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An Oral History of Syria’s Citizen Journalism

From their earliest days posting videos to YouTube, a number of Syrians have made their name as citizen journalists, their work appearing across international media, their stories redefining what it means to be an iReporter. .

Written by Karen Leigh Published on Read time Approx. 8 minutes

Here, three of Syrian social media’s best-known voices – Syrian writer and blogger Amal Hanano; the “Revolting Syrian”; and Rami Jarrah, known online as Alexander Page – share their experience:

With professional journalists heavily restricted and deterred by the violence in Syria, videos and photos posted by citizen journalists have offered a glimpse of the ground war. Online analysts and activists amplified their impact.

Amal Hanano: The revolution depended on it: it was the front line of what was going on. Skype lines that developed between activists [became] how they got the videos out. And then that was taken to Facebook and Twitter to spread the videos. But then we got to a point where enough journalists and bloggers had their own contacts within and got to know these people, and so you didn’t need those transfers anymore. I think it’s much more organic now. It’s not as streamlined a process as it was before.

The thing that was interesting was that with the [Aug. 21] chemical weapons attack [in Ghouta], when we were tweeting about it, the whole narrative going on on Twitter centered around Egypt, because that was still prominent. I think Syrian activists got reenergized. We had a story we wanted to tell, and we felt like no one was listening. It was almost like people had video fatigue from Syria, or at least the [Western] media did, so we had to convince everybody that what was happening was huge. Then of course it took off.

Revolting Syrian: I called myself the Revolting Syrian. It came out of a joke I was having with my brother-in-law. I didn’t want to just take a video and pop it on my blog without any context, because so many were being posted without context, especially for non-Arabic speakers. And even if you did speak Arabic, a lot of the time you were like, “What’s this about?”

So I’d write a paragraph about the video: they’re in this city, they’re at this protest. I’d try to find out as much as I could very quickly, just from analyzing the video. Because there were so many coming out, thousands. And you could use four or five of them a day to add context and let people know what was going on.

I started a Twitter account to get the word out. I wouldn’t say anything about who I was on Facebook or in real life.

Soon after the revolution began, citizen journalists who’d been operating on their own formed teams and revolution-friendly news outlets.

Rami Jarrah: Our group was called the Coalition of Free Damascenes for Peaceful Change. It was 15 people across Damascus. It started with normal people taking part in protests. They weren’t seeing what they wanted to see on state TV or even on Al Jazeera, so there was a lot of anger with state TV and with channels like Al Jazeera during that first week [of protests in 2011]. Why weren’t they broadcasting these images?

People expected that Al Jazeera would go down and film because that’s what we saw them do in Egypt, and when we realized they wouldn’t, a lot of people decided to film and upload these images themselves and send them to channels like France 24 and BBC Arabic.

After three or four weeks, we started seeing collaboration between activists. The Syrian revolution was instant, it had started immediately.

On Facebook and Skype, people had to connect and vet each other amongst themselves. If someone had been on [international] TV a few times and had filmed demonstrations, I could trust them. Because the government had moles in the activist network, but the moles wouldn’t go that far [as to appear on TV or film gatherings]. That was how we vetted each other at that stage, it was very unprofessional.

Revolting Syrian: In the beginning they were organized in groups in larger cities like Halab and Homs. But for the most part, you filmed it and put it on Facebook or YouTube under anonymous names. That’s how we first started. When you’d see the first few videos, they weren’t set channels or organizations, just someone posted this video on YouTube and now you’re looking at it.

Some of the first videos were sent to Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya and other organizations. Rami [Jarrah] was one of the first people to get into Syria and pick up a camera. I was consuming this content and it was ad hoc; we’d sit there and scour Facebook. [One of the first pages] was the Syrian Day of Anger. People were scared just to go on and visit that page. You wouldn’t dream of liking it.

Amal Hanano: With time, media centers cropped up in every city and town.  They had cameras, satellite internet, phones, they had the means to get the message out. It was something that was funded by a lot of the LCCs and by individual donors’ efforts to get these people their cameras and equipment. Lots of people were interested in providing that.

Citizen journalists were motivated by the 1982 Hama massacre, from which there are few remaining images, and by a sense of awe at what was happening on their streets.

The Revolting Syrian: That was one of several motivations: just the idea of the protests and of you being able to film them. It was such a shock for us, for someone to spray paint something on a wall and for you to film that, or even just to see that.

If someone wrote “downfall of the regime” on a wall, you filmed it, or someone shouted it off the balcony.

Amal Hanano: I think people in Syria just knew, especially in Deraa, when protests started, that if they did not film this, no one would see what was happening.

