A month ago I entered Syria by land from Turkey. After a couple of week in Syria investigating as an under cover observer the Syrian uprise – which started by now almost 6 month ago – I moved to Beirut searching for the activists working from outside the country.
Coincidentally, I got in touch with an Egyptian activist who was here for a conference and who gave me the contact of a Syrian fellow involved in the events. I called him. No answer for five days. The sixth day I received a message with date, place and time for a meeting. I was mainly interested in the way in which the Syrian activists outside the country had set a protocol enabling the network of activists inside the country to provide almost realtime informations about the current situation of the uprise.
I meet him. It’s sunny and pretty hot. K is wearing winter boots, jeans, sports a long and twisted hair style still wet from the shower. Beard, taut skin, dark circles. His way of doing is fast, as if in a perennial wait for an imminent ambush.
He talks to me in an distracted way. He seems to act mechanically. Fatigue is filtering though, probably because of the workload. He tells me he has one hour. The coffee is almost empty. Beirut wakes up numb from the excesses of the night life, empty and brandished as much as reminiscent of the recent wars, whose stories I heard everywhere from the drunk voices of beautiful half naked libanese women.
Mitra Azar: Who are you and what are you doing?
K: I’m a Syrian activist who has repaired in Beirut, Lebanon. Before it all started I was already writing critically about the regime, but my main interest was and is in poetry, and I consider myself a poet. Now I’m part of a network of Syrian activists outside Syria, which tries to help Syrians from within to spread informations about what’s really going on inside our country. Our aim is that of taking over the regime of Bassar Assad in a peaceful way.
Mitra Azar: Why did you move away from Syria?
K: I was under pressure. My name is listed and they were searching for me. From the beginning of the uprise, the 18th of March, in Daraa, I tried to access and spread the informations about what was going on. We saw that nothing transpired from the mainstream media, and we decided to take charge of telling this story to prevent a second Hama (n.d.r. when Assad’s father killed around 30 thousand people, in a few weeks during February 1982).
Mitra Azar: How did you get informations and videos about the demonstration at the beginning?
K: We talked with the people in the interested area, getting the information, contacting the international journalists based in Damascus who then spreaded the news around. When we realized that they were not willing to take any information, we tried to contact the headquarters of the biggest news agency in the Gulf and in the West. In the first week of the uprise, almost 70% of the information about Syria were coming from me and a couple of friends.
Mitra Azar: How did this network of activists grow and how big is it now?
K: The network got naturally bigger as the uprise grew around the country. I can’t say how big it is now, but it is big enough to inform the world about what is happening inside Syria. The number of people involved in the network is changing every moment, we are suffering from the killing, the arrests, and the kidnapping of the Syrian intelligence, but we’re getting day by day new people willing to help, so it’s really difficult to say.
Mitra Azar: I understand what you mean, also because I can’t think of it as a structured hierarchical organization, but I am rather imagining it as a flexible entity where each of the activists can work alone as well as interact with the others. Am I wrong?
K: Yes, it’s like that. You cannot call it as an online army. There’s no established structure, but there are fixed tasks to achieve everyday: receiving the videos, uploading them online, contacting the news agency to prove the reliability of the video and distribute them across the media network as well as across the net, where they usually appear.
Mitra Azar: Can you explain to me step by step how your network is smuggling the videos out of the country? I’m asking you about this because I’m always surprised when I see real-time footage of the demos inside Syria on Al Jazeera, and I am wondering how it is possible to reach this so fast despite the censorship which I experienced inside Syria – where, for example, to watch a youtube video of 5 minutes you need to wait for 4 hours.
K: We know beforehand where the demonstrations are going to take place. We send our people there and we ask them to take the videos. To avoid casualties we prefer them to take these videos not from inside the demonstrations. Sometimes they rent a room in a building facing the place where the people will gather, sometimes we have contacts in the city willing to help our activists. Later on, some of the people taking part in the demonstrations are informed about the presence of our men around the area so that they can deliver the videos they’re doing from inside the crowd.
Our network provides the devices necessary to upload the footage of the demonstrations almost in real-time. From the beginning we found a way to introduce devices for satellite internet to enable people to upload the videos online by-passing the censorship.
At this point they can decide to either upload the videos by themselves to our youtube channels or to send us encrypted mails with the footage. Of course all this process takes place using proxies and software which hide the IP address of the machines involved. Our email addresses change from time to time and are not attached to our real identities. At the end of each session the computer clean up by itself deleting all the browser history etc…
Mitra Azar: What’s exactly the role of the activists outside Syria?
