|Syrian cyber activist ‘Rami Nakhle’ is one hub of a network of activists using social media to make sure the voice of protesters in Syria is not silenced by the regime [Credit: Hugh Macleod]|
He has got two Sim cards, two pseudonyms, a dangerous addiction to nicotine and when his laptop is open, which it always is, his fingers dance across the touch pad in a mad ballet of digital information sharing.
“That was AP calling,” says the self-declared Syrian cyber activist, referring to the international news agency whose competitor Reuters was recently expelled from Damascus for reporting on the Syrian uprising. “They wanted us to confirm with video. Confirm with video? Not yet! I mean, come on!”
‘Rami Nakhle’ as he is known to the few people he meets in his safe house in Beirut – the pizza guy, a French photographer passing through and a steady stream of Syrian dissidents who fled before they could be arrested – is a hub of a growing and impressively organised network of activists using social media to break the bonds of one of the world’s most tightly controlled police states and publish news and images of the unprecedented protest movement which has broken out against the regime in Syria.
It is Friday, just before one in the afternoon, the time worshippers spill out from the mosques to the streets and mass protests calling for freedom from oppression are expected across the country.
Rami’s flat looks just like what it is: A bunker in wartime. Huge packs of Arabic flat bread lie half-eaten beside an oversized jar of Nescafe and enough drinking water for a fortnight. In the kitchen, pizza boxes stack up beside a sink full of used matte leaves, the fortifying Latin American tea beloved by Syrians.
Every 10 minutes or so Rami’s laptop chirps with the sound of an incoming Skype call. The internet phone system allows for anonymous users and its encryption is complicated enough to make it almost impossible for authorities to listen in on.
First to call is CNN, but their Iraqi researcher does not know Syria so Rami carefully explains where Qamishli is and why, as a centre for some of Syria’s 1.5 million Kurds, many of whom live without citizenship and feel deep grievances against the state, it is important that the protests this Friday have started there.
For the next caller, from Morocco’s Mediterranean International Radio, Rami breaks into classical Arabic as his Syrian dialect is not understood. There is just time to light another cigarette before the BBC are Skyping for an update, followed by AP and their confirmation request.
All the time Rami’s ‘Tweet Deck’, a platform for advanced Twitter users that looks something like a pilot’s navigation system, is humming and pulsing with messages from colleagues inside Syria.
The loose-knit team is divided into those who report and those who publish, the ground crew and the computer crew. Activists on the street in Syria’s major cities – Damascus, Homs, Aleppo, Lattakia and Daraa, where the protest movement began – gather testimony from eyewitnesses and feed it back to the computer crew who work to cross reference the information with other sources before sending out updates on Facebook or Twitter.
“Confirmed: Kurds in Qamishli chanting, ‘We want freedom, not citizenship’,” says Rami, without looking up. “Confirmed: Demonstrations in Ras al-Ein.” Then, for the benefit of a confused journalist: “That’s on the border between Syria, Turkey and Iraq.”
He laughs and for a moment sits back on the sofa. “‘Did you start to use Pampers yet?'”he reads from the screen. A Twitter follower of his by the name of ‘I Love Syria 2011’ has been sending Rami regular taunts, this one enquiring if the 26-year-old activist is scared enough for an involuntary bowel movement. “That’s what he Tweets me!”
But the smile soon disappears with updates from Duma, a suburb of Damascus that has been a centre of the protest movement. “Some martyrs fell in Duma,” says Rami, holding his face in his hands. “Now there’s a call for doctors.”
Syria’s online activists are a varied bunch, including all the nation’s major communities from Sunnis and Christians to Druze and Alawites.
Those directly involved in the activist network are generally young, in their 20s and 30s, tech-savvy, highly motivated and adept in English. Some are journalists with training in international standards of reporting. Some are professionals: Lawyers, doctors, engineers.
Some are either banned or fear arrest in Syria and so continue their work in Beirut, Washington, London, Paris and elsewhere. Many are in Syrian prisons, but others have yet to be caught so use their time on the street to gather the images and reports which the regime does its best to make sure no-one ever sees.
Some, like Rami – hoping one day to complete the third year of a political science course at Damascus University – once supported their government, before the police state impacted their life directly.
“My sister was arrested for two months and 24 days just for saying she didn’t think the president was very smart during a conversation at Damascus University,” he says.
The murder of a girl Rami knew in a so-called honour killing in 2006, and the lenient jail term given to the killer, also drove him to explore the nascent community of online activists calling for change in Syria.
