Since protests erupted in March, it has been young Syrian activists, at home and abroad, making up for the vacuum of traditional reporting in their stricken country. They risk their lives daily with humility, courage and determination.
Amer al-Sadeq has moved house three times over the last four months. The 27-year-old Syrian activist stays online late into the night – every night – in his job as spokesman for the online group Union of Coordinators of the Syrian Revolution (UCSR).
“As soon as the uprising started, activists opposed to [President] Bashar al-Assad’s regime emerged across the country in order to relay events online and to discuss events as they unfold,” he told FRANCE 24 in an interview via Skype from Damascus, by far the safest and most secure medium of voice communication.
“We gradually got to know each other and decided to create this organisation to consolidate our efforts. It helped us to coordinate our efforts better on the ground and draw the attention of international media, and ultimately gain political support.”
The UCSR has 77 representatives in towns and cities across Syria. On the ground, the jobs are also carefully split into small teams – to communicate the time and location of protests, to make the placards and banners, to take pictures and videos, and to upload the images to the Internet.
Campaign beyond borders
Since the beginning of the uprising in March, Abdulsattar Attar has been one of the administrators of the Facebook group Syrian Revolution 2011
(in Arabic), which is followed by some 240,000 people. It is considered one of the principal motors of the uprising. Dozens of messages, photos and videos are published every day. Attar, 25, has never set foot in Syria. His parents fled the country in the 1980s and he grew up in Jordan, where he opened a restaurant. He now lives in exile in Belgium, far from his wife and two children. “Every few days I get threats, by email and by telephone, from the Syrian security services or from the embassy here,” he told FRANCE 24 in a telephone interview.
“About 400 people, of whom about 100 live outside Syria, work together on this Facebook page,” he says. “Every one of these activists knows two or three trustworthy sources in different towns and villages across the country. In all, we’re in contact with thousands of Syrians.”
Working from many different countries, the Facebook group is divided into small teams with clearly defined missions. Some upload videos to YouTube, others write daily press releases and respond to media inquiries, some simply sift through the vast number of messages the group receives every day – from 1,500 on weekdays to 5,000 on Fridays, when major protests often erupt after morning prayers.
“Now that information is coming directly to us, there is almost no need to contact people and ask what is happening,” says Attar. “They now send their news and pictures directly to us.”
The evolution of the networks
International news organisations and agencies are increasingly dependent on videos and photos relayed by these groups.
Amrou (last name withheld) rarely takes his eyes off the computer screen, glancing once in a while at images flashing on the blaring television in his small living room in suburban Paris. Amrou, who has been living in France for the past two years, agreed to meet FRANCE 24 for an interview. He closely follows footage from Syria on the Qatari-based network Al-Jazeera to see if any of his group’s images have been picked up.
“Our work has evolved a lot,” he says. “Initially, we had to battle to get any of our videos used or for our witness accounts to be taken seriously by the TV channels. Now what’s most important is providing live footage – this way we can show a true picture of the revolution. More and more, the TV networks are demanding high-quality videos, which are well filmed…”
Amrou manages a small group and is in constant touch with his network of organisers, mainly in his hometown Damascus.
During the interview, one of Amrou’s contacts calls – he will be broadcasting live images from a Damascus suburb through the online video streaming website Bambuser, a site that specialises in broadcasting images live from mobile phones and webcams.
Anxious, Amrou constantly refreshes his computer screen and chain smokes. While waiting for the Damascus video, other images come through from Homs in the centre of the country, and are relayed directly to various media via social networks.
Finally, the video stream comes through from Damascus. But after a few minutes it stops, after the building where the activists are hiding comes under fire.
Risks and challenges
Hozan Ibrahim, spokesman for the Local Coordination Committee (LCC), lives in Hannover, Germany; he fled Syria a year ago. He works in an activist cell responsible for media, uploading information and images to social networking sites. He also sends daily news updates to dozens of international media outlets and provides journalists with the contact information of witnesses and protesters.
“If the pictures and videos are sent to us by people who are in our network, we just publish them,” he says. “If not, then we verify the accuracy from two or three sources before putting them online.”
“There are at least five in this group connected to the internet at any one time,” he says. “We are always on top of what is going on.”
But the going is not easy. While Ibrahim says that the networks are getting increasingly organised, the obstacles are growing too. He cited he death of one young Syrian who used to provide images to the LCC from the city of Homs. According to the group, the activist was under surveillance by Syrian security forces.
In Paris, Amrou admits that the work is piling up. “We have more and more work, and not enough people to carry it out," he says. “There are less than 100 of us connected seven days a week and covering the essential jobs.”
Being connected at all, inside Syria itself, can prove to be the biggest challenge. “We can know that tanks have entered a town, but without the images to prove it, the story carries little weight,” Attar says.
Last week, Sadeq was due to speak from Damascus to Al Jazeera journalists. But his mobile phone was being monitored and could not be used for an interview. His internet connection was too slow to use Skype. His only option was a satellite phone that had been given to him by a Syrian expatriate.
“The signal from these devices is very easy to pick up and localise,” he said. “And I speak a lot on foreign TV. My voice could be recognised.”
‘The revolution belongs to the youth’
Despite their courage in flouting government restrictions, personal security remains the No. 1 issue for these young activists.
“As soon as an activist is identified by the [ruling] Baath party or by the security services, he risks immediate arrest,” says Sadeq. “They go door to door on searches, and some die in custody. Families are delivered corpses. Some people have been missing for four months, and we have no idea what has happened to them."
Being wounded at a demonstration brings a new set of risks. “During protests, the main danger is being shot by soldiers and militias. But if you are not killed and simply wounded, the danger is of being taken to a government hospital, where we know many people are murdered," Sadeq says. "So we try to set up field hospitals at protests, to treat people on the spot. But that is also dangerous.”
Back in Paris, Amrou is nervous. He has no news of friends in Damascus who were trying to upload images.
“Many young people have been killed since the beginning of the uprising,” he says. “One of these deaths may well have been my fault. He sent through some amazing material, but I’m sure the pictures allowed the security forces to find him.”
Brought together by the internet, the diverse networks of young activists form a vast community that cooperates as much as possible.
“If someone needs a contact in Hama, we hand it over,” says Attar. “We are all in this together. This revolution belongs to all the youth of Syria. I’m privileged to be able to do this job, but I’m just one person at the heart of a huge movement. We are all fighting for our country.”