By Mónica G. Prieto (Homs, Syria)
Translation: Blanca G. Bertolaza
- Fourth chapter of the “Syrian Chronicles”, written this Christmas in the besieged city of Homs, in Syria.
- The only source of images from Syria are the recordings made by citizens who use the Internet to broadcast them to the rest of the world.
- Neighbors such as Bilal, Hussein, Eyyed, Abu Saleh and many others learned that no one would believe them without witness evidence. This is their story.
The images that opened the Al Jazeera Arabic news last Monday night were extremely harsh. Several civilians lay in a narrow street in Baba Amr that had just been attacked by a tank, all of them dead. One of them had his head split open, another one had died curled up against a wall, yet another lay on a huge pool of blood. Later, the scenes of tanks shooting through the city gave a clear idea of the range of the repression and, a few seconds afterwards, the images of this neighborhood’s field hospital disheartened Arab spectators.
The author of this article, journalist Mónica G. Prieto, and a citizen of Homs dodge shots fired by Assad’s army while trying to cross a street battered by snipers and soldiers. This video was filmed this Christmas 2011 by one of the civilian cameras in the Baba Amr neighborhood.
By Mónica G. Prieto / Translation: Blanca G. Betolaza
- Internet sitcom Just Freedom launches devastating criticism against Syria’s regime and repression in a humorous tone
- Created by exiled artists, it seeks to question official propaganda
- On its first month if life, it has caught the interest of 200,000 viewers
The two young men sip their tea with a blank stare, sitting in a peeled off garage. “You know what? I’d like to go out there.” “Out there, where?” “There, with the people, sing with all of them”, answers the first one. “You’re crazy. They can’t be going out just like that. That’s because they are taking something”. “Taking what?” At that moment a street vendor hawks his goods. “Hallucinogenic pills, I have them all! Al Arabiya, Al Jazeera, France 24, BBC… Hallucinogenic pills!” “See how it wasn’t impossible?” points out the second one as he casts his eyes on the vendor. Leer más
The world looks at Syria for the first time in decades, while hundreds of thousands of citizens demonstrate against the regime that has ruled the country for almost 50 years. While hundreds of protesters were killed according to many reports, the official version shows quite a different picture. The gap between the state-controlled narrative and what the population is witnessing is growing bigger as citizens share and build upon their own narrative with the tools provided by the Internet.
SANA, the state news agency, highlighted the following news on April 22, the day when the protests gained momentum and over a 100 protesters were killed:
● The reforms announced by the President Basshar El-Assad.
● The attack against a police car where a policeman was killed and 11 others wounded.
● Images of shattered windows and destroyed cars caused by what the State-Media calls “terrorists”, “armed groups”, “gangs” and “thieves”.
● Pictures of confiscated weapons, including: sticks, axes, bottles, cans. Also, shockingly enough, mobile phones with “foreign Sim-cards”.
● Interviews with demonstrators showing their regret for having participated in the protests.
● Citizens sharing their opinions, with accusations that range from accusing Salafi groups to blaming the unrest on a Western plot against the country.
● Interviews and analysis of the reforms announced by the President
● Analysis of articles and blog posts like the one published on Counterpunch, Syria and the Delusions of the Western Press, that accuses Western media of hiding and manipulating information to damage Syria´s image.
After April 22, official communications have continued to highlight the death of the policemen, the implication of foreign interests in the country and pro-government reactions.
This is the communication system Syrians have grown used to. The Syrian telecommunications market, one of the least developed in the Middle East, is the most regulated in the region. Syrian Telecom owns the telecommunications infrastructure, and only a few journalists manage to get accreditation. But now, through digital platforms, an alternative narrative emerges: citizens voices reach out to the world after decades of media silence over Syria.
Internet media and platforms have been flooded for weeks, but especially since April 22, with images and videos taken by the protestors mainly through mobile phones, and shared by citizens and media worldwide. Some of these videos, which include very graphic content, can be watched here. One of the videos shows several hands raised holding mobile phones to record the funeral of a protestor killed the day before, illustrating the relationship between citizen communication and mobile technology.
This map includes the spots where mobilizations have taken place and helps visualize the scope of the protests:
The Internet Battle
We should be aware that the real communication battle takes place on the Internet. The Syrian regime has blocked sites and platforms like Youtube, Facebook, Blogger, and Wikipedia for decades, and Syrians have grown used to accessing them through proxies. A few months ago Facebook and Youtube were unblocked, which was welcomed by many Internet users.
Pages like “Syrian Revolution 2011″, with around 150,000 followers from inside and outside the country (but mainly administered from abroad) have been sharing information for months and encouraging followers to take to the streets. This page was apparently hacked during April 23. A new page was opened and gained 2,000 followers in only a few hours, but the original page was back at the end of the day.
