Public protests against the government of President Bashar al-Assad have put Syria’s emerging civil war front page and at the top of the news around the world. But from the revolution’s start more than 15 months ago, Assad has all but barred the international media from providing on-the-ground coverage of events which, according to some sources, have already claimed the lives of more than 16,000 Syrians and made Assad a pariah among world leaders.
In response, hundreds, if not thousands of Syrian activists picked up smart phones to visually document events and report in 140 characters or less about the conflict. This army of self-annointed reporters has uploaded thousands upon thousands of YouTube videos, and used Twitter, Facebook and Skype in heretofore almost unimagined ways to show the world that their government was committing unspoken atrocities against its own people.
Few of Syria’s new breed of citizen-journalists reveal their real names. Many have fled their homes to avoid being uncovered by Syrian authorities in a country journalist advocacy organizations arenow calling the most dangerous place in the world for reporters.
Social media with a heavy news beat
“It’s a different kind of journalism than I have experienced,” said Liz Sly, the Washington Post’s Baghdad bureau chief who has been spending most of her time in Beirut reporting on the Syria conflict. Sly says that in her 20 years as a foreign correspondent, this is the first story she can see for herself only by means of brief and infrequent trips to Syria: she has been allowed in the country only three times since the conflict began. On those travels, said Sly, she always touched base with some of the more than 100 Syrians whose amateur journalism she has deemed crucial to her reporting.
“I can reach out to them,” Sly told Middle East Voices, “but when we have breaking news in a place we’ve never heard from, it’s a scramble.” Finding a new reliable source and a secure line of communication is never easy, said she.
“If you’re not there and you cannot see it, you have to say you can’t verify this” – Liz Sly, Washington Post in Beirut
The Washington Post has joined dozens of media outlets – from the Associated Press to the Die Zeit – in supplementing their reports with these anonymous Syrian citizen journalists.
Sly’s list of citizen-journalists is filled with assumed names, but she says she knows the identities of most of them. She has met many of them during the three brief trips she has made into the Syria or in Beirut cafes when her contacts manage to leave the country.
She quotes sources who meet her standards of accuracy in her reports, but with a caveat that has become a byword of Syrian war reporting: This information cannot be independently verified.
“If you’re not there and you cannot see it, you have to say you can’t verify this,” Sly said.
“That’s the one reason why it took the world quite a long time to wake up to what is going on in Syria,” Sly said. “And it was really quite a long time before the overwhelming consistency of the reports and the sheer volume of the videos made people realize all of this was stuff really going on.”
In this unconventional working environment, Sly spends long hours waiting at her computer. “This is the first time I have spent so many long hours looking at my computer and waiting for a guy to come online. And if he doesn’t, I think, ‘God, I hope he’s okay and that nothing happened to him.’ It’s always a huge worry,” said Sly.
Citizen journalists and the technology they depend on
Estimates of the number of civilians who are relaying the scale of violence in Syria on social media platforms run in the thousands. The opposition Local Coordination Committees of Syria (LCC) relies on several hundred unpaid volunteers who have helped organize and document street protests and citywide merchant strikes during the course of the past 15 months.
“Anytime anybody is caught, that is practically the last we hear of them”- Rafif Jouejati, Local Coordination Committees of Syria
The LCC says it maintains 70 reporting committees throughout Syria which, in addition to organizing street actions, conduct detailed daily body counts, confirm individual deaths through families, eye-witnesses or by personally identifying the bodies of those killed. The LCC also offers a 24-hour reporting and translating service for the international media.
“The activists have to stay one or several steps ahead of the regime,” says Rafif Jouejati, a Washington, D.C.-based spokesperson and coordinator for the LCC. According to her, most have to change their locations every few days and all have adapted to ever-changing technologies to avoid government detection. Most LCC operatives now use satellite-based Internet Protocol devices manufactured by U.S. and British firms that operate their own satellites, said she.
“We’ve lost a great many activists detained, arrested, tortured to death and shot on the spot,” said Jouejati. “It is in the hundreds.”
“Anytime anybody is caught, that is practically the last we hear of them,” she added.
Citizen journalists unite
From his apartment in Cairo, Egypt, a Syrian blogger who reportedly recently escaped from Damascus created what may become Syria’s first private association of professional journalists. Rami Jarrah founded the Activists News Association (ANA)with support from private donors and two European foundations. ANA offers Syria’s clandestine reporters training and equipment which it gets into Syria by smuggling it across the Lebanese border.
“You come to a point where you realize who is telling the truth and who is not” – Rami Jarrah, Activists News Association
Jarrah said he maintains a network of 350 Syrians who file reports. Twenty-eight of the best will soon receive about $400 a month as reporters whose dispatches he says will become available on a soon-to-be-launched ANA New Media Association website.
After three years as a blogger in Damascus and several months working with hundreds of Syria’s citizen-journalists, Jarrah says he has developed a system of vetting good reporters simply by asking Syrian expats familiar with specific regions to check for exaggeration of wrong facts, and through comparing the facts from several reporters who write on the same event.
“You come to a point where you realize who is telling the truth and who is not,” said Jarrah. He added that he also discovered a few “reporters” planted by the Syrian government who “joined the activist network and the citizen-journalist network and have tried to exploit it or pollute it.”
“It’s hard to do it any other way. I mean, I don’t think there is a more professional way we can do it, given the situation and the fact that most journalists are barred form the country.” (Click here to listen to a Public Radio International interview with Rami Jarrah)
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) calls Syria the most dangerous country for journalists based on recent death counts. Its accounting does not include additional losses claimed by the LCC and other opposition organizations inside and outside Syria. Officially, CPJ lists 13 journalists as killed in the country to date this year. Some of the recorded deaths may be the result of random acts of violent warfare. However, CPJ notes that the circumstances of some deaths suggest Assad’s security forces and the armed “shabiha” militias are specifically targeting journalists to perpetuate a media blackout which, for now, seems to be helping to keep Assad in power.
David Arnold coordinates the Syria Witness project at Middle East Voices and reports on Middle East and North Africa affairs for both Voice of America and MEV. The Syria Witness project publishes on-the-ground citizen reporting, giving Syrians the opportunity to offer to a global audience their first-person narratives of life on the streets of their war-torn country.