Obscure Syrian TV station in spotlight over US ties

The once obscure Syrian cable channel Barada TV has tripled its output since the start of anti-regime protests in Syria, but its newfound fame has sparked accusations it is secretly funded by Washington.

Journalists from across the world have streamed through its tiny London offices this week, ever since the Washington Post published documents obtained by WikiLeaks suggesting the US State Department helped fund the channel.

"I hadn't seen anyone since the channel was formed two years ago and now suddenly all the world is interested in us," chief editor Malik al-Abdeh said.

The Post reported Monday that since 2006, the State Department had funnelled ê6 million (4.1 million euros) to the London-based Syrian opposition Movement for Justice and Development, which is closely affiliated with Barada TV.

The money was paid through a Californian non-governmental organisation, according to the newspaper, which cited documents sent from the US embassy in Damascus and leaked to whistle-blowing website WikiLeaks.

In an interview at the channel's tiny offices, Abdeh told AFP the channel had "no dealings with the US government at all".

Although he helped create the Movement for Justice and Development in 2006, the 30-year-old insisted it was "completely separate" from Barada TV.

He added: "The opposition political parties have not received a single penny whether from NGOs or non-NGOs."

Abdeh acknowledged that Barada TV was half-financed by the Democracy Council, a California-based NGO, with the rest coming from Syrian businessmen.

Democracy Council's website lists the State Department as one of its donors, along with Jewish, Palestinian and Tamil groups.

But he insisted: "This whole story is out of proportion. You have seen how small our offices are, we have less than a dozen staff and our annual budget is less than ê1 million.

"When people make out as if we were some kind of CIA-sponsored thing, it's ridiculous."

The alleged ê6 million funding pales in comparison with the US financing of Iraqi opposition groups, which reached ê97 million dollars in 1998, according to Nadim Shehade, Middle East expert with Britain's Chatham House think-tank.

Abdeh questioned the timing of the Washington Post report, saying the leaked documents may have been passed to the paper, possibly by the Syrian ambassador in Washington, to try to discredit the Syrian opposition.

The editor added that regardless of who funds Barada TV, they had "no influence on what we broadcast". The channel hosts "everyone from all political and religious backgrounds," he stressed.

It may not yet command the same ratings as Al-Jazeera or the BBC but Barada TV has stepped up its efforts since protests against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime began on March 15 and now transmits ten hours of live footage per week to the Middle East via satellite.

Images of the demonstrations are sent in -- sometimes at huge risk to themselves -- by freelance journalists or by reporters from other well-established media organisations within Syria.

The station's interactive daily online broadcast also allows Syrians to voice their opinions on a topical subject.

"The fear barrier has broken more or less, especially for people in places where there are protests," Abdeh said. "If you keep the lines open you would probably get hundreds of phone calls."

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