Other spaces, like the Syrian Women Observatory facebook group, called upon protesters not to take to the streets in order to stop the bloodshed. In a manifesto issued on April 22, the Observatory called upon the Government to undertake the reforms announced and called on protesters to give the government a 15 day chance to prove the reform process is real.
At the same time, there are other pages that are supportive of the government and the president. One example is the “Youth only for Asad’s Syria” facebook page where new users are welcomed with a cheerful picture of the President´s family.
This Internet Battle between can be found on Twitter too. This network, which allows for quick spreading of short messages, has proved to be very effective for citizens to organize and communicate from the beginning of mobilizations. Users like AnonymousSyria have been sharing many anti-government images, videos and slogans. For example, one of the posters designed and published on twitter has become a motto for Syrian protesters, in response to the official one: “God, Syria, Basshar and nothing else”.
God, Syria, Freedom and nothing else
To counter these messsages, two new kind of pro-government twitter users have emerged, as Syrian blogger Anas Qtiesh explains:
- What twitter users call “twitter eggs”: Newly created accounts, mostly imageless, that verbally threatened anyone tweeting favoraly about the ongoing protests or criticizing the regime. Those accounts were believed to be manned by Syrian intelligence agents with poor command of both written Arabic and English. The user @AnonymousSyria has included some of these accounts on this list.
- Spam accounts that are configured to publish tweets at predetermined intervals. The tweets are associated to the tag #Syria and include links to photos, soccer games, pro-government news and other random information about Syria.. This is an example of a picture shared by user Thelovelysyria
Pro-government users have also created twitter lists where users that support the uprisings or stand with the right to free speech in the country are added. The list Against Terror, Fake Massmedia includes media like BBC or Al-Jazeera, human rights organizations like Press Freedom and Amnesty International, journalists like Brian Whitaker and Dima Khatib and social platforms like Youtube, along with activists and members from the opposition. In reaction to demonstrations, authorities have also started to follow Egypt and Libya´s steps, preventing citizens from communicating with each other and the rest of the world through communication blackouts. Internet blackouts have been reported in Daraa, where the uprising started. On April 25, not only the Internet but also land phones and mobile phones were cut in Daraa, Duma and other towns and neighborhoods leaving them completely isolated amid escalation of repression against demonstrators.
The blackouts will fall short from preventing the world to hear the stories Syrians are sharing first-hand. In a context of glowingly decentralized information, centralized narratives — characteristic of authoritarian regimes — become exposed as echoes of an official voice that hardly anyone trusts. But we should keep in mind that although citizens may be winning the communication battle, the weapons are still in the hands of those who have the power over people´s lives.
In the words of twitter user Syrianews:
“Another journalist expelled. Syria will suffer while propaganda and Youtube become the only sources in the country”
By Mónica G. Prieto (Beirut) / Translation: Blanca García
- After Bashar Asad’s reactionary speech in which he avoided talking about reforms, the protest campaigns become consolidated through Internet.
- The regime’s promises of not shooting at demonstrators haven’t stopped the repression.
There are countries in which free access to the Internet is not a right. It is rather a tool feared by regimes, which they try to block, restrict or limit, in a vain attempt to keep Internet surfers to see beyond the limitations. It happened in Sadam Husein’s Iraq, in Ben Ali ´s Tunisia and in Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt, it happens in Iran, in Libya, in Bahrain, in Saudi Arabia, in the United Arab Emirates, in almost all of the Arabic world- with the exceptions of Lebanon and Palestine-. And, of course, in Bashar Asad’s Syria.
Last weekend, Syrian web access suffered a blackout for six hours. It wasn’t the first time since the Arab spring began, but it is very meaningful. In the context of revolutions, the mix of hopelessness, education, a fit of dignity and communication skills, every blackout seems to show the desperation of a regime which sees itself against the ropes. So it isn’t a good sign for Damascus that Syrian internet users, who are used to dealing with all kind of difficulties, were disconnected last Sunday.
Useless, on the other hand: in social networks like Twitter or Facebook there are all kinds of open manuals and software made to get around the regime’s obstacles, to prevent IP addresses from being detected and even to stay online when the Internet has been disconnected. Everything is useless. In Syria, where many web sites- media considered hostile, sites seen as revolutionary- are blocked by the regime but there are a lot of Internet Cafes whose owners, well versed in computers, can solve the access difficulties in a couple of clicks. That´s why it was surprising that the first calls to demonstration, which were announced through Facebook, didn’t work.
