Citizen journalism keeps Syria uprising alive
BEIRUT – Defying a state-imposed media blackout, Syria’s citizen journalists are keeping protest coverage alive, in a country that until only a few months ago barred access to social media networks.
“With the efficiency of the networks that were developed over the past few weeks, through which we can now see into every town and village in Syria, there is no way the regime can stop information or footage, videos, and images from coming out,” declared Syrian activist Ausama Monajed.
“The role of the new media is extremely vital. It is bridging the gap between what activists are doing on the ground and the classic media.”
Monajed runs The Syrian Revolution News Round-up, a daily briefing on protests, clashes and killings using eyewitness accounts and leaked footage taken by mobile phones of protesters that is authenticated to the best of their ability.
The flawlessly written briefing, in English, Arabic and French, is then e-mailed to rights groups and the international media.
Mainstream and new media have increasingly had to rely on citizen journalism — a term only recently introduced into the Arabic lexicon — for coverage of the Syria protests, which began in March and have put the regime of Bashar al-Assad under unprecedented pressure.
Major news outlets have regularly aired amateur, grainy footage of rallies and killings, which activists sometimes have to smuggle across the border to neighbouring countries to disseminate, as part of their newscasts.
Along with a handful of other Syrians based outside their homeland, Monajed is in daily contact with fellow opposition activists inside Syria, who are braving detention, torture and death to film the once-unthinkable protests — as well as the carnage that has ensued.
“A virtual operation centre has developed in which everything comes from inside the country and is assembled abroad,” Monajed told AFP by telephone from the United States.
“People on the ground contact us, feed us information, images, contact numbers, whatever they have, and all this is processed and disseminated back into the country and fed into international mainstream media outlets.”
The Syria uprising has left more than 1,000 dead as state security forces crack down on protesters demanding major democratic reforms after 48 years of Baath rule. Countless others have been detained, according to rights groups.
Syrian authorities have since tightened their iron clasp on the media, denying the press entry to protest hubs including Daraa and Latakia and assigning “escorts” to journalists reporting around the capital.
Shaam News Network, which identifies itself as a “group of patriotic Syrian youth activists… supporting the Syrian people’s efforts for democratic and peaceful change,” has gained popularity for putting news and footage of the uprising online.
Facebook, YouTube and Twitter emerged as a motor of regime-changing protests in Egypt and Tunisia, and have since been a source of information on demonstrations and killings in Syria for citizens and journalists alike.
One of the first indicators that the protest movement would not be short-lived was when Facebook group The Syria Revolution 2011 won tens of thousands of followers within days as the first videos began to surface online.
But Assad’s government has also launched a cold war on information and communications technology, with activists turning to satellite phones when Internet access is cut off and mobile phone networks jammed.
“Much of our communication network depends on satellite communication equipment,” said Lebanese-based activist Rami Nakhle.
Nakhle, who edits a daily “Jasmine Revolution” report on protests and killings and sends it to journalists around the world, pointed to the improvement of mobile phone footage in recent weeks.
Citizens filming rallies now give the time and place of the protest on camera and demonstrators carry placards bearing the name of their cities.
Internet users in Syria have long had to go through proxies to access social networking sites such as Facebook, as well as the Arabic version of Wikipedia.
President Assad however opened access to Facebook in February, saying he had nothing to fear as Arab governments began to tighten their grip on Internet access amid the spreading uprisings.
But his opponents say the move was yet another ploy to allow closer monitoring of online dissent.
“We have reports from our contacts in Syria that several people are being forced to disclose their Facebook and email passwords under interrogation,” said Nakhle, who along with his peers depends on Skype to communicate as it is monitored less closely than the telephone network.
“Most people have now learned to go incognito online, but it is still a matter of concern.”
Yet despite all safety concerns, thousands of Syrians citizens today have found a voice.
“A major role citizen journalism is playing is that it is magnifying the dispossession and despair of those who cannot speak,” said sociologist Samir Khalaf, professor at the American University of Beirut.
“Who is going to speak on behalf of those who are bereft of speech? This is where citizen journalism comes in… in an uprising that is all about citizenship.”