There’s a terror we have as Syrians, because we live under Assad and because we knew what happened in 1982 in Hama. It’s different from Egypt: it’s a really terrifying story that’s been passed from person to person orally, and without images. No one could see what happened because no one had photos or videos. When the violence started in 2011, people knew that if they didn’t film it themselves, then nobody would believe what was happening.

Revolting Syrian: In March of this year, I went back after time away. As we were driving in across the border, seeing it written across the wall, “downfall of the regime”; to see that for yourself in Syria just blows your mind. There’s so few pictures of the 1982 massacre of Hama. There’s no videos. So there’s that motivation.

They film everything, because they see it as evidence, proof, of what’s going on. It’s become an obsession. You had tons of international journalists inside Egypt, so citizens there didn’t have to take that role. In Syria, there is nobody covering from inside. That’s where the difference is: the regime’s shutdown of journalists.

And then there’s just the shock of it all, that people would even go protest. Everyone was saying, “I have to do this, I have to film it, it might not happen again.”

The original group filmed protests and fighting, often at great personal risk.

Amal Hanano: So many of the [original] citizen journalists aren’t around anymore. They’ve been killed or imprisoned or become refugees. The community is not the same as it was before. I’m not in the Skype rooms at all anymore. I get my news through Twitter and Facebook.

The original group of citizen journalists was in the hundreds, and a lot of them were killed actually filming. We have a lot of people who filmed their own deaths. A lot of people were detained, or left the country, or picked up arms.

Things have also become normalized. Where before every time Hama was being shelled, we had to tell everyone, and now it’s happening every day, so no one reports it. We’ve become desensitized.

Yesterday there was a bombing in Raqqa, in a school, and people were sharing those images. That town is occupied by al-Qaida [affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra], and now they have been shelled by a regime plane, and all these people were killed. That’s a moment where you put yourself out there and share videos. But people aren’t doing that every day anymore in Syria.

People aren’t doing that because of fatigue, and also because they feel like nobody [outside Syria] cares.

One challenge was remaining objective.

Rami Jarrah: At the beginning we didn’t have a problem with bias because we knew there was a lot to film, to convey. You didn’t need to make something up. But months later you had people armed and fighting back and it was less innocent as a movement.

We failed to shed light on the mistakes that were being committed by the opposition. If we had, we would have gained the audience that the Syrian regime or Russia Today did. Syrian state media failed in the beginning but learned from its mistakes and started to show images that people didn’t expect them to show. They had a soap opera about the revolution, and it showed security forces opening fire at protesters. And that was them saying, “We’ll talk about everything.”

Another challenge was structuring the content: making it authentic, making sure the right videos were seen by the right people abroad.

Amal Hanano: A few months into the revolution, they started doing the time stamp and date and city name, to lend authenticity. Some people like to credit Avaaz for that, because at the time, a few months into the revolution, Avaaz was sending cameras and equipment in. They were giving instructions on how to film, how to hold the camera sideways.

Not everyone has a iPhone. The early [citizen journalists] were using primitive phones.

Rami Jarrah: In the earlier days it was very controlled, where you had a few access points, and if a journalist wanted to connect to an English speaker or an Arabic speaker in Homs, in Hama, then [our guys] would connect them. We had so many videos [to choose from], from so many vantage points.

The Homs prison massacre: we knew for sure there was no massacre going on inside the prison, we had contact with people inside. We contacted Al Jazeera and offered someone inside who could speak in Arabic, in English, to say there was no massacre. But that wasn’t what was released. All over the news there was information about a massacre. We begged [the channels] not to take this information, but they would ignore us.

With the formation of the new journalist groups came internal issues.

Rami Jarrah: When our group expanded, we started to face problems because there were lots of groups now: LCCs had their own offices, the Supreme Council for the Revolution had been created. It wasn’t just a trust issue, but a competition. It created divides on the ground.

This was what encouraged a lot of people to work as individuals. I could control the content I was passing along as an individual far more than I could if I was part of an organization.

And there were security issues. If a media office was broken into, then everyone in the group was in trouble. To avoid that we would give very little information to each other about who we were.

But Syria was “dependent”!on them.

Rami Jarrah: Syria is different than any other country, more dependent on citizen journalism than anywhere else in the Arab world.

In Egypt they depended on Al Jazeera because Al Jazeera had journalists on the ground, but in Syria, we didn’t have that. The defining moment was when international and Arab media decided they could use our videos instead of their own media. This had an impact on the world as a whole in terms of what citizen journalism is capable of.

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