Dozens of muhabarat agents showed up at the protests, willing to break up marches that nobody attended. It was explained that these first calls came from outside of Syria in an external attempt to mobilize the dissidence. The regime became over-confident and even unblocked access to Facebook for the first time in History- until then, Internet surfers overcame with wit and tunnels the block on the social network, imposed as soon as it became popular- and that’s where it all started, Ahed al Hendi, Syirian dissident responsible for the Arabian section in Cyberdissidents.org, platform dedicated to giving an online voice to dissidents around the world, explains to Human Journalism.
“Without the Internet, we wouldn’t have been able to see videos or pictures of the crimes of Asad’s regime. The Internet activated the first movement when members of anti-Asad groups marched along Damasco on March 15th. When the media showed the videos of the protests that were posted on line, many more Syrians watched it, and it helped to break the wall of fear” Hendi remembers through an email exchange.
Adel left Syria four years ago, after being released from prison: he tells that for 40 days he was incarcerated because of his involvement in pro-democratic activities, being an student. Nowadays, he is an active regime opponent who uses any forum to call for insurrection, as he recently did in a Wall Street Journal article, where he analyzed the role of the Internet in the protests. “The first calls to protest started on Facebook”, he wrote. Organizers have preferred to stay anonymous, but one thing is clear: they aren’t Islamic. In the group Syrian Revolution against Bashar Asad, with 60000 member so far, Fadi Edlbi has written “national unity, everyone for freedom, Christian and Muslim”. Another member, Shadi Deeb, “ we are not Sunnis, we are not Alaouites , all of us sing for freedom”. And while he is saying this, he puts a picture with the cross and half moon as a sign of unity. The page in question has today 104.000 fans.
It seems ironic that it was Bashar Asad who introduced the Internet into Syrian houses when he came to power, 11 years ago. He promised to generalize its use, but the figures speak for themselves: of a 23 million people population, there were just 3.935.000 users in June of 2010, 17’7 % of the population. And until last February, it was officially forbidden to access Facebook. However, this hasn’t prevented that, from outside and inside the country, Syrian have used social networks as an instrument of mobilization. Or rather, that the facts spread on social networks, overcoming state censorship,are mobilizing consciences.
What would have happened if the Internet had existed in 1982, when Hafez Asad, father of the current president of Syria -actually, Bashar inhereted the office- ordered the massacre of between 10,000 and 20,000 civilians in Hama to suffocate an islamist revolt? “The truth is that without social networks, we would have never known about what happened two weeks ago in Daraa: it would have been exaclty the same as with the Hama massacre”, explains #daraanow, an active twitter. The person hiding behind this user calls himself Fash (something like annoyance in slang), was born and raised in the city of Daraa, the same one that originated the protests after the arrests of 15 students by Syrian agents: they were accused of painting a revolutionary slogan on a wall. “Now, thanks to Twitter, Facebook and the uploaded videos it took me less than five minutes to know the story of those kids. I don’t even want to imagine what would have happened if we had had them 30 years ago. A lot of people still have no idea about what happened in Hama”.
Fash has been living outside of Syria for ten years: his last visit was five years ago, when he went to Daraa to visit his family, that still lives in his home city. He keeps in contact with his relatives, friends and neighbors on the phone but also throught the Internet. “The ¿? has been down for weeks in Daraa, but thanks to its geographical location, close to the Jordan border, we can communicate using other countries’ networks”, he explained on a chat conversation.?¿
So understandable has been the eagerness to tell what was happening as the eagerness to know. “I had more than 200 followers (on Twitter) in the first hour, I imagine because people had a lot of curiosity for what was happening in Syria, a country in which no one has been able to stick their nose in in the last 30 years”. And the more followers he has (more than 1,200 right now), the more he wants to carry on with what he has called e-jihad, a cybernetic and secular war with the only goal of taking down the dictatorship and obtaining freedom. “There are many more people promoting initiatives like mine inside the country at a larger scale”.
Because the difficulties imposed by the regime are relative. “There are many ways to avoid censorship, such as proxy servers that work from the outside of Syria”, continues Ahed. “The people of Syria are beginning to understand the crucial role the internet and social networks play. In spite of the fact that the government does everything in its hand to stop being connected to the world, the examples of Tunisia and Egypt prove that this instrument has been underestimated. The Syrian regime still has the idea of the Hama massacres: Kill and no one will know. That is over, the Syrians know it”. For those who don’t have computer knowledge or a computer with which to tell the outside world about what is happening, there are cell phones. Almost half the population owns a cellular phone and recordings and pictures taken with them fly, as prove several Facebook groups such as the Syrian Uprising Information Centre, brother to its arabian site, which live off the civilian contributions to illustrate what is happening in Syria.
Basically Twitter is used more to spread information to the world than to mobilize people”, stresses Hendi. “It’s Facebook what is mobilizing the people. And I fear that if this hadn’t started in Tunisia, it would have in any other place. Tyrannies cannot last forever”, concludes the ciberactivist.