K: We smuggle technology inside, and people outside, Syria, we talk with the media and we check the reliability of the news coming from inside. We upload the videos when the activists inside don’t have the chance to do it autonomously and decide to send them to our mailboxes. We select the most meaningful one and we translate them, if necessary. Yesterday I received around 125 videos. Try to imagine the amount of work necessary to verify them and prepare them in form of text for newspapers, radio, internet radio, youtube, broadcast. In short, we try to be the physical, lively and moving interface of the people inside Syria, whose movement and speaking capacity is limited by the repression of the regime. We’re the echo. The real voice is inside, we’re just letting it filter.
Mitra Azar: I’m often thinking about how internet is creating reality instead of simply constituting another layer of it. Paradoxically, internet is working exactly on the same layer of the reality, and to my eyes the whole concept of virtuality as something separated or additional to the reality is not describing properly the relation without virtuality and reality.
K: Well, without videos uploaded there is no demonstration. Without demonstrations there are no arrests and killing. Without videos we can’t contact Amnesty or Human right watch to prove that basic human rights are violated. So I would say that the presences of the videos documenting the demonstrations is as essential as the demonstrations themselves.
Mitra Azar: Do you think that the Tunisians and Egyptians experience of the online activists was useful for your network to avoid certain mistakes that the previous activists might have made?
K: Starting from Daraa we were already planning to have modems and phones working with satellites, just in case the regime decided to shut down internet and mobile phones. So yes, we were ready to smooth the impact of the regime’s reaction because we had the chance to see how Egyptian and Tunisian government react to the political and massive use of the net done by the citizens.
Mitra Azar: When I was in Syria and I was watching the Syrian television, I had the impression that one can describe the Syrian uprise as a sort of battle between new media and old media. The activists upload video on the net and the old media run to get them in their broadcasting either to amplify or discredit them. The impression I had is that mass-media try to run after the real time efficiency that characterize the way new media depict reality. SANA (Syrian Arab News Agency,(http://www.sana.sy/index_eng.html), for example, intercepts the videos uploaded by the activists on youtube and immediately send its troupe to the place where the videos are supposed to come to show that those videos are not trustworthy. What do yo think about the relation between old media and new media and how you’re working to prove that the videos are reliable?
K: Citizen journalism has changed the way information has been distributed until now. Now we watch youtube videos on CNN and BBC because mass media have understood that they can not reach the precision and the simultaneity that citizen journalism can do in portraying the world.
Furthermore, social media work as echo for the citizen journalists, as activists can execute and deliver the whole process – from getting the news and shooting the videos to showing them to the world without necessarily passing through the mass media.
The other important thing is how the activists build up their credibility before the mass media asking for proofs and information. We built it up at the beginning, verifying the locations and letting the foreign journalists speak with the witnesses. Verifying videos requires a huge amount of time and energy, and sometimes it doesn’t allow us to follow up on all the events occurring. Keep in mind that my impression is that at the end of the day the activists are able to deliver around 25-30% of what is happening on the ground.
In the end I don’t think it is a fair question to ask people under fire to be professional as a TV troupe would be. Why don’t Syrian authorities let foreign journalists inside the country and let them report on what is going on? This is a symptom that something is going on and that they don’t want to show it, right? This is more valuable than accurate numbers at the demos. Al jazeera and Reuters fought for days about the number of people in Thajir square, the first saying one million was there, the second one hundreds thousand. In any case something big was happening.
About the relation between new and old media: I don’t think there is a sharp line between the two. They are rather fused together. But right now I’m not in a position that allows me to analyze the matter properly because I’m in the middle of the battle and I don’t have the lucidity to do any theoretical analysis.
Mitra Azar: Could you share some of the main online platforms where the infos about the uprise are from?
K: Sure. I think the one following is a quite interesting and complete list:
Mitra Azar: What are you fighting for, and what are your expectations after all these months? Inside I heard that actually the regime is getting stronger. Do you think it is true or is it just part of the propaganda?
K: We and the majority of Syrians want to get rid of Assad and his gang. The regime is getting stronger if by saying that you mean that is getting more cruel and brutal and violent.
K. glances at his phone for a while, scanning quickly, as in a time trap or a never-ending time gear. After less than 3 minutes he leaves. He has already put some money on the table. He says to look for him online, and to excuse him if he will not answer.