or a demonstration happened in the next neighborhood," wrote Omar Halabi, the assistant manager of Aleppo Today, in an e-mail to CNN.

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Aleppo Today now broadcasts from a country neighboring Syria. Due to security concerns and because their broadcasts have been jammed by the Syrian regime at least four times, the channel's managers do not want their base of operations disclosed.

The channel's management says it can't broadcast anything more than still images because it can't afford the bandwidth. To avoid jamming by the Syrian government, Aleppo Today's news director said, the network uploads and beams its content through at least two other countries before it is finally sent into Syria.

"We have to be sneaky, we have to be undercover," said "Ahmed," one of the channel's news editors. For the safety of his family still living in Aleppo, the 23-year old Syrian, who worked as a baker until the uprising began more than 20 months ago, asked not to have his named published in full.

Read more: Syrian opposition gets recognition; fight rages on

Aleppo Today's approach to aggregating, sourcing and writing reliable news about the violence in Aleppo put the station in the cross-hairs of the regime and boosted its popularity.

"The regime saw us as a huge target because of the unique approach we took compared to other opposition channels," Halabi wrote. "The result: everybody watched our channel including regime supporters."

In the Aleppo Today newsroom, 11 editors from Aleppo and its countryside sit in front of computers in shifts, quietly gathering reports from 70 reporters and volunteers living in and around Syria's largest city.

It can be hard to keep lines of communication open to the reporters. Electricity in Aleppo is intermittent and the Internet goes down frequently. Most of the reporters file over Skype, gChat and Facebook. There are satellite Internet and phone setups, but not everyone on staff in Syria has access to secure communications.

Read more: An afternoon with a Syrian bombmaker

Ahmed describes Aleppo Today's way of reporting: "One reporter might say he saw a bomb in a neighborhood. If he says he saw, then we write it. But if he says he heard, then we ask other people in that area if they heard, if they did then we write."

On particularly grim days in Aleppo, Ahmed's Skype account, which is usually full of reporters, contacts and family members, can suddenly go quiet. These moments prompt him to scroll through the list trying to find any new developments because "there is always something."

The channel is trying something new through double-sourcing and its policy of censoring foul language, a hard task when many in Syria refer to the country's president as a dog and routinely curse his supporters.

Aleppo Today is also trying to remain impartial in its coverage of the opposition, according to the channel's employees. But not everyone thinks that Aleppo Today is maintaining a balanced view.

With so many opposition groups in Syria, the political landscape is full of competing organizations, political parties, and councils, many of which are vying for positions in power after what most Syrians see as the inevitable fall of Bashar al-Assad.

"I am with the opposition but I don't want to work for the opposition," said Samir Kanjo, a former news editor at the channel. He left after disagreements over broadcast policy. Kanjo claimed the channel was turning into a mouthpiece for the Transitional Revolutionary Council, one of the larger political opposition groups active in Aleppo.

"We do not work for a group, we work for all Syrians," said Feras Dibbeh, who replaced Kanjo as the news editor.

Dibbeh insisted Aleppo Today is apolitical, and funded only by concerned Syrian businessmen who prefer to remain anonymous.

Those entrepreneurs apparently have plans to expand their media properties. Dibbeh showed CNN journalists a small, makeshift studio his colleagues were in the process of constructing.

Dibbeh said the studio will soon be home to a new FM radio station that also will broadcast to Aleppo, yet another addition to Syria's rapidly transforming media landscape.

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