#Syria’s information revolution brings news out of the dark
Demonstrators against syria’s President Bashar al-Assad gather in Homs December 13, 2011. Security forces shot dead 17 people in syria on Tuesday and rebels killed seven police in an ambush, activists said, after the U.N. human rights chief put the death toll from nine months of protest against President al-Assad at 5,000. Picture taken December 13, 2011. REUTERS/Handout
BEIRUT: Fadi Aho describes his childhood in northeast Syria in the 1980s as “living in a fortress within a fortress.”
In Qamishle, near the borders of Turkey and Iraq, he was separated not only by the 650 kilometers between him and the political and cultural capital Damascus, but also by the tightly controlled police state, which he said had prevented him from knowing much about either home or abroad.
“There was no real source of news,” he recalls. “No one talked about anything or knew anything.”
This began to change in the 1990s, with the arrival of satellite television. For the first time, many Syrians from remote areas, without reception to Lebanese stations, could follow non-state news. Still, they lacked independent coverage of domestic news.
Then, in 2000, when Syrian President Bashar Assad assumed power following the death of his father, the country experienced a brief period of media freedom, with a select amount of private publications allowed (although still monitored by the state). With the arrival of the internet the same year, new websites also began to appear, but those considered too critical of the government were blocked.
All of this changed drastically following the beginning of the uprising nine months ago, when ordinary people wanted to tell the world – and fellow Syrians – their stories. Inspired by neighboring countries, with the help of mobile phones and many people willing to speak out for the first time, Syrians began a new era of a free media.
Today, it is possible to get live updates of protests, crackdowns and new developments of the uprising. In August, amid the rise of new media, the opposition print weekly newspaper Hurriyat was established, secretly distributing copies to people throughout the country.
Aho, who had left Syria to work with the Syrian satellite station Orient News four months prior to the uprising, says he was sad to be abroad at that time because he wanted to be a part of the new media coverage inside of Syria.
For the first time, through regular Syrians posting videos of demonstrations and human rights violations, many people are finally hearing about topics state media never touched. This has no doubt played a role in keeping up the momentum of the protests as well as the international reaction to the protests.
“It’s critical to shed light on what’s happening in Syria. Otherwise it will be a repeat scenario of 1982 in Hama [in which several thousand protesters were massacred at the hands of government forces],” says Malath Aumran, spokesperson of the Local Coordination Committees, an umbrella organization of activist groups. He says that 30 years ago the news of Hama took over a month to reach the international media with much of the details still unclear. This time, he says, “The news of Daraa [the first city in the uprising to experience a government crackdown] spread in five minutes. And then people protested in solidarity with Daraa.”“In the Arab Spring, Syrians are in a unique position. They have to revolt, and they have to cover it,” says Wissam Tarif, Arab world coordinator for Avaaz (voice in Persian), an international non-governmental organization that promotes civic activism and has been instrumental in connecting citizen journalists with the international media in countries with media black-outs, such as Syria.
Throughout the country, in the remotest villages of rural provinces, many people who were once too afraid to speak out against their government are now risking their lives to tell the world their stories.
Yet for some Syrians closely following the news of their home country the amateur videos don’t take the place of traditional media.
“This doesn’t mean that we can replace the mainstream media. We need media outlets to cover incidents to give credible sources to the world and international community of what is happening in Syria,” says Kinda Kanbar, a Syrian freelance journalist based in Washington, DC. She adds that some events she has heard about from friends have not been covered by citizen journalists.
Still, over the past nine months, citizen journalism in Syria, while still lacking in resources, has become much more organized. At the beginning of the uprising, because of a scarcity of mobile phones and a still nascent internal opposition movement, some of the first videos of demonstrations that were filmed were played repetitively on television stations, leading some to speculate that the media was exaggerating coverage of the unrest.
Today, images from Syria, while still mostly from amateur mobile phone footage, have increased in quality and quantity, and news outlets can now be selective about the footage. Tarif says that with the satellite phones and modems Avaaz sends to Syria, all equipped with GPS, it is impossible to fabricate the locations from where the information is sent. He has also seen that citizen journalists are becoming more expert in identifying the times and locations of their footage, for example making sure to film recognizable mosques or showing the front page of a newspaper to verify the date.
In fact, Tarif says that since the uprising began, citizen journalism has been more accurate than state media reports, noting a press conference last month by Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem, with purported video footage being shown of the Islamic extremists supporting the Syrian opposition in Homs. The men who appeared in the video later told The Daily Star that the video was actually taken in Lebanon in 2008.
In some cases, the amateur quality of reporting from Syria actually gives credibility to the coverage.
Barada TV launched in 2009 with the help of a U.S. NGO. Today, the station operates with a staff of 11, mainly funded by Syrian expatriates.
“We’re badly funded, but we’re doing our best. People like that,” says Malik Abdeh. “If we were well funded, then people would be suspicious. It’s guerrilla broadcasting.”
Despite his personal stance against the government, he says he does his best to engage all sides and all communities. They air a weekly program in Kurdish called Ronahi (meaning light), and they’re also considering starting one for Christians, a group that until now has not participated in large numbers in anti-government demonstrations.
“We try to see both sides,” Abdeh says. “We don’t want to appear one-sided. Just because they haven’t been coming out and protesting doesn’t mean they’re evil.”
After nine months of covering Syria’s uprising, he also knows that it’s not just about broadcasting demonstrations, but also about discussing uncomfortable topics such as the country’s future and the possibility of sectarian tension.
“We can’t just broadcast demonstrations. We need to alleviate fears people have about what’s going to happen next. We don’t want to replace one tyranny with another,” Abdeh says. “Even if Assad is toppled, a lot of people would be unhappy. We need to engage those people.”
Aumran agrees that even though many of Syria’s citizen journalists have honed their skills in reporting the crucial facts on the ground, they still haven’t gotten to the point of telling the human stories of the uprising.
“They’ve gained credibility, and that’s fine,” says Aumran. “But now, 30 dead in Syria in one day is nothing new. We need more personal stories.”
Read more: http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Middle-East/2011/Dec-15/156988-syrias-information-revolution-brings-news-out-of-the-dark.ashx?#ixzz1gf0zX5Pq
(The Daily Star :: Lebanon News :: http://www.dailystar.com.lb)