For 31-year-old Ausama Monajed, one of the leaders of the Syrian activist networks based abroad, the turning point came with the arrest of Riad Seif, the Syrian MP turned leader of the Damascus Declaration, the first unified opposition movement in Syria.
“I consider him one of my heroes,” says Monajed, who became an activist during the brief easing of political life in Syria following Bashar al-Assad’s inheritance of the presidency from his father in 2000.
A decade on Monajed has been inspired by the writings of University of Massachusetts professor Gene Sharp on non-violent struggle against totalitarian systems, and by the Serbian pro-democracy movement that brought down Slobodan Milosevic.
He now runs a team of volunteers in Europe and the US lobbying policy makers to pressure the Syrian regime and publishes a daily digest of news and videos on the protest movement gathered from inside the country.
“I feel very privileged to live these moments in the West when others are facing live ammunition,” says Monajed. “We feel a heavy duty on our shoulders to make sure their sacrifices do not go in vain.”
Yet for all their motivation, Syrian activists agree on one thing: The protest movement in Syria would be nowhere without the revolutions in Tunis and Cairo.
“I didn’t know the meaning of freedom of speech until I saw the cyber activists in Egypt and Tunisia,” says a 26-year-old Syrian activist based in Damascus who uploads to YouTube footage shot on mobile phones or hidden cameras during each protest.
While their government learned lessons on censoring and spying on the internet from Tunisian authorities, say activists, their counterparts in Tunis and Cairo taught the youth how to get around the cyber police.
“We use a proxy server and change it almost every day,” explains the activist. “Today most young Syrians have mobile phones with high quality cameras so each one has become like a journalist. I upload videos and statements from internet cafes. I leave after 10 minutes and don’t come back to the same one for a long time.”
In some cases, she explains, films are sent to neighbouring countries on memory sticks where it is easier to publish them online.
Policing the web
Reporters Without Borders lists Syria as one of 10 countries that are active Internet Enemies. At least 150 websites remain blocked – the majority are sites run by political movements perceived to be opposed to the regime in Damascus.
And Syrian bloggers live in constant fear of arrest.
Karim Arbaji was imprisoned for three years for moderating a popular online youth forum, akhawia.net, that contained criticisms of the government. According to friends, Arbaji’s father bankrupted himself bribing Syrian officials to release his son.
But Arbaji served his full sentence and a month after his release his father died. Last month the 33-year-old blogger had a heart attack and died in Beirut.
The youngest female blogger imprisoned anywhere in the world, 19-year-old student Tal al-Mallouhi, remains behind bars in Syria.
Yet for all the ongoing repression, activists say Syria’s notoriously effective Soviet-era secret police are coming unstuck in their effort to censor cyber space.
Back at his flat in Beirut, between a call from Human Rights Watch and hunting down the next pack of cigarettes, Rami describes an arrest and interrogation in which he was astounded to realise just how computer illiterate the officers questioning him were.
“The intelligence officer asked about how I access Facebook and I told him it’s through a proxy on Google. He said, ‘Maybe we have to ban Google.’ I was sure this is the first time he had heard about Google.”
Other activists describe an occasion when Syrian security walked into a well-known computer market and demanded a young shopkeeper help them hack into a prisoner’s laptop.
Living with the fear
Razan Zeitouna is a lawyer and human rights researcher who for years has documented and published reports on human rights abuses in Syria. Since the uprising began three weeks ago Zeitouna has played a key role in connecting the network of reporters and activists inside the country with the media outside Syria.
“Many of my friends were arrested in the last few days including protesters, lawyers, doctors, students and especially the activists behind the computers,” she explains.
Zeitouna has grown accustomed to the ever-present threat of arrest. “I am used to having someone on my doorstep watching me, that’s nothing new. It’s when they follow me openly and they don’t even hide – that’s how they paralyse me. Then I cannot meet anyone or do anything.”
Zeitouna says she has been interrogated and threatened by security officers several times. “Each time they tell me, ‘This is the last time you get out. Next time you’ll never see the sun again.'”
But today the long hours of stress and fear reporting the Syrian uprising are beginning to take their toll: Zeitouna says she has not showered for 10 days, suffers insomnia and is hardly eating. One night, very late, she responds to an instant chat message when asked about plans for protests the next day.
“My husband and my best friends are going,” she writes. “They are saying goodbye, they don’t expect to come back. Oh God.”
But, like other activists, Zeitouna insists the fear she feels is not for her own life but for the life of the historic movement she has played a part in driving forward.
“We lost 150 youths. I cannot deal [with] losing so many in our mission.” She pauses for a moment. “The thought of us not achieving our goals would mean it had all been for nothing. That’s what makes us scared.”